Elizabeth Peña was a rare breed. The kind of actress that didn’t seek or crave the limelight, but rather focused on “the craft.” You’d have to, in order to enjoy the type of career she had.
Prolific is an understatement. Peña amassed around 100 acting credits, starting with her first role in León Ichaso’s “El Super” in 1979. Fittingly, it was the story of Cuban exiles adjusting to their life in Spanish Harlem. When she died, on October 14, 2014, she had wrapped the first season of “Matador” on Robert Rodriguez’s El Rey Network, and had a couple of projects in development.
You interview enough actors in this business and eventually those two words (“the work,” “the craft,” or any variation thereof), start to sound clichéd, and quite honestly, rehearsed. But in Peña’s case, she never, in her almost 40 years of working in showbiz, got to the point of being overexposed, so all you had to go by was “the work.”
As a young girl she proved her worth onstage in New York City, like many of the greats, and booked the occasional TV commercial. That love for acting ran in her blood (her father, Mario, was a well-known playwright, and founded the off-Broadway Latin American Theatre Ensemble, after settling in New Jersey from Cuba).
Once established, Peña would follow in her father’s footsteps and foster the arts among Latinos; in 1975, she was among the founding members of HOLA, the Hispanic Organization of Latino Actors, an organization which, to this day, “strives for an accurate, informed and non-stereotyped portrayal of Hispanic culture, people and heritage in theatre, film, television, radio and commercials.”
It’s the good fight we’re still fighting in 2014, the same year we saw the highest paid Latina actress on television rotate on a pedestal at the Emmys while the president of the TV Academy commented on her assets.
Eventually, Peña transitioned to film, television, animation, even on-screen masturbation. The roles were gutsy, even as some of them could have easily become stereotypical — and by the hands of any other actress, they most certainly would have.
Like the late Lupe Ontiveros, who played a maid a record number of times, Peña took the roles that were offered to her and played them artfully, memorably, and with dignity. Now, looking at shows like Lifetime’s “Devious Maids,” it’s impossible not to reflect on Peña’s legacy and all the doors she opened for Latinas in Hollywood. Peña played a maid (“Down and Out in Beverly Hills,” “I Married Dora”) before it was cool to do so, and she did it with heart.
Her performance as Rosie in “La Bamba” in the late ’80s is, of course, what many of us immediately think of when we think of Peña. In the first ten minutes of the film, she loses her virginity to Bob, played by Esai Morales, who, like her, went to Manhattan’s prestigious High School of Performing Arts. 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 father watches in disbelief. In what is a woman’s worst nightmare, she endures neglect, abuse and even rape at the hands of her hard-partying husband. “La Bamba” was packed with incredible performances, but she more than held her own.
In the ’90s, she took what a lesser actor would consider huge risks, as in “Jacob’s Ladder,” about a Vietnam vet (Tim Robbins) who experiences post-traumatic flashbacks and trippy hallucinations. The club scene in which Peña, a post office clerk who is romantically involved with Robbins’ character, is having sex with a winged demon, is the kind of stuff only a handful of actors can pull off — and many would run away from.
But not Peña.
Who can forget her self-pleasuring Lolita in “How the Garcia Girls Spent Their Summer,” where she resourcefully replaces the dying batteries in her vibrator with those from her remote control?
She wasn’t just comfortable with her sexuality. She was sexy. Effortlessly. It started with her voice, a sort of deep, rich, buttery tone that demanded attention.
But there was an innocence about her, too.
In “Tortilla Soup” (2001), as the eldest daughter of Hector Elizondo’s widowed character, she conveyed that feeling of wanting to take care of your Papi and make him proud, while finding your own path. The scene where she wears a thong for the first time is simultaneously hilarious and endearing. When she finally meets a good man, there is a scene at the dinner table that perfectly captures that Latino father-daughter bond. After finding out that he and his daughter were secretly married in Vegas, Hector Elizondo’s character asks the husband (played brilliantly by Paul Rodriguez), “do you love her?.” “Yes, sir, I love her very much,” answers Rodriguez’s character, as the camera turns to Peña’s face. Without words, she perfectly captures the moment.
Later on she came to embody the ultimate Latina matriarch, as in “Nothing Like The Holidays” (2008), and her most recent TV roles on “Modern Family” (2013) and “Matador” (2014).
I remember when Jenni Rivera passed away in late 2012 and there were talks of a biopic. Who could do her justice? I kept asking myself. And there was really only one name that I kept coming back to: Elizabeth Peña. She wasn’t Mexican American, but there was no character she couldn’t play.
Maybe in today’s era of social media over-sharing, bilingual endorsement checks, and booty booty booty, Peña was hardly a trending topic. But she kept working — which, for true artists, is the biggest payback of all.