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Art Classes Brought Personal Renaissance to STC Student

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Cesar Lira graduated in May with an associate degree in Visual Arts from South Texas College and was named a finalist in the National Veterans Creative Arts Competition. STC Image
Cesar Lira graduated in May with an associate degree in Visual Arts from South Texas College and was named a finalist in the National Veterans Creative Arts Competition. STC Image

Texas Border Business

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By Clarissa Martinez

McALLEN, Texas – What started as rehabilitative therapy to help ease his chronic pain turned into a personal renaissance for South Texas College alumnus Cesar Lira. 

Lira said he joined the U.S. Navy right after graduating from Harlingen High School in 1987 and 36 years later was awarded his associate degree in Visual Arts at the STC spring 2023 Commencement Ceremonies. But, earning this degree was an unexpected journey. 

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Lira suffers from both chronic back pain from an injury and a traumatic brain injury from his time in the Navy. He said he has been through five surgeries for his back with another scheduled for this summer. Because of his injury, Lira had to leave his job as a repair technician for commercial cooking equipment in 2016. 

“I went from working 14 hours a day and traveling from Rio Grande City to Brownsville to not being able to do anything,” Lira said. “It was very physical work and I loved how hands-on it was. To go from being the provider to being dependent on everybody else was so hard at the beginning. You realize that your life is not going to be the same anymore.” 

Lira began meeting with a psychologist at the Veterans Affairs (VA) Clinic for his chronic pain and as a way to cope with anxiety. During a session, the psychologist asked if Lira had any hobbies. He told her he drew. 

“As a kid, I would do a little bit of artwork and she asked me what I thought about going back to school for art,” he said. “I told her it had been such a long time since I’ve been in school, but she said it would help me therapeutically.” 

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Lira took the leap and submitted his vocational rehab paperwork through the VA and began attending STC in 2020 to study Visual Arts. 

“To me, it has been a gift from God because the VA pays for my classes, my books and my art supplies,” Lira said. “For example, I was having a hard time doing homework on my kitchen table because of my back and they sent me a special desk. I’m so blessed. It has been a rough ride, but at the same time, it’s been an exciting challenge for me.” 

While at STC Lira has made paintings of his late sister-in-law who passed away from cancer, has captured local wildlife like hummingbirds and images of fellow veterans. He said he fell in love with the style of dot art because the art making process has helped relieve his pain and anxiety. 

“I’ve been very active with my artwork to the point where I forget about everything else,” Lira said. “I’ll be in pain or in a full-blown anxiety attack and then I’ll grab my drawing pad and just start going in.” 

Lira’s art pieces began being accepted into exhibits on campus and his VA therapist also noticed the quality of his work and encouraged him to enter the National Veterans Creative Arts Competition. Lira said he remembers waiting for a digital media class at STC to start when the call about earning a spot at nationals came in. 

“I’m sitting outside of class, and that day I was having a real bad day,” Lira said. “I was in pain and had a migraine. Then, I get that phone call saying, ‘Congratulations, you won regionals in both drawing and carving and you’re going to nationals.’ I couldn’t believe it. I called my wife right away and told her, ‘We made it to nationals!”’ 

Lira reflected on moments when art had unexpectedly appeared in his life. He designed and painted his Navy company flag and also painted a mural and backdrop for San Juan Diego Catholic Church in McAllen. Most recently he had a drawing displayed at a gallery in Austin called “Brotherhood.” 

“There’s an artist from Italy who’s doing a war memorial where the 36th Texas Army Infantry landed during World War II to liberate that town in Italy,” Lira said. “So the artist wanted Texas veterans and Texas students to submit artwork.” 

“I suppose I’ve always been called to art,” he said. “It’s been a good ride.” 

Lira graduated with a 3.54 GPA and said he was surprised to learn he had received an honors cord for his academic achievement. He was also surprised to be offered a spot in the National Society of Leadership and Success honor society. 

“I think it shows that if you put your heart and mind to it, you can accomplish what you want,” Lira said. “There’s been a lot of challenges because the pain is always with me, it’s 24/7, but I’m walking, I’m alive. I also have a grandbaby now, so I have to be okay for him and what the future brings.” 

Lira was awarded Best of Show at the college’s end of the semester art exhibit, a rewarding final experience of his time at STC. Lira said he’s still amazed at where STC has led him and hopes to continue his journey with art as long as he can.  

“Give it your best, your 110%, every single day,” Lira said. “Don’t be afraid to try to accomplish a dream. If somebody like me can come through this journey with the GPA I have, anyone can do it. It’s a matter of putting your mind to it.” 

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