Elizabeth Peña, who died Tuesday night at the age of 55, was more than a prolific and exceptional actress. She was an exceptionally talented woman who changed the way Latina women are represented in film and challenged notions of race and gender.
Peña was born in New Jersey to parents who immigrated from Cuba. Her father was an actor, writer, and director and her mother was the executive director of The Latin American Theater Ensemble in New York. Peña and her family returned to Cuba when she was a baby but wound up moving to New York City, where she attended the prestigious High School of Performing Arts, of Fame fame and studied with Lee Strasberg.
Peña’s acting career, which spanned five decades, kicked off with the Spanish-langage film El Super (1979) and included roles in films like Tortilla Soup, La Bamba, TransAmerica, Batteries not included, Down and Out in Beverly Hills, Jacob’s Ladder, as well as TV shows like Resurrection Blvd. Modern Family, and Matador.
Peña was prolific but chose her roles wisely, once saying, “There are a lot of jobs I’ve turned down because they wanted me to play what I call ‘Miss Cuchifrito’ types.”
Peña rejected the way all Latinos and Latin Americans were presented as a monolith: “In the United States, all Spanish-speaking people are lumped into one category… 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.”
There are two films, in particular, that offered roles that defied stereotypes.
Director Georgina Garcia Riedel’s debut film, How the Garcia Girls Spent Their Summer (2005), which also stars Lucy Gallardo and America Ferrera, focuses on one summer in the lives of three generations of Mexican women living in an Arizona border town. In an interview about the film, Peña praised the way the movie actually acknowledged sexuality in women over 35:
In American cinema and in television for that matter—with the possible exception of Desperate Housewives—women over, literally, 35 are non-sexual, except for getting raped or beaten. They don’t write roles for women that express and explore older women’s sexuality and I found [Georgina’s script] so fantastic; to have a 70-year-old woman have sex, y’know? I loved the character of Lolita obviously, I loved her on the page; but—once I started to embody her—it was rough because she’s such a frustrated lonely person that it was quite challenging to play that consistently. I actually started grinding my teeth again when I started shooting that movie.
Lone Star (1996) is one of my favorite movies from the 1990s and one of my favorite John Sayles film. It has an amazing cast, including Chris Cooper, Joe Morton, Kris Kristofferson, and pre-fame Matthew McConaughey. The mystery takes place in a border town in Texas and explores racism, immigration, family, relationships and history. Peña’s performance as Pilar, a teacher and single mother, won her the 1997 Independent Spirit for Best Supporting Female Actress.
Peña was thrilled to work with Sayles, who she calls a “Director/God” and whose films, which include Men with Guns, Brother From Another Planet and Passion Fish, raise important questions about gender, class, race, ableism, and colonialism: ”This is an amazing role… Its a real role for a woman… I was home and the phone rang. It was my agent saying John Sayles has a movie that he’s doing and he’d like you to be in it and I said fine, great close the deal. And he said, `Wait a minute. Don’t you want to read the script.’ I’m going no if it’s John Sayles, I want to do it. I don’t care what it is. And then I got the script and I said my God, bonus!”
And to prepare for her role in Lone Star, Peña honored the diversity of Latina women and eschewed the lumping together she described above. She worked hard to capture the unique reality of the women who live in border towns: ”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. I shopped at the stores to see what kind of clothing was there and what food was eaten.”
Peña should be remembered for her outstanding talent and historic trailblazing. Eva Longoria tweeted, “Rest in Peace Elizabeth Pena … you paved the way for so many of us!!” And she would know.