‘Always stood up for what was right:’ Leader within Idaho’s Latino community dies

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J.J. Saldaña, a vital leader within Idaho’s Latino community, has died.

Saldaña, who will be remembered for over two decades of work with the Idaho Commission on Hispanic Affairs — died in his sleep sometime late Thursday or early Friday, Rebecca De León, a longtime friend, told the Idaho Statesman in a phone interview. He was 49.

It’s unknown what caused Saldaña’s death, De León said.

“He was somebody who always stood up for what was right. He was somebody who never faltered in his values,” De León said. “He was always very true to himself. He was always J.J.”

Saldaña was originally from Elko, Nevada, a small city about 100 miles from Idaho’s southern border, but he moved to Boise in 1995 to attend Boise State University and never left. Saldaña graduated from Boise State in 2000 and immediately began working for the state Commission on Hispanic Affairs — where he’d still be working nearly 24 years later as a community resource development specialist.

The commission is a state agency that works underneath Gov. Brad Little’s office to inform him about issues within the community. Saldaña’s work for the commission included overseeing the agency’s communication and public relations along with educational programs including the Idaho Hispanic Youth Leadership Summit, which he co-founded.

Last year, the leadership summit awarded over $14 million in college scholarships to Latino high school students — many of whom became the first person in their families to attend college, the Idaho Statesman previously reported.

“J.J. was a leader in our communities and a relentless advocate for Idaho’s growing Hispanic population. Teresa and I send our condolences to the family and many loved ones of J.J.,” Little said in a statement provided to the Statesman by email.

Saldaña ‘uplifted’ Latino community, longtime friend says

Another of Saldaña’s most well-known accomplishments was his work as a host of the Latino Card. The award-winning radio show started in 2019 as a part of the Idaho Press and has since branched as an independent show.

De León, who hosted the Latino Card with Saldaña along with Antonio Hernandez, said by phone that Saldaña immediately took her under his wing roughly 10 years ago when they met.

De León was working as a reporter at the Idaho Press and she was the only bilingual journalist of color at a time when the journalism landscape was “very hostile” to Idaho’s Latino community, she said.

Saldaña, according to De León, had already been publicly complaining that Latinos were only ever in the news when it came to coverage of immigration or crime.

“He helped me navigate some difficult situations when I was a journalist,” De León said. “He leveraged his connections and his powers because he really wanted me to succeed, and there was really nothing in it for him.”

This inevitability prompted Saldaña and De León to start the Latino Card with then-Idaho Press reporter Nicole Foy, who was the state’s first Latino affairs reporter, which De León said was “revolutionary” at the time. (Foy also worked for the Idaho Statesman.)

De León said the position was partly created because she and Saldaña pushed for it behind the scenes.

“We started the Latino Card because we were like, ‘We need more of this and we can’t just like, sit back and just wait for somebody else to make it happen,’ ” De León said. “So, let’s do this ourselves.”

And it didn’t stop with them. Every time a new journalist of color moved to Idaho or began their career, De León said, Saldaña would immediately offer them support.

Now, there are a number of bilingual journalists throughout Idaho, with most newsrooms employing at least one Latino journalist and outlets like KTVB offering the news in Spanish with “KTVB En Español.”

Saldaña served as a part of Voces Internship of Idaho’s advisory council, which started in 2022 and has already offered nearly a dozen Latino students internships in various Idaho newsrooms. Saldaña was also a member of the Idaho Statesman’s editorial board from January 2021 through May 2022.

“He was truly somebody that so many people immediately turned to when they wanted advice, when they wanted connections and he was always there,” De León said. “He was always available. He was always on time. He was always supportive.”

De León continued: “Nobody really gave him credit because he wasn’t the type that demanded it. All he cared about was that the work was done, and that our community was being uplifted — that was what drove him.”

Idaho kicked off Hispanic Heritage Month on Sept. 15, something Saldaña led annually with the Idaho Commission on Hispanic Affairs. De León said that Saldaña was the one to make awards like the Amigo del Año, which was awarded to a local artist, “sought after.”

When asked what’s one thing — big or small — that Saldaña would want to be remembered for, De León said that Saldaña prided himself on dressing well and almost never wore the same pair of shoes twice.

De León said that Saldaña would wear “velvet embroidered shoes” and shoes that always looked “incredibly uncomfortable.” To which Saldaña, according to De León, would respond that “pain is beauty.”

“We’re not going to find — ever — another human being that can fill his very beautiful shoes,” De León said.