Upon hearing the news of Elizabeth Peña’s untimely passing on October 14, we reached out to her co-star in “La Bamba,” Esai Morales.

Like Peña, Morales delivered a career-defining performance at a time when there were only a handful of Latinos on the big screen. The 1987 film holds a special place in our hearts, not only because it brilliantly captured the Ritchie Valens story, but because it was one of first honest portrayals of a Latino family in a major mainstream motion picture.

The two played lovers, and in the first ten minutes of the film, her character, Rosie, loses her virginity to Bob, played by Morales. In doing so, she chooses the bad boy over Lou Diamond Phillips’ wholesome Ritchie. Charmed by Bob, she runs away with him on a motorcycle, while her Papi watches in disbelief. In a movie packed with incredible performances, Peña and Morales created something special and timeless that remains, almost 30 years after the film was made.

Lou Diamond Phillips and Elizabeth Peña in “La Bamba” (1987). 

Let’s flashback to “La Bamba.” What were your first impressions of her?

Well, my first impressions of her were from high school [both Peña and Morales attended New York’s prestigious High School of Performing Arts]. She was a couple of years older than me, although she would kill me now if she heard me. And that was the joke. I was a 13, 14-year-old kid, and she was a junior/senior at the time. She was this beautiful woman who I never had even a shot at. I wrote on my Facebook page that I crushed on her when I was in high school and then you can imagine the feeling I felt when they told me that she was going to play Rosie. I was like, ‘Yes!’

She’s a very special, multifaceted, mercurial, witty, wry person, with a wicked sense of humor. You could always hear her laughter. Through the years we were able to work together again on “Resurrection Blvd.” It was wonderful to see her success. She was a beacon for us, it was like ok, we can do it, she’s one of us, yeah we can do it. She comes from a family though that has the arts in them, her father was a playwright, she was part of the theater community in New York, because of that and other reasons we all looked up to her until we became taller than her [laughs] and then we looked up to her in different ways. She was kind of a mother figure to a lot of people, too. She really knew how to listen. Often times just that ability to listen and then say, ‘I heard ya, I understand, but get back out there, because we have a job to do, we have a show to put on,’ is all you needed to just refocus. It’s not like I can say we were best friends like other people were, but whenever we saw each other it was as if it was yesterday and it was that kind of relationship. We had an artistic bond.

Last time I saw her, we had our 25th anniversary of “La Bamba” in Chicago with Lou [Diamond Phillips], myself and her, and we were doing a panel and screening of the movie. It was so good to see them, it was like the good old days, and I know that wherever she is, she’s going to make people laugh. She was larger than life on so many levels, and it stuns me that she will not be here to reach out to.

Were there a lot of Latinos at your school?

We were very few; it’s not like anyone was watching for our success, it was like ok, we’re there, but everybody had their eyes on all these stars, you know, the popular kids. I don’t think anybody expected us to do what we did. Maybe her, because she came from that theater world, but I know that I was a bit of a surprise for a lot of those folks that were like ‘wow, you really did it.’ I’m still trying to do it. It’s a struggle, this industry is by no means a walk in the park but she was an exception. When so many people are full or airs or affectation, she was a straight shooter and hysterical to work with.

Your relationship in “La Bamba” must have been a difficult one to tackle onscreen. How did you both approach that, any acting techniques, anecdotes?

The funny thing is that, since we came from the same school, we had the same artistic language, so she knew where I was coming from, I knew where she was coming from, it was like working weirdly with your artistic sister. The fact that I had a crush on her and got to make out with her was just icing on the cake [laughs]. My god, who could forget those lips, you know?! She had so much fire. The thing I love about her, she was not to be pigeonholed, put into one category or box. She didn’t just play Latinas, she plays human beings and that’s what we all love about her.

On “Resurrection Blvd,” how was she different? Did you notice her growth as an actress?

She’s always had this sultry quality and this soulful nuance, and it was all in the details. She kind of always had that but what happens when you work more is that you get more subtle, you get more sophisticated. She flowed from comedy to drama and that’s not always easy. It would’ve been great to work with her as my First Lady [now on my the upcoming show “The Brink” for HBO, where he plays the president of the United States] or any other number of opportunities, and part of the sadness that I feel is that now those options are no longer there.

Do you feel like she is perhaps one of the most underrated Latina actresses of all time?

She’s been described as prolific, but underrated? Absolutely. There’s so much more to give, but it’s almost like this town doesn’t know where to put us or what to do with us and until we pass away and the outpouring of love comes out, I don’t know…I just hope we don’t all have to die before the rest of the world takes notice of how cherished some of us are.

What was she like when you saw her at the “La Bamba” anniversary event in 2012?

I do feel like she was maybe a little more weary or tired. We’ve all aged, we’ve all grown older, but I don’t know, looking back now, there was something kind of quiet or melancholy about her that I couldn’t put my finger on. Maybe she had a sense of something, I don’t know, I can’t speculate. It’s just been a very, very rough 24 hours, so I apologize if I’m blabbering on…

The original cast of “La Bamba”: Esai Morales, Elizabeth Peña and Lou Diamond Phillips, reunited for the 25th anniversary of the movie in 2012. 

Did the significance of “La Bamba” dawn on you at the time?

We knew it had a chance to be a seminal movie, but I had no idea it would be that iconic to so many people. And I’m grateful and privileged to have had her to work with because she brought her own world to her character. She wasn’t just standing there saying her lines, she brought the undefinable to all of her roles.

Rosanna DeSoto, who played Ritchie Valens’ mom, and Elizabeth Peña in “La Bamba.”

Played by anybody else, that role could have become a total victimization.

It could have been mediocre. But you felt her situation, you felt what so many women feel like, when you go off with the exciting choice but then have to live with the consequences of those issues.

And what I love is that she didn’t let her circumstances jade her, she didn’t become this horrible person. She still showed kindness.

Yeah, she brought all that to her character. I’m so glad I took that role in that little engine that could called “La Bamba.” I’m so glad I followed my heart on that.

Favorite all-time Elizabeth Peña role?

For me, it can only be Rosie in “La Bamba.” I can’t describe it. That role fit her like a glove and she took it to a whole other level where everyone can identify with her pain and her love.

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