For some performers, the art of entertainment is discovered early on and tirelessly studied in an endless quest for perfection, and for others, a career on the stage and screen is a birthright that they are seemingly destined to fulfill. This isn't to say that they don't work just as hard to become the best they can be at their craft, but simply that actors such as the lovely and talented Elizabeth Peña had a distinct advantage in coming from a long line of talented entertainers. The daughter of a well-known Cuban-American writer/actor/director who founded the off-Broadway Latin American Theater Ensemble, Peña was born in New Jersey and raised in New York. By the tender age of eight, young Peña -- having been reared in a household of creativity and parental encouragement -- had realized without question that she wanted to dedicate her life to a career in the entertainment industry. Peña's education at New York's High School of the Performing Arts was complimented by a series of simultaneous roles in repertory theater and a handful of commercial appearances. At the age of 17, the rising starlet gained positive notice for her film debut as a rebellious teen in the award-winning independent movie El Súper. Subsequent roles in Times Square (1980), They All Laughed (1981) and Crossover Dreams (1985) may have done little to expose audiences to Peña's true dramatic abilities as an actress, but it was only a matter of time before a move Los Angeles found her star beginning to burn brighter than ever. Determined to make an impression in her new surroundings, Peña placed her demo tape and future fate as an actress in the hands of a security guard at a major studio -- and the gamble paid off more than she might have ever imagined. Not only did the guard stay true to his word and deliver the tape to the studio's casting director, but it was only 45 minutes until Peña received a phone call requesting that she return to the lot to meet director Paul Mazursky -- who was preparing to cast the role of lusty maid Carmen in the upcoming comedyDown and Out in Beverly Hills. Peña landed the part, and the rest is history.
In the years that followed, Peña made quite an impression with parts in such high-profile features as La Bamba (1987) and Blue Steel (1990), and her role as the mysterious girlfriend of a haunted Vietnam veteran in Jacob's Ladder proved that Peña could skillfully alternate between tender and menacing within a single scene. Peña dabbled in television work with roles in I Married Dora and Shannon's Deal, and would continue to alternate between the large and small screens in the years that followed. As the 1990s rolled on, Peña landed an Independent Spirit Award for her role in John Sayles' Lone Star, cracked skulls opposite action superstar Jackie Chan in Rush Hour, and earned positive critical nods for her supporting performance in the Latino-themed television series Resurrection Blvd. In 2001, Peña charmed audiences as never before with her role as a well-fed daughter hungering for fulfillment in the romantic comedy drama Tortilla Soup. If roles in such big-budget movies as Imposter (2002) offered Peña the sort of exposure that independent films such as ZigZag (also 2002) and Sueño (2004) could not, those smaller, more dramatic efforts offered her a chance to truly shine as an actress.
She continued to work as a prolific actress, voicing the character Mirage in The Incredibles (2004), guest-starring on a number of television shows like Numb3rs and the Ghost Whisperer and taking supporting roles in films like Transamerica (2005). She booked a recurring gig playing Gloria's (Sofia Vergara) mother on Modern Family, and appeared in the first season of Matador, which was produced by Robert Rodriguez. The fact that she was working so frequently made her death in 2014 at age 55 following a short illness all the more shocking.