Elizabeth Peña had something about her that popped on the screen. I remember just about every time I saw her, which was not that much considering her 35-year career as an actor. A graduate of New York's High School of the Performing Arts, and raised by New York theater parents, Peña first appeared in "El Super," a 1979 film about Cuban immigrant parents (like hers.) She got into a "Cagney & Lacey" and a "Hill Street Blues," appeared in "Down and Out in Beverly Hills," then played Rosie Morales in "La Bamba," Luis Valdez's 1987 biopic about Ritchie Valens. That led to Peña starring in a short-lived lived TV series, "I Married Dora," and a memorable four episodes of "L.A. Law" with the totally cool character name of Jinx Baldasseri, and parts in films such as "batteries not included," "Jacob's Ladder" and "Lone Star." She won an Independent Spirit Award as best supporting female for "Lone Star."
Peña died Tuesday at Cedars-Sinai after a short illness. She is survived by her husband Hans, two teenage children, her mother and her sister. Peña had recently wrapped work on the first season of an El Rey Network action series, "Matador," in which she played the title character's mother.
Peña's nephew, Mario-Francisco Robles, writes the obit at Latino Review and says his aunt had just turned 55 years old. Some sources will say she was younger.
She kicked off the 90s with a prominent role opposite Tim Robbins in Jacob's Ladder. She continued her string of notable films with roles in the critically lauded John Sayles drama, Lone Star opposite Matthew McConaughey, as well as Rush Hour and Free Willy 2. Along the way, she racked up TV appearances on L.A. Law, Dream On, Shannon's Deal, and Drug Wars: The Camarena Story….
At the turn of the century, Peña began shifting her talents in new directions. Aside from starring roles in films like Tortilla Soup, How The Garcia Girls Spent Their Summer, Nothing Like The Holidays, and Showtime's Resurrection Blvd, Peña began branching out as both a voice actress and as a director. She directed episodes of a few television series, and lent her vocal talents to everything from the Academy Award-nominated Pixar film The Incredibles (Mirage) to the Justice League cartoon series (Paran Dul), and Seth MacFarlane's American Dad!
Aside from her current work as a series regular on Matador, Peña also had a recurring guest star spot as Pilar, the mother of Sofia Vergara's Gloria on the hit ABC comedy Modern Family.
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.
Her IMDb credits