Peña was born and raised in Elizabeth, New Jersey on September 23, 1959 to Mario Peña, an actor, director, and writer who co-founded the Latin American Theatre Ensemble, and Estella Margarita (Toirac) Peña, an arts administrator and producer. She was of Cuban descent and spent her early years in Cuba. At age 8, Peña and her family moved to New York City. In 1975, she was a founding member of the Hispanic Organization of Latin Actors. In 1977, she graduated from New York’s High School of Performing Arts. Her classmates were Ving Rhames and Esai Morales, whom she would later star with in La Bamba and Resurrection Blvd.
In 1979, Peña appeared in her first film, El Super, described as a “moving and melancholy comedy about a family of lower middle class Cuban refugees attempting to adjust to life in Spanish Harlem”. She worked once again with director Leon Ichaso in his next feature, Crossover Dreams. She has appeared in films such as La Bamba, Down and Out in Beverly Hills, Jacob’s Ladder, Lone Star, *batteries not included, Vibes and Rush Hour. In 2002, she starred in Showtime’s Resurrection Blvd. as Tia Bibi Corrades in the episode “Justicia”, which she also directed. In 2003, she appeared in and directed “It Was Fun While It Lasted”, an episode of The Brothers Garcia.
Peña provided the voice of the character Mirage in Pixar’s animated film The Incredibles. She guest starred in the 18th episode of season 2 of Numb3rs as Sonya Benavides, and in season 4 of Modern Family as Pilar, the Colombian mother of Gloria Pritchett. Although she spoke Spanish, she did not dub her own voice for Spanish releases. Peña was also noted for having starred in I Married Dora, a sitcom in 1987, as Dora Calderon, the title character. Writer-director John Sayles produced the critically acclaimed but short-lived television series Shannon’s Deal (1989–1991), co-starring Peña. In 1996, Sayles wrote and directed the mystery film Lone Star and again cast her in a co-starring role, for which she won the 1996 Independent Spirit Award for Best Supporting Actress and a Bravo Award for Outstanding Actress in a Feature Film from the National Council of La Raza.
Pena married William Stephan Kibler in 1988; the couple had two children together. Their marriage later ended in divorce. In 1994, Pena married Hans Rolla, with whom she had two more children. Peña died On October 14, 2014 at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, California at the age of 55. The cause of death was later reported as cirrhosis of the liver due to alcohol. She reportedly had acute gastrointestinal bleeding hours before her death, which caused cardiac arrest.
- September, 23, 1959
- Elizabeth, New Jersey
- October, 14, 2014
- Los Angeles, California
Cause of Death
- cirrhosis of the liver due to alcohol, acute gastrointestinal bleeding, cardiogenic shock, and cardiopulmonary arrest.
- Cremated, Ashes scattered at sea.