Elizabeth Peña, the actress known for her roles in “La Bamba,” “Rush Hour,” “The Incredibles,” “Jacob’s Ladder,” and “Lone Star,” died Tuesday in Los Angeles after a short illness. She was 55.
The news was first reported by Peña’s nephew, Mario-Francisco Robles, in a post for Latino Review. Peña’s manager, Gina Rugolo, confirmed the actress’s death in a statement. Neither elaborated further on the cause of death. Robles followed Peña’s professional accomplishments with a personal appreciation for his aunt:
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.
In a 35-year career, Peña developed a penchant for oozing an understated, intelligent sensuality with ease. Though rarely a leading lady, she brought a certain magnetism to all of her roles. She was a patient, unflappable therapist in “Transamerica,” and a sultry but well-intentioned seductress in “The Incredibles,” in which she played Mirage.
“News of Elizabeth Pena’s death hits particularly hard, for some reason, maybe because she was consistently outstanding in everything,” tweeted Matt Zoller Seitz, editor-in-chief of RogerEbert.com.
In a Twitter conversation Wednesday night, actress and producer Eva Longoria said Peña wasn’t just a Cuban-American actress — for many years, she was the Latina Actress. When Peña joined the Director’s Guild of America, she was only the fourth to do so. In 1987, Peña starred in the television show “I Married Dora” as a Salvadoran housekeeper who entered a green-card marriage with her employer to remain in the country.
Peña went on to play a wide range of roles that were far from typical; her characters felt vibrant and bubbled with humanity. In the charming and funny “How the Garcia Girls Spent Their Summer,” she played a mother in her forties experiencing a sexual reawakening opposite America Ferrera and Lucy Gallardo. Peña won ALMA awards for her work in “Tortilla Soup,” “Resurrection Blvd.,” “Rush Hour” and “Contagious.”
“Rest in Peace Elizabeth Pena … you paved the way for so many of us!!” Longoria tweeted.
Peña was aware of her role as a Latina groundbreaker and role model, and she also realized she was called upon to occupy this blurry, amorphous space as a Latina actress. She played Gloria’s Colombian mother on “Modern Family.” In “Lone Star,” she was a teacher on the U.S.-Mexico border.
“In the United States, all Spanish-speaking people are lumped into one category,” Peña told the Dallas Morning News in 1996 (via the Los Angeles Times). “But we’re all so different. Argentinians are completely different from Mexicans. Mexicans are completely different from Cubans. Cubans are completely different from people from Paraguay and Uruguay.”
On Wednesday night, Peña’s friends and colleagues expressed shock and grief and paid tribute to her on social media.
“My heart breaks,” tweeted Wilson Cruz. “She was FANTASTIC!”
“Q triste lo de #ElizabethPena era una dama con mucha alma!” John Leguizamo tweeted. In English: “It’s sad about Elizabeth Peña, a lady with a lot of soul.”
The entire cast and crew are very sad to say goodbye to one of our Modern Family members. RIP to the beautiful & talented #ElizabethPena.
— Jesse Tyler Ferguson (@jessetyler) October 16, 2014
Elizabeth was not only an amazing actress, she was one of the most vibrant, wonderful people I have ever known. My prayers to her family.
— Lou Diamond Phillips (@LouDPhillips) October 16, 2014
“I guess I finally found out why I felt so inexplicably heavy-hearted yesterday. I thought it was an unusually gloomy day in LA. I could feel a deep sadness in my bones,” Peña’s “Resurrection Blvd.” co-star, Esai Morales, said in a Facebook post.
He continued: “I just can’t believe she’s gone … I remember crushing on Liz back in our High School days and being inspired by her work and success in this ever so fickle and peculiar business. So you can imagine how happy and privileged I felt to be able to work on screen together (and steal her away from Ritchie…!!)
“Trying to write something deserving of her memory and her larger than life personality isn’t easy through bouts of laughter and tears; but what can I say … ? She was our first — and only, Elizabeth Peña … an artist with a truly gifted soul and a wicked sense of humor. A straight shooter who was uniquely fun, funny and always a pleasure to work with and just be around. A great gal who is gone too soon.”
RIP #ElizabethPeña. An actress I grew up admiring & had the pleasure of working with & hiring on Nothing Like The Holidays. A consummate professional with razor sharp wit. One of the greats. You will be missed. View on Instagram
Recently, Pena just finished work playing Maritza Sandoval on the first season of the El Rey network show “Matador.”
“We are deeply saddened by the passing of our friend and colleague, Elizabeth Peña,” the network said in a statement. “She was a role model, a truly extraordinary performer and an inspiration in every sense of the word. Our thoughts are with Elizabeth’s family and friends during this difficult time. She will be deeply missed.”