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Opinion: Painting the smiles of people we know, love and will never see again

A mural of Melissa Ortega, an 8-year-old victim of gun violence in Chicago, painted by artist Milton Coronado.
Milton Coronado
A mural of Melissa Ortega, an 8-year-old victim of gun violence in Chicago, painted by artist Milton Coronado.

Melissa Ortega, 8 years old and known for her smile, walked with her mother on West 26th Street in Chicago's Little Village neighborhood on a Saturday afternoon, Jan. 22, when shots rang out. Melissa Ortega was killed.

Vigils and memorials were held. Stories appeared. Within days, a 16-year-old — the alleged shooter — and a 27-year-old man, who was with him, were charged with murder. Prosecutors say it was a gang shooting and Melissa Ortega was killed in the crossfire. U.S. Rep. Jesús "Chuy" Garcia of Chicago said, "How many children must we lose before we change course?"

But within weeks, Melissa Ortega's killing got left behind in the accelerating crush of stories about COVID, inflation, and overseas conflicts.

Milton Coronado got to work on a mural.

"I knew I had to paint Melissa," the artist told us. "To remind us of who we lost. What we lost."

Coronado has painted many memorial murals in recent years, tributes to people killed by gun violence.

"Honestly, I've lost count," he told us. He paused then said, "Ten."

"We like to paint these murals near where the loss was, or near where the person lived," he says. "To keep them in our lives." His tribute to Melissa Ortega covers the side of a building three blocks from where the little girl was shot.

The first mural Coronado painted was of his father, Ramiro, who was shot and killed in Little Village when Milton was 21.

Artist Milton Coronado painted a mural of his father, Ramiro, who was also shot and killed in Chicago.
/ Milton Coronado
/
Milton Coronado
Artist Milton Coronado painted a mural of his father, Ramiro, who was also shot and killed in Chicago.

"When I painted Melissa," he told us, "I was giving honor and respect to her, and memorializing my dad, too."

The mural of Melissa Ortega shows a young girl with a shining smile, surrounded by fluffy clouds, bright flowers, red balloons, soft raindrops, and a rainbow below a bursting sun.

"I wanted to capture the purity, hope, joy, innocence, and creativity of a child," he said. And, in lettering like a child's, he painted a phrase from the bible. It translates from Spanish as: "The Kingdom of God belongs to those who are like these children."

"I like to paint living people too," Coronado told us. "But we turn on the news Monday morning, and it's in double-digits, all the people hurt and killed."

If Coronado were to try to memorialize every homicide victim in Chicago over the past 3 years, he would have to paint more than 2,000 murals. His art cannot restore life. But his paintings may help us keep people, and their hopes and smiles, alive in our hearts.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.