‘Super’ J.J. Saldaña remembered as Idaho’s fiercest — and fabulous — Latino advocate

At celebration of life service at Boise State University, Mayor Lauren McLean said the city will honor his legacy, community volunteerism with artistic mural

By: - September 30, 2023 3:46 pm
portrait by Idaho artist Bobby Gaytan of longtime Idaho Latino leader J.J. Saldaña

This portrait by Idaho artist Bobby Gaytan of longtime Idaho Latino leader J.J. Saldaña will be used in a permanent mural in Boise to remember and honor his activism and volunteerism. (Courtesy of Bobby Gaytan)

J.J. Saldaña, above all else, was a doer for his Boise community.

He spent nearly 24 years dedicating his professional life to the Idaho Commission on Hispanic Affairs, where he was instrumental in organizing the commission’s Hispanic Youth Leadership Summit. The event has awarded millions of dollars of scholarships to ensure hundreds of Latino and Hispanic youth in Idaho could go on to achieve their dreams in college since 2005.

A longtime supporter and enthusiast for the arts, he served on Boise’s Arts and History Commission since 2021.

Never satisfied with how Latinos and their contributions to the state have been covered by Idaho media in the past, he served on the advisory council of the Voces Internship of Idaho, which creates paid internship opportunities in journalism and media for Idaho’s Latino college students. He helped found The Latino Card, an award-winning podcast dedicated to giving a voice to Idaho’s Latinos and his community’s issues and culture.

Boise Mayor Lauren McLean and Rebecca De Leon
Boise Mayor Lauren McLean, left, remembers Idaho Latino advocate J.J. Saldaña at a celebration of life ceremony on Sept. 30, 2023, at Boise State University. McLean said Saldaña’s mark on the city will be indelible, and that he’ll be a part of the rich and loving “tapestry that makes Boise the city and community that she is.” (Christina Lords/Idaho Capital Sun)

Saldaña’s work extended to the Treasure Valley EMS, fire department and police agencies as the chair of the ACCESS Community Advisory Board. Under former Boise Police Chief Bill Bones, he served on the Chief’s Community Advisory Panel, working closely with Officer Ed Moreno, the Hispanic community liaison officer for the city, to ensure more officers knew Spanish and understood the culture of the Latino community to build better relationships.

And that’s just the beginning of the impact Saldaña, who died unexpectedly in his sleep Sept. 22 at the age of 49, had on Boise, Idaho and beyond.

About 200 friends, family and community leaders attended a celebration of Saldaña’s life, as full as it was, Saturday at the Boise State University Simplot Ballroom in the Student Union Building. Many people who spoke at the ceremony remembered Saldaña’s love for superheroes, and to many who attended, he’ll be forever remembered as “Super J.J.”

“After he passed, a lot of community members, friends and I got together and tried to map out his resume,” said longtime friend and Latino community leader Rebeca De León at the ceremony. “We keep missing things. … He was everywhere, and we still keep adding to the list. How are we going to fill this man’s beautiful shoes? We have this whole team of people ready to step in and carry on his work, and still, it feels like it’s not enough.”

Idaho dignitaries share memories of longtime community advocate J.J. Saldaña

Since Saldaña’s death was announced, memories, tributes and personal stories have flooded social media highlighting just how far his reach has reverberated around the state.

At the service, Boise Mayor Lauren McLean said the city felt a connection to him because he was connected to, and welcomed in, so very many people.

“He loved Boise deeply and, in return, as she often does, she loved him back with equal fortitude,” McLean said “He showed his love in so many ways, whether it was lifting up the voices of folks whose voices we didn’t hear enough, or pulling people in to be part of efforts to be created, and then serving so many ways as a servant, a volunteer, to the city that he called home, to a city that he loved deeply.”

She said the city is working to establish, with the guidance of his family, a permanent space of remembrance for Saldaña for a mural of a portrait done by Latino artist Bobby Gaytan created after Saldaña’s death.

De León read a letter addressed to Saldaña’s family from Idaho Gov. Brad Little, who could not attend the ceremony in person.

“J.J. was known for his wisdom and friendship, and for always speaking out for what was right,” Little wrote. “His sudden passing is a tremendous loss for Idaho. J.J. will always be missed and remembered for his contributions to our state.”

Boise State University President Marlene Tromp, who was out of the state on Saturday, recorded a message for Saldaña’s family, saying he was one of Idaho’s most “courageous, creative and compassionate leaders.”

Traditional Mexican Folklore dancer Norma Pintar
Traditional Mexican Folklore dancer Norma Pintar celebrates the life of community activist J.J. Saldaña at a celebration of life ceremony on Sept. 30, 2023, at Boise State University. Pintar said she’ll always remember the way his eyes and smile would light up a room. (Christina Lords/Idaho Capital Sun)

“I want you to know how deeply I valued and treasured the opportunities I had to connect with him,” she said, “how grateful I am for his legacy, and how Boise State will strive to carry that on.”

On a personal level, Saldaña was remembered for his love of music, Halloween, spending time with his nieces and nephews, quesadillas and of his love of Mexican culture and dance.

“I know that there are a lot of people who like to say about people who have passed, ‘rest in power,’” De León said. “But I feel like that doesn’t really apply to J.J. because he lived in power. And I think it is time for him to rest in peace. I hope he does have peace, knowing what he meant to us.”

If Idahoans would like to make a donation in Saldaña’s honor, the family has encouraged support for the Voces Internship of Idaho.


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Christina Lords
Christina Lords

Christina Lords is the editor-in-chief of the Idaho Capital Sun and has been a professional journalist covering local and state government since graduating from the University of Idaho in 2009. A Pocatello native, Lords is a fifth-generation Idahoan who served as a reporter at the Moscow-Pullman Daily News and the Post Register in Idaho Falls and served as assistant editor for the Idaho Press in Nampa. She also led the Idaho Statesman in Boise for two years before turning to nonprofit journalism.