EDINBURG, TEXAS – Tributes have been pouring for Mark Peña, one of the Rio Grande Valley’a leading environmentalists.

The Edinburg-based real estate law and title insurance attorney passed away at the age of 57. He had been suffering from ALS, otherwise known as “Lou Gehrig’s Disease.”

Peña’s son, Gabriel, announced the news on Facebook.

“RIP to the strongest man I’ve ever known, Gabriel Peña said. “This morning, Dad stopped breathing and passed in his sleep. He had a very rapid and aggressive onset of ALS, ‘Lou Gehrig’s Disease’.”

Gabriel Peña added: “At 57 years young, it is entirely not fair. A brilliant light has been torn away from this world, but has left lasting impacts along with six amazing children. He made me the man I am today, and I will continue to make him proud. Love you Dad.”

Rio Grande Guardian columnist Gary Mounce and his wife Malena said of their good friend:

“Words are inadequate to express our personal loss at the passing of friend and neighbor, Mark Peña. We join the city of Edinburg and residents of South Texas in mourning the loss if this activist leader and dedicated environmentalist. Vaya con Dios.”

Mark Peña’s brother, former state Rep. Aaron Peña, posted a photo of a candle burning in the night on his Facebook page.

UT-Rio Grande Valley Vice President and former state Rep. Veronica Gonzales said of Mark Peña: “He was beloved by so many and will be deeply missed. Our prayers go out to the entire Pena family. We are all better for knowing Mark. RIP our friend.”

The Lower Rio Grande Valley Sierra Club posted this tribute on Facebook:

“It is with great sadness that we relay the loss of Mark Peña, long time Sierran, past chair of the Lower Rio Grande Valley Sierra Club and a founder of the Ciclistas Urbanos group which was formed to help popularize and advocate for cycling in the RGV. Mark was a wonderful environmental champion in the Rio Grande Valley, and a terrific inspiration for so many. Rest in Power, Mark.”

In her tribute, Monica Solis Peña, a member of the Greater McAllen Association of Realtors, said the world just got a little sadder. She said her brother-in-law was “always ready to say a joke to make us laugh and the speaker of truths to make us question and think about the world around us.”

She said Peña was “the lover of this earth and passionate protector of all humans, especially the less fortunate. An idealist whose laughter could fill an entire house.”

Peña’s work colleague Elva Jackson Garza said: “Mark was so genuine and passionate of the projects that he embraced. He truly wanted to make a difference not for himself but for future generations. He was a very important part of our Edwards Family and is already missed tremendously. Our thoughts and prayers are with Michelle, his children and his entire family.”

Ramiro Garza worked for many years with Peña, first as director of Edinburg Economic Development Corporation and later as Edinburg city manager. Garza said Peña will be dearly missed.

“In all the years I worked for the Edinburg EDC and the City of Edinburg, I had the privilege of working with Mark on many initiatives as he volunteered for several committees. Mark’s handprints are all throughout Edinburg as a long time advocate of environmental, healthy and green space initiatives,” Garza said.

“Whether it was advocating for Ebony Hills, the Cool cities campaign, adding bike lanes/trails or downtown revitalization, Mark was one of the strongest advocates in making Edinburg a healthy and vibrant community.”

Garza said that as part of the Edinburg environmental committee, Peña was behind efforts to push Edinburg to create a curbside recycling program citywide.

“He also helped Edinburg with the creation of a downtown master plan which advocated for Hidalgo County to build a new courthouse. He was a true professional who cared about his community and his tireless efforts made Edinburg better for it,” Garza said.

Environmentalist Betty Perez said Mark Peña was one of her favorite people in the world.

“I knew Mark through the Sierra Club and because he shared my passion for native plants. His home was surrounded by them. He told me that when he walked down his street, he noticed that he could hear so much more life (insects and birds) coming from the Peña yard, than he could from his neighbors more traditional lawns,” Perez said.

Valerie Ramirez, a friend of Peña’s, said: “COVID-19 and now this. What a shock. Mark was such an example of healthy living, positivity, and caring. What a blow. What a loss. My heart goes out to his family and friends from my family.”

Gayle C. King, a real estate broker, said: “I am so saddened the Valley lost this wonderful man. I met Mark through Edwards Abstract when I was setting up Falling Water at Bentsen Lakes, the first green initiative subdivision in the Valley. Mark was so supportive of my project and I continued to meet up with him and Michelle at other ‘green’ events. He was always enthusiastic about this planet and how we could make a difference and all the things he was involved in to move his ideas forward. My heart goes out to Michelle and his children, they were so blessed to have such a wonderful father and husband.”

Mark Peña

Peña was an active member of the Lower Rio Grande Valley Sierra Club and battled against the building of a border wall. He posted one photo of himself hugging a tree in the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, which was in danger of being split in two by a border wall.

Back in 2007, as local coordinator for Holy Spirit Peace and Justice/Pax Christi USA, a Catholic peace and justice organization, he told the Rio Grande Guardian:

“Christ calls each of us to love our neighbors as ourselves. The proposed border wall is hostile to this great call. Latin America and its peoples are our neighbors in the truest sense.”

Peña was also chairman of the Ebony Hills Ad Hoc committee, a group formed to stop the City of Edinburg from selling the 66-acre golf course. Peña believed the city could maintain the golf course and turn part of the land into a park.

“A lot of people go to San Antonio, and Austin and Houston so they can experience this urban vibe, well there is no reason we can’t have that here,” Peña told KGBT-TV in 2019.

“This is public owned property and it’s important that the citizens of Edinburg be a part of any decision that is made. We need to make sure the property serves the entire community.”

Peña was also a keen cyclist. He co-founded Ciclistas Urbanos, a Rio Grande Valley cycling organization dedicated to urban cycling. The group advocates for cycling infrastructure and amenities, and is focused on cultivating a culture of cycling in the Valley.

Peña also fought to ensure the Valley’s historic canal system was maintained, even as the region transitioned from an agricultural to an urban community.

Back in 2007 he helped organize the The McCANALenburg Community Bike Ride to support efforts to convert the canal system into a recreational hike and bike trail.

“The McCANALenburg Community Bike Ride is a great way to get out, exercise and enjoy our canal banks. Hopefully, one day soon, we will turn these canal banks into a hike and bike trail that will connect Edinburg, McAllen, Mission and Pharr,” Peña told the Rio Grande Guardian.

“It’s a win-win for everybody. The irrigation districts can still use the canals to serve the farms and cities. But the municipalities can also utilize them for their citizens for recreational use. They can keep the trails beautiful; keep them mowed and accessible.”

Peña said the neat thing about the canals was that they were right in the middle of neighborhoods.

“They are easily accessible. It’s beautiful because you’ve got the water; you see a lot of wildlife. I’m looking forward to the day that it is well-developed with signage and accessible for the disabled,” Peña said.

In 2008, Peña, as a member of the Cool Cities group, was warning against global warning.

“The debate among scientists and leaders is no longer whether global warming and climate change is real. The question now is how we are going to address this environmental challenge,” Peña told the Rio Grande Guardian.

He said ‘Cool Cities: Solving Global Warming One City at a Time’ was a positive, nationwide, grass-roots initiative through which citizens could participate at a local level to address global warming.

Peña said he is proud that his hometown city, Edinburg, was the first in the Valley to launch a Cool Cities initiative.

“Many of us in Edinburg are working hard to see that Edinburg also becomes the first Valley city to achieve Cool Cities status by signing onto the U.S. Mayors Climate Protection Agreement,” Peña told the Rio Grande Guardian.

Once Valley cities have achieved Cool Cities status they can begin taking real action to reduce energy waste and heat-trapping global warming pollution, Peña said. He said this could be achieved through “innovative energy solutions that cut our dependence on oil, benefit public health, and save taxpayer dollars.”

In 2011, the Rio Grande Guardian reported on Peña’s efforts to have an aesthetically pleasing new county courthouse built in Edinburg. Peña had served on Edinburg’s Beautification Committee and chaired the Edinburg Environmental Advisory Board.

Of one of the courthouse designs, Peña said: “To see this building that has been designed for the downtown, it reminds me of something you might find in a business park in the suburbs of Houston in the 1970s. It’s something that has no character at all. This is something that looks like it’s been built with Lego blocks.”

Peña said the new courthouse could not exist in a bubble.

“The courthouse is part of a larger community. Whatever happens downtown on the square is going to affect not just the square but Edinburg and the county. So, we want to make sure it is compatible with the vision that many of us want to see for Edinburg, in terms of a vibrant, pedestrian, oriented downtown,” Peña said.

“We want to get away from the auto-centric nature of downtown where we have a lot of paved over properties with parking lots that do not add to a pedestrian-oriented character.”

Editor’s Note: The Rio Grande Guardian will update this news article as and when more tributes come in. To add a tribute, please email: [email protected]. We will post the official obituary and funeral details as soon as they become available.