Elizabeth Peña has passed away. The actress, with a professional career spanning nearly 40 years, left us on the night of October 14 at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. She had recently wrapped work on the first season of the El Rey Network's action series, Matador, where she played the title character's mother Maritza.
Born in Elizabeth, New Jersey and raised by her Cuban immigrant parents, Peña was destined for a career in the arts. Her father, Mario, was a playwright, director, actor, and designer in their native Cuba, who opened up the Latin American Theatre Ensemble after establishing a life for him and his family in New York. As a teen, Peña began making a name for herself as a formidable young actress in the New York theatre scene. She attended, and graduated from, the High School of Performing Arts and began her professional film career in 1978 with León Ichaso's El Super. A few years later, the ambitious Cubana would set off to try her fortunes over on the west coast.
That move would prove fruitful, as she would go on to land roles in several major films in the 1980s. By the end of that decade, she had a resumé that included La Bamba, Down and Out in Beverly Hills, *batteries not included, and Blue Steel. She even did something that was almost unheard of for a Latina actress: She had her own primetime ABC series, I Married Dora. She played the title role of Dora in the series, which became infamous and notable because of its controversial premise- which centered on a "green card marriage" that would eventually evolve into something more genuine.
She kicked off the 90s with a prominent role opposite Tim Robbins in Jacob's Ladder. She continued her string of notable films with roles in the critically lauded John Sayles drama, Lone Star opposite Matthew McConaughey, as well as Rush Hour and Free Willy 2. Along the way, she racked up TV appearances on L.A. Law, Dream On, Shannon's Deal, and Drug Wars: The Camarena Story.
At the turn of the century, Peña began shifting her talents in new directions. Aside from starring roles in films like Tortilla Soup, How The Garcia Girls Spent Their Summer, Nothing Like The Holidays, and Showtime's Resurrection Blvd, Peña began branching out as both a voice actress and as a director. She directed episodes of a few television series, and lent her vocal talents to everything from the Academy Award-nominated Pixar film The Incredibles (Mirage) to the Justice League cartoon series (Paran Dul), and Seth MacFarlane's American Dad!
Aside from her current work as a series regular on Matador, Peña also had a recurring guest star spot as Pilar, the mother of Sofia Vergara's Gloria on the hit ABC comedy Modern Family.
At the time of her death, Peña had just turned 55.
She is survived by her husband Hans, her two teenage children Fiona and Kaelan, her mother Estela, and her sister, Tania.
My Personal Take
I didn't call her Elizabeth, or Liz, or Leechy. She wasn't Aunt, Auntie, Tia, or Titi. To me...she was Ñaña. That was the name I assigned my aunt when I was just a baby, and it's the name I continued to refer to her as when I visited her in Los Angeles last week. She was our star. She was my star. We celebrated her triumphs. We sweated through her struggles. As a family, even when we didn't always talk, we would all do whatever we could for one another. When I got married 3 years ago, despite their being some logistical hurdles, she flew herself, her husband, and both her kids to attend my special night in New York's Hudson River Valley. Dancing with her, my uncle, and my cousins under the stars that night is a memory I've always cherished, and it's now one that I'll have to hold onto for the rest of my life.
My Ñaña is gone.
She was an inspiration. A role model. A pillar. And a pisser.
She undoubtedly helped fuel my love of film. She informed my desire to be an actor, writer, and director. I followed in her foot steps at the High School of Performing Arts. It still remains my life's goal to earn a living doing what I love: Creating and performing art, transporting audiences to another place for a couple of hours. She did it all, and she made it look fun. She made it look easy. But I know it wasn't. I know she had a drive like no other, and that she was a force to be reckoned with when she decided it was time to make it big or...well, nothing. She never considered an alternative. Her singular focus was breathtaking, and awe-inspiring.
Tonight, my family is heartbroken. There's now a void that will never be filled. All we can do now is remember your sharp sense of humor, your endless hunger for life, and your never ending pursuit of happiness.
You were a great mother, wife, daughter, sister, and cousin. But you'll always be my Ñaña, #1 in a category all your own.