Elizabeth Peña was born on 23 September 1959 in Elizabeth, New Jersey. Her father was Cuban actor, director, and writer Mario Peña. He was a co-founder of the Latin American Theatre Ensemble. Her mother Estella Peña (née Toirac) was an arts administrator and producer. Most of her early years were spent in Cuba. Her family moved to New York City when she was 8 years old. She started acting on stage while still a child and she attended the High School of Performing Arts in New York City. Among her class mates were Ving Rhames and Esai Morales.
She made her film debut in 1979 in the film El Super and appeared in a small role in the film Times Square (1980). During the Eighties she appeared in the films They All Laughed (1981), Crossover Dreams (1985), Down and Out in Beverly Hills (1986), La Bamba (1987), Vibes (1988), Blue Steel (1989), and Jacob's Ladder (1990). She made her television debut on an episode of Cagney and Lacey in 1985. She played the lead role of Dora Calderon on the short lived sitcom I Married Dora. She was also a regular on the shows Tough Cookies and Shannon's Deal. She guest starred on the shows T. J. Hooker and Hill Street Blues.
In the Nineties Miss Peña appeared in the films The Waterdance (1992), Dead Funny (1994), Across the Moon (1995), Free Willy 2: The Adventure Home (1995), Lone Star (1996), Recon (1996), The Pass (1998), Rush Hour (1998), Strangeland (1998), and Seven Girlfriends (1999). On television she had a recurring role on L.A. Law. She starred on the show Resurrection Blvd. Elizabeth Peña guest starred on the shows The Outer Limits, Two, Dead Man's Gun, and The Eddie Files.
In the Naughts Elizabeth Peña started directing. She directed episodes of the TV shows Resurrection Blvd., The Brothers Garcia, and Ylse. She was only the fourth Latina to join the Directors Guild of America. She provided the voice of Mirage in the animated film The Incredibles (2004), as well as the voice of Paran Dul on the animated series Justice League. She appeared in such films as On the Borderline (2001), Ten Tiny Love Stories (2002), Transamerica (2005), Down in the Valley (2005), The Lost City (2005), Adrift in Manhattan (2007), Love Comes Lately (2007), Nothing Like the Holidays (2008), Mother and Child (2009), and Becoming Eduardo (2009). She guest starred on the TV shows Boston Public, CSI: Miami, NCIS, and Without a Trace. She was a guest voice on American Dad.
In the Teens she was a regular on the short lived show Off the Map and she had a recurring role on the show Matador. She guest starred on the shows Charlie's Angels, Common Law, and Modern Family. She appeared in the films The Perfect Family (2011), Blaze You Out (2013), Plush (2013), and Girl on the Edge (2014).
Elizabeth Peña was an extremely talented actress who played a wide variety of roles throughout her career. In what may have been her first major, mainstream film role she played the sexy maid Carmen in Down and Out in Beverly Hills, who in the course of the film goes from watching soap operas to reading political literature. In Transamerica she played a cool, calm therapist with the patience of Job. With The Incredibles she got to provide the voice of a femme fatale with a conscience, Mirage. In Rush Hour (1998) she played a bomb expert with the Los Angeles Police Department.
A mark of Elizabeth Peña's versatility is that she was as good at comedy as she was drama. Her sitcom I Married Dora may have had its problems, but Miss Peña was not one of them. She was extremely funny and possessed near perfect timing. She also did well in such comedies as Tortilla Soup and Seven Girlfriends. Her two appearances are Modern Familyi were so perfect that one forgot that Elizabeth Peña was much too young to have a daughter the age of Sofia Vegara. Elizabeth Peña was an incredible talent, and it is truly sad that she died so soon.