ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Juan José Peña was often called a “radical,” said his friend of nearly 40 years, Ralph Arellanes, chairman of the Hispano Round Table of New Mexico.
“But he wasn’t a radical. He was a humanitarian, an activist and a tireless warrior who fought with passion for the people, and not just the Hispanic community,” Arellanes said. “He also fought for those who were disadvantaged and disenfranchised, and he spoke for many who did not have a voice.”
Peña, a decorated U.S. Army veteran of the Vietnam War, died June 11. He was 72.
In addition to being an activist, Peña was an educator, an author, a community volunteer, and a translator and linguistics expert who spoke multiple languages, including English, Spanish, German, Portuguese, French and Vietnamese. Peña also worked as an interpreter supervisor for the U.S. District Court.
Peña was a former chairman of the Hispano Round Table, served on the board of trustees of the National Hispanic Cultural Center, and sat on the state Department of Education Bilingual Education Advisory Committee and the Downtown Action Team.
He was a commander of the American GI Forum of New Mexico and national secretary of the American GI Forum of the United States, was a founding member of the Vietnam Veterans of New Mexico, and was a board member of the Explora Children’s Museum.
As an educator, Peña worked as a teacher in the Las Vegas school district. He taught Spanish for Headstart Teachers of Taos, New Mexico Highlands University and the University of New Mexico, where he also taught Portuguese. He also served as coordinator of ethnic studies and director of Chicano studies at NMSU.
As an author, Peña wrote numerous scholarly papers, short stories and poetry, many relating to the history of Chicanos in the Southwest, historical figures of the Southwest and life in Chicano families.
On the political front, Peña early on worked with the San Miguel County Republican Party but later became a founding member and chairman of the Partido de las Raza Unida de Nuevo México, then national president of the Partido de La Raza Unida National Congreso de Aztlán. He also served on the executive committee of the Unión de Partido Socialistas Independientes de Latinoamérica.
“He is one of the most important civil rights leaders of our generation,” Arellanes said. “He’s up there with people like César Chávez, Dolores Huerta and Rosa Parks. In New Mexico, we don’t tout our leaders as strongly as we should, and Juan José Peña needs to be given that kind of respect and honor.”
Peña also was an athlete and continued to be an avid weightlifter throughout his adult life. Born in Hagerman and raised in Las Vegas, he played football, wrestled and competed in track and field while a student at Robertson High School. He also played football at New Mexico Highlands and played semi-professional ice hockey for what was then the Highlands Hawks.
Dennis W. Montoya, state director for New Mexico League of United Latin American Citizens, also knew Peña for about 40 years.
“I first met him at New Mexico Highlands when he was my professor of Chicano literature, and I later worked with him at U.S. District Court, where I was an attorney and he’d interpret for my Spanish clients. Juan was one of the top five simultaneous translators in the country, he was an excellent writer and an outspoken leader in the community. He was not afraid to take on the power structure and give voice to positions that needed to be heard, regardless of who didn’t like it.”
Peña’s daughter, Margaret Aguilar, said her father wrote scholarly papers on many subjects “because he believed that the more information people had, the better they’d be able to fight for their own rights and understand what was going on in the world.”
Despite the intensity of his activism, “My father was always happy and very laid back,” Aguilar said. “It was really difficult to make him angry about things, but he was very passionate, and if you got him started talking on some subject he was interested in, he would go on for hours.”
Of all the issues her father felt vested in, “I think he was most proud of the work he did to benefit veterans causes,” she said. “He felt veterans risked their lives, and when they came back home they didn’t receive as much help and support as they should have.”