He was “a force of nature.” “A bright burning light.” “A passionate advocate.” A “courageous and compassionate leader.”
Friends, family and colleagues gathered Saturday at Boise State University to honor J.J. Saldaña, a leader in Idaho’s Latino community who died overnight Sept. 21 at the age of 49. The cause of death is unknown.
Around 200 people came to his memorial service, with speakers including Boise Mayor Lauren McLean, Boise State President Marlene Tromp and Margie Gonzalez, the executive director of the Idaho Commission on Hispanic Affairs.
“His mark is indelible,” McLean said at the memorial.
The Elko, Nevada, native moved to Boise to go to college at Boise State in 1995, according to previous Statesman reporting. For the past 23 years, he worked for the state’s Commission on Hispanic Affairs, fielding questions from reporters and serving as a liaison between the state’s Latino community and the government.
Saldaña also co-founded the Idaho Hispanic Youth Leadership Summit and served on boards and in leadership roles for multiple Latino advocacy organizations across the state as well as on Boise’s Arts and History Commission. He was widely known for his mentorship of young Latino journalists, and served on the advisory council of Voces Internship of Idaho, an organization founded in 2021 that has brought young Latino Idahoans into newsrooms across the state — including the Idaho Statesman.
At Saturday’s event, speakers paid tribute to Saldaña’s energy and a power they said he had to persuade people to take action.
“J.J. was known for his wisdom and friendship, and for always speaking up for what was right,” Gov. Brad Little wrote in a letter read at the service. “His sudden passing is a tremendous loss for Idaho.”
McLean listed Saldaña’s involvement in Boise initiatives, including his participation on a Boise Police Department advisory committee and volunteer efforts to help with language access to city services and on focus groups.
“He’d call you up and say, ‘Lauren, will you do this?’” she said. “My husband would say, ‘Why are you doing this?’ I’m like, ‘I don’t know, J.J. asked me to do it.’”
McLean said she asked the Boise Arts and History Department to find a place to memorialize him in a mural.
Nicole Foy, a former Statesman journalist and co-founder of Voces, said Saldaña had a knack for getting people involved.
“We will also miss the gentle but absolutely relentless way that he would badger and bully you into actually doing something, especially for the Idaho Latino communities that he loved,” she said, crediting him with helping push her to get Voces started. Instead of talking about what needed to change, he would mention something that needed to happen a few times and “eventually just start telling everybody that you were already going to do that thing,” Foy added.
“He fiercely believed in the importance of making sure that the Latino communities in Idaho were faithfully and truthfully represented in Idaho media and the public sphere,” she said.
Rebecca De León, a longtime friend, said he “fought for everybody to have their chance, to have their opportunity, to have their freedom.”
Other attendees at the memorial included mayoral candidate Mike Masterson, Boise Reps. Lauren Necochea and Chris Mathias, former City Council member Lisa Sánchez and U.S. Attorney Josh Hurwit.
A Mariachi band from Nampa called Tleyotltzin sang songs to open the memorial, and dancer Norma Pintar also performed.
For four years, Saldaña was also a co-host of the Latino Card, a news show on Radio Boise.
On Tuesday, the radio program released an episode featuring interviews the hosts — including Saldaña — conducted earlier this month with Boise Mayor Lauren McLean and her opponent in this year’s election, Masterson.
Before the show began, the hosts ran clips of Saldaña talking from past episodes.
In one clip, he explained why he started working at the Hispanic Affairs Commission after college.
“What got my heart going was, ‘I need to make sure that everybody has the same rights,” he said.