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Elizabeth Peña died earlier this week. Here’s how Hollywood failed her

Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Many who wrote about the death of the wonderful actress Elizabeth Peña on Wednesday wrote about her recent work on Modern Family, her voice role in The Incredibles (her most popular movie), or her frequent performances in the movies of American indie director John Sayles. Where my mind went, almost immediately, was to her role in one of the most bizarre fourth-wall breaks in American TV history, the series finale of 1987 sitcom I Married Dora. You can watch the clip above.

Dora was meant to be Peña's big breakthrough to a larger audience. Instead, it quietly sank and only aired 13 episodes. The premise was that a well-to-do white guy became so dependent upon his Latina maid, an undocumented immigrant, that when she's threatened with deportation, the two engage in a fraudulent, quickie marriage, so she won't have to leave the country. She becomes the stepmother to his two kids, who included a young Juliette Lewis.

There was much concern over people emulating this strategy themselves, such that the pilot aired with a literal warning not to try this at home. Of less concern, apparently, was the fact that Peña was asked to play a walking stereotype, complete with thick, impenetrable accent hung out to dry for laughs.

In the finale — which the producers surely knew would be the finale, because the network did not pick up additional episodes beyond the original order — the guy accepts a position in Bahrain that will take him away from the family. Dora and family see him off at the airport (back when you could still see someone right to the gate), only for him to come back off the plane to announce, "It's been canceled." "The flight?" asks Dora. "No — our series!" he proclaims, before the camera pulls back from the whole cast waving to the live, studio audience.

It's a worthwhile remembrance, both because of how weird it is (and how it signaled TV's increasing willingness to nod toward the audience's knowledge of how the sausage is made) and because of how it signifies that Hollywood never quite figured out what to do with Peña, who should have been a megastar, most likely, but had to settle for supporting parts in lots of films and TV shows. That's not a bad career for anyone to have — and Peña never hurt for work — but it only underlines just how long it's taken for Hollywood to understand that women of color could play roles other than long-running stereotypes. And it's not as if the Hollywood of today is doing a great job at this either.

Or, put another way, I Married Dora was supposed to be Peña's big push toward TV stardom. It didn't work out, and she had a much more interesting career instead. But that career was capped by playing the mother of Gloria, Sofia Vergara's character, on Modern Family. And though that show is more winking about how it employs broad stereotypes of Latin American culture and Latinas in particular, it's still leaning on many of those old, hoary, stupid gags. Elizabeth Peña deserved much better from Hollywood than her big bid at TV stardom being a weird footnote in the medium's history. But, then, so do most women of color looking for lasting careers today.

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