OBITUARY: Elena Peña Gallego

Elena Peña Gallego, 94, a long-time resident of Alpine, passed away peacefully in her sleep on March 8, 2023. Born in Fort Stockton, Texas, on August 18, 1928, to Martín Peña and Cecilia Paredes Peña, she was the third of four surviving children –– and the last of her generation.

Always precocious and driven, Elena left Fort Stockton at the age of 16 to attend Sul Ross State Teachers’ College in Alpine. At Sul Ross, she met a fellow student, Pete A. Gallego. The couple married on April 12, 1947. She was 18 years old. Their marriage lasted until Pete’s death on March 3, 2010 — just short of 53 years — and produced four children: María Imelda, María Rebecca, Pete III, and Robert.

To make ends meet prior to her marriage, Elena left Sul Ross to take a position as a teacher at the very rural school near Chinati Peak. Upon her marriage, she worked in the Gallego family restaurant, then known as the Green Café, while Pete continued college. Later, she became the first Mexican American bookkeeper/teller to be hired at First National Bank in Alpine. The racism of the time made her experience at the bank difficult, though she paved the road for many other Mexican Americans to follow. Thereafter, Elena accepted a position with the Texas Department of Human Services. This was her favorite job as she loved helping local and area people meet their basic needs.

Because of the local bank’s unwillingness to provide loans to most Mexican Americans, Pete and Elena had also become part of a core group of people who founded Our Lady of Peace Credit Union (now Alpine Community Credit Union). While Pete served as its president, Elena did the books, handled all of the financial transactions, took payments, and helped provide financial counseling and other services. She did so after her normal work hours and, for years, from her home’s dining room table. She excelled at making people feel comfortable, helping them establish credit, and working with them to find ways to pay for their children’s education.

Seeing many challenges, Elena and Pete also became active in local politics. In 1959, Pete became the first Mexican American elected to the Board of Trustees of the Alpine Independent School District, where he served five terms and 15 years. Elena was the campaign strategist. Throughout his career, she would be the one who researched potential courses of action and planned the next moves. She was Pete’s inspiration as he used his position on the school board to force desegregation and improve conditions for Mexican American students. Their restaurant became a hotbed of local political activity — and a required stopping place for statewide Democratic candidates campaigning in the West Texas area.

Elena pushed all of her children to go to college. They became the first Mexican American graduates of Alpine High School to become lawyers (Imelda and Pete) or medical doctors (Rebecca). However, with her marriage, family, work, and political activism, Elena never completed her degree from Sul Ross. It was ironic that the family member who most valued education and a college degree was the only family member without one. However, Sul Ross State University and the Board of Regents of the Texas State University System stepped in to remedy that. In December, 2019, in recognition of her many successes, Elena Peña Gallego was granted an honorary Bachelor of Arts degree, the first time in University and System history that such a degree had been awarded.

Elena is survived by her children, Imelda Gallego García, Rebecca Peña Gallego M.D., and former U.S. Congressman Pete P. Gallego and his spouse, María Elena Ramón; her grandchildren, Imelda García, María Elena García, Briana García and her spouse, Tori Sandovál, Cristina Shalanta Gallego, and Nicolás Miguel Ramón Gallego; and her great-granddaughter, Sonia García; as well as numerous nieces, nephews, and cousins. 

She was preceded in death by her husband, Pete A. Gallego; son Robert Peña Gallego; parents Martín and Cecilia Paredes Peña; her sisters Mary Peña Sotelo and Irene Peña Villarreal; and her brother, Pete Paredes Peña.

Visitation will begin at 5 p.m. on Wednesday, March 15, at Our Lady of Peace Catholic Church, with a Rosary service to be held at 7 p.m. A funeral Mass will be held on Thursday morning, March 16, at 10 a.m. at Our Lady of Peace Catholic Church. Burial will follow at Holy Angels Cemetery. 

Pallbearers will be Elena Gallego’s grandson, Nicolás Miguel Ramón Gallego; her nephews, Peter Villarreal and Edward Villarreal; her grandnephew Frank Lunsford; and Danny Saenz, Joe Daniel Valenzuela, and Wesley Duncan.

Honorary pallbearers will be Elena Gallego’s caregiver, Tori Sandovál; her grandchildren Imelda García, María Elena García and Briana García; Rowena Gallego, Elva Torres, Elidia Polanco, and Dr. Jimmy Case.

In lieu of flowers, the family asks that you consider making a contribution to the Pete A. Gallego and Elena Peña Gallego Memorial Scholarship Fund at Sul Ross State University, the Center for Big Bend Studies at Sul Ross, The American Cancer Society, or the charity of your choice.

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Services have been entrusted to Alpine Memorial Funeral Home in Alpine, Texas.