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‘A relentless advocate’: Idaho officials mourn death of longtime Latino activist J.J. Saldaña

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‘A relentless advocate’: Idaho officials mourn death of longtime Latino activist J.J. Saldaña

Sep 25, 2023 | 5:38 pm ET
By Clark Corbin Christina Lords
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‘A relentless advocate’: Idaho officials mourn death of longtime Latino activist J.J. Saldaña
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J.J. Saldaña (second from the left in the back row) poses for a picture with the members of the Voces Internship of Idaho advisory council. The internship aims to place Idaho Latino college students in internships in Idaho's newsrooms and other media industry jobs. (Courtesy of Nicole Foy)

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Messages of love and support continue to flood social media as state and local elected officials, as well as leaders from Idaho’s Latino and LGBTQ+ communities, mourn the death of longtime Idaho activist J.J. Saldaña.

Saldaña, who served as the community resource development specialist at the Idaho Commission on Hispanic Affairs, died in his sleep of unknown causes late Thursday or early Friday morning, friends of Saldaña said. Information on a memorial service or funeral has not yet been announced.

Saldaña worked for the Idaho Commission on Hispanic Affairs for nearly 24 years and was instrumental in planning its annual Hispanic Youth Leadership Summit, where scholarships totaling millions of dollars have been given away to Latino and Hispanic students in Idaho since 2005. During the 2022 Hispanic Youth Leadership Summit at College of Idaho, more than 125 scholarships totaling $9 million were awarded, Idaho Education News reported. 

He also served as the lead organizer for Idaho’s Hispanic Heritage Month, often highlighting and sharing food recipes from Idaho’s Latino leaders online to celebrate. He worked with the governor’s office, as well as many Idaho cities and universities, to establish a proclamation for Idaho’s Hispanic Heritage Month each year.

Latino advocate ‘leveraged a lot of soft power’ in Boise, beyond, friends say

Saldaña also served on the advisory council of the Voces Internship of Idaho, which creates internship opportunities in journalism and media for Idaho’s Latino college students.

In its statement about Saldaña’s death, Voces leadership said Saldaña often quoted a phrase that became synonymous with his work around the state: “You can’t be what you can’t see.”

“He fiercely believed in the importance of making sure Idaho Latinos were faithfully and truthfully represented in Idaho media and the public sphere – work he started long before Voces was even an idea,” Voces said in a statement posted to social media. “And he somehow found time to help many of our interns and welcome new journalists to the community.”

Friends and state officials described Saldaña as a compassionate and tireless advocate who was so popular and well known that he came to embody the role of a sort of unofficial mayor of Boise on the social network site formerly known as Twitter, where Saldaña posted frequently about his work, life and friends.

Nicole Foy, a co-founder of the Voces Internship of Idaho who formerly worked at the Idaho Press and Idaho Statesman, said Saldaña was a source in the community who grew into a trusted friend. Foy said Saldaña seemed to know everyone in Idaho and he poured his heart into his work and his friendships.

“I just think of him as such a kind person, and he leveraged a lot of soft power,” Foy said in a telephone interview. “He was filled with such kindness, and he genuinely loved so much of Boise.”

Along with the rest of his work, Saldaña dedicated himself to changing the culture of journalism in Idaho. 

“He knew representation matters, and when he first started doing this, he was trying to make sure Latino voices and more perspectives were showing up in Idaho media coverage and in those newsrooms,” Foy added. “He was not satisfied with how Idaho newsrooms and Idaho media were covering issues or not covering issues, and that was really important to him.” 

.J. Saldaña (center) poses for a picture with some of the 2023 interns through the Voces Internship of Idaho program
J.J. Saldaña (center) poses for a picture with some of the 2023 interns through the Voces Internship of Idaho program. Saldaña worked for nearly 24 years for the Idaho Commission on Hispanic Affairs.

Idaho Capital Sun reporter Mia Maldonado was part of the Voces Internship of Idaho’s first class or journalist in 2022. In an interview, Maldonado said she first met Saldaña when she was a high school student and he encouraged her and her brother to attend the Hispanic Youth Leadership Summit, where they both won college scholarships. 

“A lot of Latino students in Idaho are not really familiar with the college application process, and that was the case for me and my brother,” Maldonado said. “He made my transition from high school to college smoother, and he was that background support system Idaho Latinos needed.”

Maldonado said that at the time of his death, Saldaña was working in Moscow organizing a Hispanic Youth Leadership Summit at the University of Idaho. 

“He died trying to bring more opportunities to Latinos from North Idaho,” Maldonado said. “He died trying to give them the same opportunities that other Latinos had.” 

Saldaña never sought credit for the work he did, but instead, he led by example with lifelong dedication to lift others, the Voces statement said.

Saldaña was also instrumental in establishing The Latino Card, an award-winning podcast he co-hosted to dive into Latino issues around Idaho and beyond.

“Among his many mantras, ‘I will make you famous’ was made real in the encouragement and spotlight he so freely gave, urging us all to embrace our potential and shine,” The Latino Card posted to its Facebook page on Monday. “His impact will continue to resonate, echoing his commitment to uplifting our community. We will always remember J.J. for his vibrancy, passion, and the indelible mark he has left on us all.”

Born in Elko, Nevada, he was a graduate of Boise State University.

Idaho leaders share memories, mourn the death of activist J.J. Saldaña

As news of Saldaña’s death became public, officials offered their memories and thoughts on Saldaña’s service to the state on social media and through statements released to the media.

Here are a few from local leaders: 

  • Idaho Gov. Brad Little, in an emailed statement: “J.J. was a leader in our communities and a relentless advocate for Idaho’s growing Hispanic population. (Idaho first lady) Teresa and I send our condolences to the family and many loved ones of J.J.”
  • Boise Mayor Lauren McLean, on social media: “Heartbroken over the news of (Saldaña’s) passing. I feel fortunate to have spent precious time with him just last week. I loved working with him whenever I had the chance and deeply appreciated his service to Boise on the Arts and History Commission. (He) worked tirelessly to advocate for and elevate the voices of his beloved community, improving countless lives in the process. I extend my heartfelt condolences to his loved ones and everyone whose life he touched.”
  • Boise State University President Marlene Tromp, on social media: “His energy, hard work, insight, and compassion changed people’s lives and inspired others to do good and great things. All of us will have work to do to ensure that we honor his legacy by supporting and carrying on his commitment to student development and success, his care for his community, and his generous willingness to lead. Thank you, J.J. We will be seeing the impacts of your incredible work for generations.”
  • PODER of Idaho, on social media: “J.J. Saldaña: a remarkable individual whose presence illuminated the Latinx Community of Idaho. A legacy to forever be cherished. We pay tribute to a true friend, an impeccable stylist, and strategic thinker. Rest easy J.J.!”
  • Idaho Democratic Party chairwoman and Idaho state legislator Lauren Necochea, on social media: “It doesn’t seem possible that this special, vibrant man is gone. (Saldaña) was the kindest soul. He leaves an incredible legacy of advocacy for the Latino community. And, as others have noted, his shoes were always fabulous. He was one in a million. I’m heartbroken.”
  • Ada County/City Emergency Services System, on social media: “Like so many others across the state, the members of the Ada County/City Emergency Services System (ACCESS) were deeply saddened to learn of the passing of J.J. Saldaña. J.J.’s work at the Idaho Commission on Hispanic Affairs, Voces Internship of Idaho, and so much more impacted countless people and communities. J.J.’s work extended to the EMS and fire department communities as the chair of the ACCESS Community Advisory Board. His leadership, compassion, and commitment to service was unmatched. We extend our condolences to J.J.’s family, friends, colleagues, and to all those whose lives were touched by J.J.”