Elizabeth Peña, a luminously talented actress who worked with such independent film directors as Leon Ichaso and John Sayles, has died at the age of 55. The daughter of Cuban émigrés, Peña was born in Elizabeth, New Jersey and grew up in New York City, where her father co-founded the Latin American Theatre Ensemble. After graduating from New York’s High School Of Performing Arts, Peña herself became a founding member of the pioneering arts advocacy group the Hispanic Organization of Latin Actors when she was still in her teens. At 19, she made her film debut in Ichaso’s El Super (1979), a Spanish-language drama about the Cuban immigrant experience set in Spanish Harlem.
In 1985, Peña co-starred with Ruben Blades in Ichaso’s Crossover Dreams. Two years later, the director cast her as the wife of Richie Valens’ brother, Bob, in the musical biopic La Bamba. Reviewing that movie in The New Yorker, Pauline Kael wrote that, even though Peña had scarcely any dialogue, “when she whacks at Bob the stud or pushes him away, or just looks at him with disgust, you want to applaud her.”
Peña’s other early movie roles included a sultry housemaid in Paul Mazursky’s Down And Out In Beverly Hills (1986); a pregnant single mother in *batteries not included; Jamie Lee Curtis’ ill-fated best friend in Kathryn Bigelow’s Blue Steel (1990); and Tim Robbins’ alternate-universe girlfriend in Jacob’s Ladder (1990). She also starred in I Married Dora, a sitcom about a green card marriage between an architect and his El Salvadoran housekeeper that aired for 13 episodes in 1987. The show is remembered by fans of obscure and weird TV for the conclusion of its final episode, when the actors announced on camera that the story cliffhanger they’d been building toward had been “resolved” by the series’ cancellation.
In 1990, Peña co-starred with Jamey Sheridan in another TV series, Shannon’s Deal. Created by indie auteur John Sayles, Shannon’s Deal wasn’t any more of a ratings hit than I Married Dora, but it won considerably more critical acclaim, and it managed to parlay its prestige status into a somewhat longer run. In 1996, Sayles handed Peña perhaps the meatiest role of her film career in the art-house hit Lone Star. Describing her process in an interview with the Dallas Morning News, Peña explained that she had prepared for her role as a woman living on the Texas-Mexico border by recording “people’s voices to get the proper inflection… I crossed the border a whole bunch to collect a lot of history. I would sit for hours looking at the women, how they dressed. I talked to people. I hung out.”
Peña’s other credits include the Michael Mann-produced TV film Drug Wars: The Camarena Story (1990); Neal Jimenez and Michael Steinberg’s The Waterdance (1992); Brett Ratner’s Rush Hour (1998); the 1998 TV film Aldrich Ames: Traitor Within; Allison Anders’ Things Behind The Sun (2001); The Incredibles (2004), where she voiced Mirage; Transamerica (2005); David Jacobson’s Down In The Valley (2005); Andy Garcia’s The Lost City (2005); and Rodrigo Garcia’s Mother And Child (2009). She also acted in the TV series Resurrection Blvd. and The Brothers Garcia, and directed episodes of each.
More recently, she appeared as Sofia Vergara’s mother in Modern Family and had a recurring role on the cable series Matador.