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'It is nothing but love, support, appreciation:' J.J. Saldaña, leader in Idaho's Latino community, dies

A man and a woman taking a selife style photo from the shoulders up. They both are smiling with teeth showing.
Rebecca De León
J.J. Saldaña and Rebecca De León

A leader in Idaho's Latino community died in his sleep last week. J.J. Saldaña was found in his home after Rebecca De León called and asked for a welfare check after he did not show up to the ACLU's 30th anniversary dinner.

Given their collective advocacy, Saldaña and De León were often each other’s “plus-ones” at events which heightened awareness for civil and human rights.

"We had planned on attending the ACLU’s 30th anniversary gala dinner. He was my plus-one,” said De León. “And in preparation for the gala, I was texting him and calling him and he wasn’t responding. And that was so unlike him.”

De León asked local responders to do a welfare check and that is where he was found. The Idaho Statesman reported Saldaña died sometime in his sleep late Thursday or early Friday.

De León’s first reaction was disbelief.

“I feel like he’s not allowed to do this yet. He has so much still to do. He has so much life. He has so much ahead of him.”

Saldaña worked for the Idaho Commission on Hispanic Affairs for nearly 24 years. He also sat on the advisory council for the Voces Internship of Idaho, which provides internships for young Latino Idahoans to get professional paid experience to begin their careers in journalism.

Boise Mayor Lauren McLean said on X, formerly known as Twitter, "Heartbroken over the news of [J.J.]’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. [J.J.] 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."

A celebration of life is being held for Saldaña on Saturday, Sept. 30 in the Simplot Ballroom at Boise State University's Student Union Building from 12:30 p.m. to 2:30 p.m. The public is encouraged to come and dress colorful and fabulous.

De León visited with Morning Edition host George Prentice to remember J.J. Saldaña, her mentor, friend and so much more.

Read the full transcript below:

GEORGE PRENTICE: It's Morning Edition. Good morning. I'm George Prentice. Just as the sun began migrating south, we would say goodbye to much more than summer. This past weekend, we lost J.J. Saldaña. In the many conversations I was lucky enough to have over the years, it was always about for J.J. the well-being of others. His commitment to Idaho was amplified in so many ways, particularly through his work with the Idaho Commission on Hispanic Affairs. So, let's spend some time this morning remembering him with someone who knew him well. Rebecca De León is here, journalist, publicist, advocate and so much more. But I have to guess that among her greatest senses of pride and joy was being a friend and colleague of J.J. Saldaña. Hi, Rebecca.

REBECCA DE LEÓN: Hi, George. What a beautiful way to introduce me and so accurate.

PRENTICE: The most difficult question I'll ask this year is: can you tell me about getting the news? And how you heard ? And what your weekend has been like.

DE LEÓN: Yeah. I mean, I'm a disaster right now. This is absolutely the hardest loss I have ever experienced. He was very much kind of like my other half. Everything that I did in community was in partnership with him. He was the first person I ran to with anything, with good news, with bad news, you know, And we had ideas that would we would come up with together. And it's just been, um, it's hard for me to wrap my brain around the fact that he's just not here anymore. Um, and so we had planned on attending the ACLU's 30th anniversary gala dinner Friday night. He was my plus-one. We were often each other's plus-one’s to galas. And in preparation for the gala, I was texting him and calling him and he wasn't responding. And that was so unlike him. And I started getting very worried because this is very out of character for him. J.J. is always on time. He always makes himself available to anybody who needs anything. And so I called in a welfare check and he was at his home and that's how he was discovered. Um, and they, they notified his family first and then they notified me and it didn't enter my brain at first. It … it almost felt like this is not allowed. Like … he is not allowed. I know everybody at some point … but I feel like he's not allowed to do this yet. He has so much still to do. He has so much life. He has so much ahead of him. He's doing so many things. It just doesn't make sense. And so I, you know, began informing people. Word spread pretty quickly. And I think that….the thing that really sets this apart for me is seeing how the community has responded. That the community loved him so much. All of the messages of love and support. You know, he was a very strong political figure. I mean, he wasn't a politician, but he worked in politics as an advocate. He has friends who are journalists, who are politicians, who are community members, kids, you know, people who don't speak English. It’s all across the board. And it is nothing but love, support, appreciation. And I just really wish ... I really wish he could see it. And I hope that he knew how beloved he was to everybody. And it didn't matter what your political views were, it didn't matter. You know, everybody loved him. And that has been a really beautiful thing. That has been a very beautiful thing that has come out of this very tragic thing.

PRENTICE: Can you talk a little bit about the importance and ultimately the reality for J.J., as a mentor, helping to tell Idaho stories, untold stories, in print and in podcasts with you … and so much more?

DE LEÓN: Absolutely. So, J.J. had a very natural talent for a lot of things, and one of those things was storytelling. He had a very sharp sort of marketing brain without having any kind of training in marketing, and he could tell stories in a way that was very, you know, it brought people in. He has a background. His bachelor's, I believe, is in education, and he has a master's degree in addiction studies. And a lot of what made him amazing kind of had nothing to do with those things because he was just so naturally, um, personable and people were very drawn to him and his personality because he was so genuine, and he was so warm and authentic at all times. And he was able to connect people because of that. And what he did is he leveraged that ability to tell people's stories, to lift people up and to really showcase the Latino community in a way that nobody else has and that I think nobody else will. When we started the Latino Card, it was because we were really sick and tired of the lack of representation in news media, and our stories were not being told. And we always used to joke about it. And this was how we would advertise. The start of the Latino Card is that, you know, he and I and Nicole Foy at the time, but we would always get together and just like kind of gossip. And we were all quite connected in the community, and we were just like, we're really entertaining. Somebody should just give us a show. And then we joked about that publicly on Twitter, and then it became a thing, and it was amazing. And it was. And it was because he was so easy to share space with … My apologies, George. He was. He was……

PRENTICE: Well, amazing is a pretty good word. And so fluid. And to that end, it was all sincere and an ultimate truth. All those conversations were just ultimately true and sincere and …. fun. Speaking of which, I'd be remiss if we didn't talk a little bit about his sense … and his flair for fashion.

JJ Saldana died September 22, 2023
Courtesy Rebecca De Leon
JJ Saldana died September 22, 2023

DE LEÓN: Oh, yes. Oh, yes. It was a big point of pride for him. He carried himself very well at all times like he was always very articulate. He always, always, you know, even when we were kind of drinking and embracing debauchery, he still carried himself always very well. And that was in the way that he he brought himself to every table. And it was in the way that that he dressed. And he had a wicked fashion sense. And he was also very good at noticing other people's fashion sense and. You know, approving or disapproving of it.

PRENTICE: So much to miss. It is a morning like this when we figure out how many tears the human body is capable of producing.

DE LEÓN: Absolutely.

PRENTICE: But many of these are happy tears. And. And we will be remembering J.J. Saldaña for all good things.

DE LEÓN: Absolutely.

PRENTICE: And this morning, thank you so much for helping us do just that. She is Rebecca De León, communicator extraordinaire … and forever friend of J.J. Saldaña.

DE LEÓN: Thank you so much, George.

Find reporter George Prentice on Twitter @georgepren

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