The winning design of the 2013 Friends of the American Latino Museum Contest by Ana Maria Villegas. (Courtesy American Latino Museum)

The winning art – and the artist – of the American Latino Museum Design Contest

Two decades ago, Ana Maria Villegas was a chemical engineering professor in her native Mexico City, and last year, she almost lost her life due to a bout with hepatitis. Soon though, her art will become familiar to many.

The 48-year-old housewife from Coral Gables, Florida recently won the 2013 Friends of the American Latino Museum Design Contest for her colorful pastel design, which will be used as part of a campaign to promote the proposed national museum honoring the contributions of American Latinos. The unveiling will take part this summer in Washington, DC.

“It was exciting,” says Villegas upon learning the news last month. “The only thing they told me was that more than 70 percent of the votes were mine.”

The winning design was chosen by the Latino Museum board, and then the public voted on the final five. Danny Vargas, a commissioner of the National Museum of the American Latino Commission, was one of the individuals who voted early on.

“In our first meeting, we had to come up with a theme, and that theme was around enlightening the American story for the benefit of all,” says Vargas. “The look in the little girl’s eyes was a look of wonder, of excitement, of learning, of appreciating, and there was a great sense among all of us of having something we can leave to our future generations.”

Vargas says Villegas’ image was finally chosen because it could resonate with young people, and the unification of all Americans — a very important mission of the Museum.

Ana Maria Villegas with her winning design. (Courtesy Ana Maria Villegas)

Ana Maria Villegas with her winning design. (Courtesy Ana Maria Villegas)

“Two weeks before the end of the contest, they announced the finalists — each finalist had a campaign,” says Villegas, who said that during that time she gained a lot of exposure. “I have been contacted to do little exhibitions. Before this, I didn’t have a business in art. It’s so exciting because I’ve been painting all my life.”

Villegas says her love of art stems from her father, Juan Antonio Ortiz — a watercolor artist who, at 82, is still having exhibitions in Mexico. Villegas herself uses all kinds of media, such as oil and sculpture, but what she loves most is pastel portraits.

It was because of an e-mail from her daughter Gaby Villegas that the chemical engineer and painter found out about the Latino Museum design contest. And it was her daughters who served as an inspiration for what she chose to draw.

“I was thinking of my daughters — it’s not them, but it’s like any Latin kid,” says Villegas about her vibrant 24 x 18 design. “I try to portray a Latin kid with sparkling eyes and excitement, as I find Latinos are very expressive in their eyes.”

She explains that raising her daughters in the U.S. is different – it’s not the same education, rules and limits she had growing up in Mexico.

“When we came here, they were very little,” says Villegas, who followed her husband to the states due to a job transfer. “But they took the best out of our traditions and U.S. traditions — Thanksgiving and Halloween, but also Reyes Magos. They would say, ‘Now I have more than I had before.’”

Villegas adds that she put the eagle of the American Latino Museum, and a sun, in the middle of the child’s eye — as if they were envisioning an eagle — or freedom.

“The eye is crying, because the child is very excited — feeling all the motions you feel when you have to integrate into a new way of living,” says Villegas.

Villegas, herself, is currently developing her blog and Web page and anxiously awaits her trip to Washington.

 RELATED: An immigrant turns memories into art – and a fundraiser for the American Latino Museum

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