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Leaving a legacy: In memory of J.J. Saldaña

A person poses on Boise State football field
Juan “J.J.” Saldaña

Juan “J.J.” Saldaña’s impact knew no bounds, his influence radiating throughout every corner of Idaho and far beyond. Saldaña died last week and a memorial honoring his life and legacy will be held at 12:30-2 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 30, in the Student Union Building’s Simplot Ballroom. Light snacks will be provided and cultural performances are planned in his honor.

A proud graduate of Boise State University, where he earned his Bachelor of Arts in Bilingual Education and Theatre Arts, and later a Master of Social Work in Addiction Studies from Northwest Nazarene University, Saldaña’s life was committed to uplifting and empowering members of the Hispanic community while tirelessly pursuing positive change.

Saldaña’s work with the Idaho Commission on Hispanic Affairs, an agency operating under the Office of the Governor, spanned more than two decades and allowed him to travel the varied landscapes of Idaho, from urban centers to remote rural communities. His collaborative efforts extended across all sectors of society, where he engaged with civic leaders, educators, media professionals, families, students, businesses, churches and community organizations. His mission was clear — to elevate Hispanic and Latine culture, empower Hispanic and Latine community members to not only survive but thrive, and bridge the educational gap that hinders the progress of Hispanic students, particularly those in rural areas.

JJ Saldaña and Gov. Brad Little
Saldaña with Gov. Brad Little at the Idaho State Capitol for Hispanic Heritage Month

Saldaña was instrumental in organizing the State of Idaho’s annual recognition of Hispanic Heritage Month. His collaborative efforts culminated in a grand celebration on Sept. 15 at the Idaho State Capitol, where Gov. Brad Little has signed a proclamation honoring this vital occasion. Each year, in preparation for Hispanic Heritage Month, Saldaña tirelessly collected family recipes and biographies of prominent Hispanic figures in Idaho, and then shared them across social media, ensuring that their stories and contributions were celebrated and cherished. He featured fellow Boise State alums, including football coach Andy Avalos, Hon. Judge Sergio A. Gutierrez, artist Bobby Gaytan, among many others.

“We lost an amazing leader this week. His energy, hard work, insight and compassion changed people’s lives and inspired others to do good and great things,” said Dr. Marlene Tromp, Boise State president. “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.”

Saldaña’s passion for education and youth empowerment was unshakable. He was a co-founder of the Idaho Hispanic Youth Symposium and the Idaho Hispanic Youth Leadership Summit. Held at various higher education institutions throughout Idaho, these events provide a platform for students to prepare for higher education, gain leadership skills, access resources and opportunities, connect with both peers and community leaders, and receive life-changing college scholarships. Over the past decade, millions of dollars in scholarships have been awarded to thousands of Idaho high school students, many of whom became the first in their families to attend college. Saldaña’s tireless efforts changed the course of countless generations of Idahoans.

Buster Bronco mascot at a student event
2021 Idaho Hispanic Youth Leadership Summit at Boise State

“J.J.’s dedication to the Latino community and the Idaho Hispanic Youth Leadership Summit has been evident since our collaboration began in 2017. Working together from 2018 to 2021 on the Hispanic Youth Leadership Summit at Boise State, his passion for education and students shone brightly,” said Andrea Orozco, assistant director of strategic enrollment in Boise State admissions. “J.J.’s legacy embodies dedication, collaboration, and an unwavering commitment to education. Though he’s not with us for the planning of the 2024 summit, J.J.’s spirit will guide us as we honor his memory by supporting students with the same passion. His impact lives on in our hearts and the work we do.”

Three persons pose in front of football helmets
Saldaña with Boise State head football coach Andy Avalos, and Adrián Aldaba, Manager of National Education and Public Programs at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Latino

In May of 2023, Saldaña toured the state with a representative from the Smithsonian National Museum, showcasing Idaho’s robust Hispanic culture and Latine leadership.

Together with fellow Boise State alum Rebecca DeLeon, and Nicole Foy, Saldaña co-founded and co-hosted The Latino Card podcast — a platform dedicated to amplifying Hispanic and Latine voices and raising awareness about crucial issues throughout the state.

He understood the power of representation, often reminding us that “You can’t be what you can’t see.”

Saldaña also served on several boards and committees, lending his voice and experience where it was most needed. He served on the advisory council for Voces Internship of Idaho, which was co-founded by Boise State alum Ximena Bustillo to support paid media internships and journalism experience for Hispanic and Latine college students, while simultaneously diversifying the news landscape.

Saldaña was a friend to many, a champion for change, and a shining light in the Gem State. His legacy will continue to inspire, his work will endure, and his memory will forever be a source of hope and inspiration.

Donations honoring the life and legacy of Saldaña can be made to the Voces Internship of Idaho.

More from members of the Boise State community

“I miss my friend Juan Saldaña terribly. I’ve known Juan since he first started working at the Idaho Commission on Hispanic Affairs. When I met him, I remember saying to myself, “This dynamo will go far.” Another memory that stands out is when Juan along with the Idaho Commission on Hispanic Affairs brought 600 high school students to BSU for the Idaho Hispanic Youth Leadership Summit. The atmosphere in the Jordan Ballroom was energizing. This proved to me that no project was too daunting for him. No wonder people called him Super J.J. Fast forward to today. I consider myself fortunate to have worked with Juan on several occasions. Knowing him all of these years has given me the opportunity to watch him become one of the most influential and outstanding leaders of this state. He achieved this by empowering countless members of the Latino community in Idaho. He was driven by the beliefs that you give back to your community by bringing people along. Although his successes are many and significant, he was humble about his achievements. Juan’s contributions to Latino communities across our state are insurmountable. He is a legend.” – Alicia Garza, Professor of Spanish in the Department of World Languages and Founding Director of Casita Nepantla

“You meet all sorts of people in this life and sometimes you meet a world changer. J.J. Saldaña was one of those people. Not only was he a great person by making us laugh, bantering on Twitter, making us famous, or just hanging out, he did things greater than himself. He made a difference in our community. Whether it was working with the youth, the Hispanic community, or local causes, J.J. gave 100% of himself to these efforts. I will miss him. His passing leaves a huge hole that will not be easily filled. Rest in power amigo!” – Alex Gutierrez, Senior Associate Director of Career Services at Boise State

“J.J. was passionate about education. He worked hard to ensure that other people had access to further their education – whether through higher education, obtaining a GED or other advancement opportunities, education was always among his top priorities as a way to advance people’s career and enhance them personally. J.J. loved Boise State – he bled blue and we are both proud alumni and always identify as Broncos. He was a supporter and patron of the arts and held season tickets to Broadway in Boise at the Morrison Center. We also loved tailgating at Boise State football games together, and being a part of that community. Boise State was a big part of why J.J. called Boise home.” – Rebecca DeLeon, friend and alum

“J.J. was truly one in a billion. His ability to connect people and build friendships was a gift that brought our community closer together. He was a legend in our midst, a source of never-ending positivity on social media, and a true collaborator who believed in the power of unity. He was a friend, a loving tió, and a superhero who inspired me with his unwavering kindness and boundless energy. His efforts to create opportunities for Hispanic youth in Idaho were nothing short of prolific. J.J. had a remarkable knack for making dreams come true, and his impact on the lives of Idahoans will be felt for generations to come. Through his dedication, he opened doors, shattered barriers, and lit the way for countless young people seeking a brighter future. He touched our lives in profound ways, and his memory will forever be etched in our hearts.” – Leigh Ann Dufurrena, friend and alum

“Over the years I saw J.J. Saldaña as an enduring professional in the community who took his job seriously. Our paths often crossed at events geared toward helping students in Idaho learn about going on to college. He was a wonderful example for all students, and especially Latino students, showing that going on to college was possible. I liked that one felt confident knowing projects under his leadership would get done. He brought a level of credibility that inspired collaboration. He also had a fun side that he often shared on his social media accounts, FB and Twitter (X). That’s where one saw his humor and heightened fashion sense. He always dressed so well! He introduced so many people to the food, culture, and the positive economic impact the Latino culture brings. J.J. made a positive impact for decades professionally and just by being himself. J.J. has left a legacy of good deeds we can continue to build on and replicate in his honor.” – Fabiola Juarez-Coca, Director of Concurrent Enrollment at Boise State