Whether painting for the faithful or family and friends, Ana Maria Villegas' art has been a constant source of motivation. Now she hopes her paintings will help inspire thousands of people like her.

The Coral Springs housewife has won the 2013 Friends of the American Latino Museum Design Contest, which eventually would like to have the museum as part of the Smithsonian Institution. She got the news last month and is preparing to visit Washington, D.C., for a special unveiling event this summer. to present her work to the members of the Congress, who support the creation of the museum.

Her design will be used as part of a campaign to promote the proposed national museum honoring the contributions of American Latinos.

"I can't believe that I will be part of such a big and important project," said the artist from her Coral Springs home.


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The pastel-based design portrays the face of a Hispanic child, and each element in the drawing has a special meaning for the artist — like the feathers that represent the indigenous roots of many Hispanics, or the eagle in the eye that symbolizes American freedom.

"It's the innocence and excitement of a Latino child being immersed within a new culture, integrating Latino and American richness," said Villegas, 48. "And the crying eye represents the overwhelming feelings that immigrants may feel: both joy for new opportunities and sorrow of everything being left behind."

The Friends of the American Latino Museum is the nonprofit group that organized the design contest and runs the project's public relations campaign. The museum, which has been authorized by Congress but will require private funds to be built, has the support of public figures such as U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., Emilio Estefan and Eva Longoria.

"I think it is a wonderful project. As an artist, I am in love with museums and I believe it is now the turn of Latinos to be recognized for our talent and contributions to this country, as many other cultures have been recognized in the past," says Villegas, a housewife and mother of two who's been painting most of her life as a hobby.

Born in Mexico, Villegas studied chemical engineering and taught at a university in her native country before coming to the United States two decades ago following her husband, who was transferred to work here. Her father, Juan Antonio Ortiz, was a professional artist known in Mexico for his watercolor art.

"I've never studied art or taken a painting course, but I've been painting since I was a child," Villegas said.

Villegas calls her ability to paint a "gift from God," and she has returned the favor, donating pieces to churches throughout South Florida including Mary Help of Christians Catholic Church in Parkland and Saint Bartholomew in Miramar.

Last year, her daughter Gaby Villegas, a student at Florida International University in Miami, sent her an email about the Latino Museum design contest. Villegas, who has recovered from a bout with hepatitis that almost killed her last year, was ready to tackle exhibiting and selling her art.

These days, Villegas is developing her blog and Web page and anxiously awaits her trip to Washington.

"I'm extremely excited to be able to be a voice that calls with happiness to support our Latin community."

More information is available on the museum at americanlatinomuseum.org and on the artist at anamariavillegasart.blogspot.com.

yvaldez@elsentinel.com, 954-356-4560