Juan José Peña, a Vietnam War veteran and activist who championed the rights of veterans and Hispanics, died Monday at age 72 at the Veterans Affairs hospital in Albuquerque following an illness.
Peña’s daughter, Margarita Aguilar, 39, of Albuquerque, said he was a fighter as a youth who later transformed his fisticuffs into causes.
“He always got into fights when he was a kid, and then as he grew older, he turned to fighting for civil rights,” she said.
As a member of the Partido Raza Unida Party, she said, her father “fought for the rights of the Hispanic people. He fought for disabled veterans and formed groups that fought for the rights of disabled veterans.”
Born on Dec. 13, 1945, in Hagerman and raised in Las Vegas, N.M., Peña received bachelor’s degree and master’s degrees from New Mexico Highlands University, where he later would teach. He focused his studies on Spanish language, literature and political science. He also was a doctoral candidate in Latin American literature.
In 1969, he was drafted into the Army to fight in the Vietnam War. He received a Bronze Star for valor in combat and an Air Medal with two stars, among many decorations.
Aguilar said her father was an avid writer and reader, devouring books on history, especially New Mexican history, and was in the process of writing his autobiography.
As a sports lover, Peña played soccer and football in high school and college, wrestled in high school and played semi-professional ice hockey in college, she added.
After working as a professor at Highlands University, Peña moved to Albuquerque in 1983 to work as a supervisory interpreter for the U.S. District Court of New Mexico. He was fluent in English, Spanish, Portuguese and German, as well as Vietnamese and French. He retired in 2005 but continued working as freelance interpreter.
Peña was commander of the Albuquerque and New Mexico branches of the American GI Forum, served as chairman and vice chairman of the Hispano Round Table, and was a founding member of Dads Against Discrimination.
Aguilar called her father “a very generous person.”
“If someone else was in trouble,” she said, “he never hesitated to help them out with a place to stay or money.”
Along with his daughter, Peña is survived by his partner of 23 years, Ann Tran, as well as his brother Fernando Peña, and grandchildren Shar and Mariana.
Reading of the rosary is planned at 9:30 a.m. Saturday at Our Lady of Sorrows Church, 403 Valencia in Las Vegas, with eulogy and Mass to follow. He will be buried in the St. Anthony Cemetery in Las Vegas.