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UTRGV ornament, representing the heart of Rep. Canales’ district, helping spread holiday cheer and positive images of South Texas, as part of House Christmas Tree at the Texas Capitol

Caleb Ezra Canales, one of the children of Rep. Terry Canales and his wife, Erika; Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg; and Ramiro Peña, a graduate student at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley

Featured, from left: Caleb Ezra Canales, one of the children of Rep. Terry Canales and his wife, Erika; Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg; and Ramiro Peña, a graduate student at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, showcasing a unique Christmas Tree ornament, produced by Peña, which is now part of the 26-foot Christmas Tree on display at the Texas Capitol.
Photograph By MARK MONTEMAYOR

Thousands of holiday visitors to the House of Representatives chamber at the Texas Capitol are getting a good look at what South Texas has to offer, thanks to a one-of-a-kind ornament now gracing the impressive, 26-foot Christmas Tree set up by state legislative leaders, Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg, has announced. As part of the tree’s Texas symbolism, each state representative was invited to commission a constituent to decorate an ornament that reflects the unique character of his or her district. For Canales, whose House District 40 justifiably boasts an abundance of talented artists, Ramiro Peña, a graduate student working towards his Masters of Fine Arts at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, was chosen for the honor. “It was not an easy decision because the impressive list of outstanding artists in my House District and in the Valley is long and proud,” Canales explained. “In the end, Ramiro was a perfect choice because he also represents the creativity, bold vision, originality, skills, and independence that are hallmarks of his profession.” Canales sought from Peña an ornament that would showcase the character of House District 40, which include portions or all of Edinburg, Elsa, Faysville, La Blanca, Linn, Lópezville, McAllen, Pharr, San Carlos and Weslaco. Peña’s skills, as well as his desire to promote his adopted home region (he is originally from Salinas, California, but now calls Donna home for him and his family) are clearly evident in the admirable images on the ornament that Peña crafted for the House District 40 Christmas Tree ornament. “At the heart of District 40, the establishment of the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, the home to a School of Medicine which will transform future students in education, research, and healthcare, is depicted on the ornament by the landscape of the UTRGV Admission Building in Edinburg,” Peña described. The House District 40 Christmas Tree ornament “also portrays the agribusiness of the area through the vast fields of cotton and orange trees (along with) the image of the Monarch butterfly, which represents the unique migration from Mexico to Canada,” Peña continued. “The Altamira Oriole sits atop a cotton plant demonstrating one of 500 birds species found in nine birding sites of the World Birding Center, including the one in Edinburg.” UTRGV, whose main campus is in Edinburg, and which next fall will open the School of Medicine, also at the Edinburg campus, are located in Canales’ House District 40. Canales was a co-sponsor in 2013 of the historic law, Senate Bill 24 by Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, and Rep. René Oliveria, D-Brownsville, which combined the resources of UT-Pan American, UT-Brownsvlle, and the UT Regional Academic Health Center in Edinburg and Harlingen into UTRGV and the School of Medicine. “I was so impressed with Ramiro Peña’s creation, which highlighted higher education and agriculture, which are very important aspects – and strengths – of House District 40 and Texas,” said Canales. “But I am equally impressed by Ramiro and his wife, Alma, because they represent the tremendous values of integrity, hard work, courage, and achievement that make up the character of the people of South Texas.”Peña is the epitome of a non-traditional student – married, with children, 45 years old, and with a two-decade career behind him, according to Melissa Vásquez, who is a member of the UTRGV media team. “His wife, Alma, a first-grade teacher in Weslaco, told him it was her turn to help him achieve his dream of earning a degree and pursue his love of art. So he quit his 19-year job at Magic Valley Electric Cooperative and became a college student again, studying 2D art and taking every opportunity offered to enhance his craft – from studying abroad in Italy to working with art professors to perfect his style, which he refers to as ‘realism,’” Vásquez said. Canales, who shares credit with his wife, Erika, a business owner, for his successes, said he was moved by Ramiro Peña acknowledging the powerful roles that a spouse or other loved ones play in a person’s life. “With my wife’s encouragement, I decided to take that leap of faith and come back to school,” Peña said. “It was a difficult decision, because I had my doubts,” Peña told Vásquez. “At the time, Alma (a first-grade teacher in Weslaco) was making more money than I was and told me it was time for me to go off and get my degree. She told me, ‘I will support you.’”

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Ramiro Peña, UTRGV graduate art student, creating mural of Valley war hero Freddy González of Edinburg

Ramiro Peña

Featured: Ramiro Peña, a graduate student of The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, proudly displays two paintings of Edinburg hometown war hero Alfredo “Freddy” González that will be converted into two large-scale murals at the Edinburg H-E-B on West Freddy González Drive. The 8-foot by 12-1/2-foot murals will be completed by May 2016. Photo By PAUL CHOY

If it weren’t for the insistence of Ramiro Peña’s wife that he go back to school, he would not have earned a bachelor’s degree, and he probably would not be working toward his Master of Fine Arts at The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. “At the time, she was making more money than I was and told me it was time for me to go off and get my degree. She told me, ‘I will support you,’” Peña said. Peña is the epitome of a non-traditional student – married, with children, 45 years old, and with a two-decade career behind him. His wife, Alma, a first-grade teacher in Weslaco, told him it was her turn to help him achieve his dream of earning a degree and pursue his love of art. So he quit his 19-year job at Magic Valley Electric Cooperative and became a college student again, studying 2D art and taking every opportunity offered to enhance his craft – from studying abroad in Italy to working with art professors to perfect his style, which he refers to as “realism.” “With my wife’s encouragement, I decided to take that leap of faith and come back to school,” Peña said. “It was a difficult decision, because I had my doubts.” Still, Peña, who lives in Donna, gave it his best and earned his Bachelor of Fine Arts in 2013 from The University of Texas-Pan American, a UTRGV legacy institution. Before graduating with honors, Peña produced an undergraduate art exhibit titled “The Silent Departed Heroes,” which pays tribute to more than a dozen service members who enlisted in the U.S. military to gain U.S. citizenship and were killed in combat in the process. He says the series of portraits allowed him a deeper appreciation for the men and women who serve and protect the United States. “The idea was to keep the humanistic quality behind it. So I had to be very sensitive to that and not lose that in my interpretation of them and their service to our country,” he said. As a graduate student, Peña now continues his salute to veterans through a commission by Edinburg H-E-B at 2700 W. Freddy González Drive, to develop one of the biggest art projects he has ever undertaken – two 8-foot by 12-1/2 foot murals honoring Edinburg hometown war hero Alfredo “Freddy” Gonzalez. A U.S. Marine Corps platoon sergeant, González was killed on February 4, 1968, at the Battle of Hue in Vietnam. He was posthumously bestowed the Medal of Honor, and in 1996, a Navy guided missile destroyer, the USS Gonzalez, was commissioned. The murals will be displayed at the store, and the large-scale artwork will be completed by May 2016. On Veterans Day, November 11, 2015, the store unveiled two small-scale versions of Peña’s mural artwork during a celebration honoring veterans. Dolia González, Freddy’s mother and an H-E-B employee, will be given the smaller versions of the paintings once the larger murals are completed.

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