Remembering Elizabeth Peña: Greater Than the Sum of Her Roles

Loving Eliza

Character She Most Loved: Aunt Bibi on Resurrection Blvd

By Elia Esparza (LatinHeat)

While there are many fine actors who possess that certain je ne sais quoi none compare to Elizabeth Peña. She was so much larger than the sum of her roles. Her body of work is incomparable. On October 14, 2014, Hollywood lost an acting gem and not sure we’ll ever see another woman embody her skill of craft.

She has been eulogized for her exceptional career—La BambaLone StarJacob’s LadderDown & Out In Beverly Hills, and many other films. Her TV roles equal in importance and throughout the years she has been in dozens of prominent TV series, including just wrapping seven episodes of Rey Network’s Matador. More recently she was Sofia Vergara’s mother on ABC’s Modern Family, and once starred in her own ABC sitcom I Married Dora.

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However, those who knew the Cuban-American actress best, know the one role she most cherished was that of Beatrice “Bibi” Corrales, the strong-willed, sassy, opinionated, flashy woman in Showtime’s Resurrection Blvd. (2000-2002). It was afavorite and mostly under-appreciated role she ever played. As Bibi, Peña brought her to life with such humanistic depth that had nothing to do with race or economic class. She made Bibi relatable and unforgettable.

When Resurrection Blvd. executive producer and show creator, Dennis Leoni was casting the role of Bibi, he got word that Elizabeth wanted the part. “She was perfect, right age, a perfect fit,” said Leoni. “I loved her as an actress and thought she was tremendously talented and when she said she wanted it, that was it, it was hers.” Leoni went on to say that Elizabeth was proud to be part of the first ever drama series to have actual Latino producers, Latino writers, and acted by Latinos.

Bibi was the matriarch in the East Los Angeles three-generation boxing family, the Santiagos. Elizabeth played opposite veteran actor Tony Plana who portrayed patriarch Roberto Santiago. Bibi was his late wife’s sister and together they did their best to guide the family as best they could.

Recently, many of Resurrection Blvd. cast mates and crew reunited to reminisce on the beauty and joy Elizabeth brought to everyone’s lives. All revered and respected her work. All had a personal relationship with her off the set. To say they are devastated would be an understatement.

Tony Plana recalled he met Elizabeth when she first came out to Los Angeles from New York City. Their meeting was a 6-degrees from separation type of connection. “Her first film in 1979 was El Super, and my cousin was friends with the filmmaker,” he said.

Bibi and Roberto remembering, mourning her deceased sister, his wife.

When Elizabeth decided to move to L.A., his cousin asked him to show her around. “She didn’t have a car so I chauffeured her everywhere,” he chuckled. “I took her to see a play with Richard Dreyfus at the Doolittle Theatre [now Ricardo Montalban]. I had been working with Richard on a couple of project readings so I got to go backstage and Elizabeth and Richard met. They had chemistry and not much later, she got cast in Down & Out in Beverly Hills. This was her first forage into Los Angeles and her first really big hit commercial movie.”

On Resurrection Blvd., Bibi was Roberto’s sister-in-law and the surrogate mother to his children after his wife (her sister) died. In the episode “Anniversario” the two were looking at photo albums, drank a little too much tequila and had a romantic liaison. “Our characters were attracted to each other but we were too uncomfortable because of the memories of our mutual love for my deceased wife,” stated Plana.

“She was an exciting performer and would make unpredictable choices. She was fiercely independent and always surprised you from take to take. She was a risk taker and competitive. When you were working with Elizabeth, you had better be prepared. A delightful friend, always joking… she lived life fully… a force to be reckoned and one of the reason’s why I mourn her so much.”
– Tony Plana

Mauricio Mendoza who played Bibi’s nephew, boxer Miguel Santiago, said he is honored to have been a part of an important television show co-starring with her. “Elizabeth is a pioneer—a true star, a wonderful talent—and an incredible human being. I admired her so much and learned so much from her,” he said. “She made us all better actors.”

Mauricio Mendoza, Ruth Livier, Nicholas Gonzalez, Elizabeth Peña.

“Words cannot express how blessed and honored I feel to have called you my friend. I will miss you Peñita linda.”
– Mauricio Mendoza

Nicholas Gonzalez was boxer son Alex Santiago and recalled how Elizabeth occupied a very specific corner of his mind growing up. He was dazzled with her performance in Jacob’s Ladder. “It fueled more than a few of my feverish, boyhood fantasies,” he admitted.

“And in La Bamba I fell in love with Rosie.” Nicholas never in his wildest of dreams could have ever predicted how in the future she would become a part of his life. “Never believed I would have the honor of not only working with Elizabeth Peña, but also loving Elizabeth Peña, the woman.”

Elizabeth Peña., Nicholas Gonzalez on set of "Off The Map"

After Resurrection Blvd., in 2010, Gonzalez got another opportunity to act with Peña. “I was a few years older and more experienced when we teamed up to play a cocaine growing mother and son team on the ABC series, Off The Map. We spent two incredible months together in Hawaii working. Our numerous meals together always ended with deeper conversations about career longevity, and the navigation of adulthood, love and family. I will be forever grateful to her for her sage advice and the countless laughs we shared along the way.”

I’ll miss you mi tia Bibi, mi madre Inez, mi Elizabeth….”
– Nicholas Gonzalez

Award-winning Composer Joseph Julian Gonzalez scored the series but in my opinion, his most poignant and profound score was in Season 3, episode 12, when he wrote “Verguenza” for Bibi’s rape episode. It is unlikely you can listen to this piece and not be moved and feel Bibi’s pain, shame and ultimate survival.

“She was an incredibly fun and free artist that I came to deeply admire. She had a gift of filling the space with her persona and emotion. From a composer’s perspective, her performance was fantastically easy to underscore.”
– Joseph Julian Gonzalez, Composer

It is worth nothing that in this rape episode, Peña’s performance broke our hearts and at the same time her performance inspired victims on how to turn it around and become empowered—a woman who rises above victimization. She won an ALMA Award in 2001 for Outstanding Actress in a New Television Series.

imrs.phpElizabeth’s breakout role in the 1987 Luis Valdez hit La Bamba not only put her on the path for stardom but it also paired her withEsai Morales. The chemistry between Elizabeth and Esai was electrifying so much so that when Leoni wrote the role of Bibi’s ex-husband Paco Corrales, there was no one else he wanted than Morales. “Their on-screen chemistry was magic,” he said.

In a separate interview to a network news outlet, Morales talked about Peña’s invaluable contribution. “When one talks about a third dimension, there was a third ‘d’ when it came to Elizabeth, and that was dignity,” he stated.

As an actress working against the stereotypes, Morales got emotional. “Elizabeth showed you don’t have to sell yourself short and you don’t have to sell yourself,” he said.

“Elizabeth never succumbed to the desire to play what she would have called the sort of ‘cuchifrito’ (word for a Caribbean fritter) roles. She did not compromise.”
– Esai Morales

“The first day on Resurrection Blvd.,” recalled Ruth Livier, who portrayed Yolanda Santiago, “I was jumping up and down with absolute joy on the inside. My internal monologue was, ‘Oh my god, I get to work with Elizabeth Peña!’ True story. Not that I wasn’t thrilled about everything and everyone else, but there was something about Elizabeth specifically. Maybe because she was a Latina, maybe because I had admired her for so long… for many reasons, I just couldn’t believe how fortunate I was to get to work side by side with her and her amazing talent. From the moment I met her, I was hooked and my admiration for her only grew.”

“Fierce. Honest. Generous. Fun—funny, and such a team player. Where some folks we look up to disappoint, Elizabeth absolutely did not.” – Ruth Livier

 

Ruth Livier, Jose Feliciano, Elizabeth Peña.

We asked Leoni how difficult it was to work with Elizabeth considering how deeply committed she was to her craft. “She was a joy to work with,” he said. “But we didn’t always agree and as Bibi, she fought for what she wanted and I respected her opinion and allowed her to have a say in Bibi’s development.” Leoni further stated that he loved her as an actress and thought she was tremendously talented.

Michael DeLorenzo, Elizabeth Peña

“In between filming on Resurrection Blvd. Elizabeth and I would trade the dirtiest of jokes to crack each other up. Her delivery was so dry and matter of fact she would get me to crack up many times before I could get her to. But when I got her to crack…what a feeling. The things we miss—her laugh. Miss you titi Bibi.” – Michael DeLorenzo (Carlos Santiago)

When it came to the character of Tommy Corrales played by Douglas Spain, Leoni modeled this groundbreaking role after his gay brother Anthony. This was the first time a character had come-out on TV to his Latino parents—mother Bibi (Peña) and father Paco (Morales). Bibi wholeheartedly embraced her son’s sexual orientation, and his father, not so much.

Elizabeth Peña and Douglas Spain

“Elizabeth was vibrant and full of life. We worked on Resurrection Blvd. together and she was one of the best TV moms I have ever had. She will forever remain in my heart.” – Douglas Spain

Co-star Daniel Zacapa, who played uncle Ruben, the injured ex-boxer, ex-Vietnam vet who was the heart and soul of the Santiago family, will forever remember that she was an exceptional talent taken from us much too soon.

 “Dear Elizabeth, you were a light in my life. The world shines dimmer. Thank you. You always saw the good side of everyone first. You touched many lives, most of whom you never knew personally. Your talents, your gifts, and your heart
will remain in my heart forever.” – Daniel Zacapa

“She wasn’t in it for the fame or money, she was in it for the arts,” said Plana. “She loved acting and enjoyed immersing herself in the role and she didn’t really talk about the process, which was intense and deep. She simply detailed the narrative. To see her come alive and all reflected in this physical integration—a whole human being performing in all her dimensions and it was extremely stimulating. She brought out the best in the rest of us.”

Dennis Leoni with is Resurrection Blvd. players

“I was honored to work with her and proud to call her my friend. She was singular in her talent and in personality, and I doubt I will meet another quite like her in this life. We love you, Elizabeth Peña.” – Dennis Leoni

I imagine a movie sequel where the Santiago’s and Corrales’ reunite for Bibi’s funeral. Yolanda has flown in from Dubai juggling a painful breakup, thriving career and a rebellious daughter. Carlos went as far as he could in boxing arena but was never as successful as his little brother Alex. He now runs the Santiago Boxing Gym with his Uncle Ruben and trains his son and daughter who have Olympic aspirations. Victoria is a successful actress who rarely comes home much to the disdain of her father. Alex, a popular world-boxing champion, is now reality TV star with his singer wife, and Miguel, a former boxing promoter is now coaching the Olympic Welterweight team. Tommy and his father Paco must finally come to terms with their issues as they fight over the woman they both loved. Roberto has remarried and his new wife is having trouble grasping why he grieves so hard.

There will never be another Elizabeth Peña but the legacy she leaves will help the next generation of Latinos excel in Hollywood without ever comprising the integrity of craft or cultural essence.

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“Goodbye, Elizabeth, the woman. Welcome, Elizabeth, the spirit.”

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Categories: NGL News

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