Eight-year-old Melissa Ortega, known for her smile, was walking 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 commemorations 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 shootout and Melissa Ortega was killed in the crossfire. US Representative Jesús “Chuy” Garcia of Chicago said, “How many children do we have to lose before we change course?”
But within weeks, the murder of Melissa Ortega was left behind in the accelerating hubbub of stories about COVID, inflation and conflict abroad.
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’ve lost. What we’ve lost.”
Coronado has painted many memorial murals in recent years, tributes to those 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 took place, 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.
“When I painted Melissa,” he told us, “I was giving her honor and respect, and I was also commemorating my father.”
Melissa Ortega’s mural shows a young girl with a bright smile, surrounded by fluffy clouds, bright flowers, red balloons, soft raindrops and a rainbow under a bright sun.
“I wanted to capture the purity, hope, joy, innocence and creativity of a child,” he said. And, in letters like those of a child, he painted a phrase from the Bible. This translates from Spanish as: “The Kingdom of God belongs to those who are like these children.”
“I also like to paint living people,” Coronado told us. “But we turn on the news Monday morning, and it’s double digits, all people injured and killed.”
If Coronado tried to memorialize every homicide victim in Chicago over the past 3 years, he would have to paint over 2,000 murals. His art cannot return life. But his paintings can help us keep the people, their hopes and their smiles alive in our hearts.