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El Salvador man immobilized by gang violence featured on PBS for his fine art

At home in El Salvador, a gang attacked me and my friends. They killed three of my best friends that day. In the shooting, a bullet struck made my legs, putting me in a wheelchair.

Melvin Gomez
Interview Subject
Melvin Gómez was the victim of a reprehensible act of violence in 2009, committed by gangs. Three of his best friends died and he was the only survivor. However, he received a bullet to his spine that caused paraplegia in the spinal cord. He lost the mobility of his legs.
Gómez has been interested in painting and sculpturing since he was a child. After his life was changed by the violent act, art was the only means that helped him overcome the struggle.
In 2017, he obtained a scholarship to study the international baccalaureate in Norway and later, a bachelor’s degree in the United States at Ringling College of Art and Design, Sarasota Florida.
He has had many economic and mobility complications, but he sought to overcome it and faced the barriers that life placed on him. He is currently sharing his knowledge with the children of his town through non-profit workshops while waiting for a job in Canada.
Background Information
El Salvador is a country that has many challenges to overcome. This includes improving security, since gangs still dominate some sectors. In addition, access to education must be improved since there is no equitable access along with problems such as low academic performance and school desertion, among others.
For many years, the country has been besieged by gangs and has been characterized by violence. Between 2004 and 2018, citizens suffered a wave of deaths similar to that of the civil war, with 70,948 people killed.
According to police statistics, young people between the ages of 18 and 26 are the sector most attacked by these criminal groups. However, El Salvador dropped off the list of the most dangerous countries in the world, and the murder rate dropped dramatically – from 52 to 18 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants – according to the Citizen Council for Public Security and Criminal Justice (CCSPJP) of Mexico.

SARASOTA, Florida — A brutal act of gang violence in 2009 left me immobile and in a wheelchair. I turned to art. Suddenly, I became aware of how fragile life is, and art served as my therapy and form of expression.

I began studying art in Norway and then, in 2021, won the highest scholarship honor at Ringling College of Art and Design in Florida. This year, I earned a feature on PBS.

Young man overcomes violence and poverty to pursue his dreams

I have experienced many difficult moments in my life but being a victim of violence changed things drastically. At home in El Salvador, a gang attacked me and my friends.

They killed three of my best friends that day. In the shooting, a bullet struck made my legs, putting me in a wheelchair. Though I struggled with difficulties after the shooting, the incident presented new opportunities for me to learn and know myself better.

I had always been curious about art. As a child, my mother always took me to church. I admired the altar and the sculptures. I felt an immense curiosity to understand that form of expression, which also provoked feelings in me I did not understand.

Later, I met my neighbor, who was an artist. I liked to watch him paint and attended his exhibitions. It made me want to learn. He told me he could teach me, and I took up his offer. One Sunday, while he rested, I took a notebook and began learning. That’s how I started to draw.

The desire to improve motivated me to continue. Growing up in El Salvador, we experienced economic limitations, but my mother pushed us to study. She served as a pillar, and I learned that a person’s financial limitations do not determine who you are or where you can go.

I made up my mind. In 2014, I went to Norway for three years for a high school study abroad program, thanks to the United World Colleges organization.

Art becomes deeply personal, goes beyond the violence

After the shooting, I never gave up, constantly looking for ways to move forward. I took advantage of being a proud Salvadoran.

In 2015, I participated in the Winter Games in Norway. I represented El Salvador and won a silver medal in Cross Country at 21 km. I even painted a mural for the Queen of Norway.

Today, many of my paintings carry personal meaning. Creating pieces of art such as my self-portrait or “Innocent,” in which a boy is shooting a horse, have deeply impacted me.

When I completed a series about angels, they symbolized freedom and questioning the afterlife. My art represents a compilation of experiences I have seen, have happened, or are inspired by people who lost their lives at an early age due to violence.

I do not seek to pay tribute to violence but rather go beyond it, and understand it is part of our reality.

Changing people’s lives with art, encouraging them to dream

Today, painting gives meaning to my daily life. In fact, it serves as a way of life. It makes me feel complete. I can express my emotions through art. As an artist, I also feel a responsibility to monitor my time, my emotions, the way I think, and how I interpret my world. I try to be sincere when painting the tragedy that happened to me or the sadness I see around me.

Being impacted by gang violence forced me to grow up at a very early age, and to see life realistically. It led me to understand everything is fleeting and fragile. I began feeling love, compassion, and a sense of humanity for others.

Now, I seek to replicate my passion and share it. Along the way, I met people who extended their hand to me – to help or to offer sincere advice. My art allows me to share what I receive. I want to make a difference in a country like El Salvador, so I return home regularly.

If possible, I would like my people to have the same opportunity I had. I want everyone to dare to dream. Great things can be achieved with art, including changing people’s lives.

All photos by Cecilia Fuentes

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Cecilia Fuentes is a Salvadoran journalist who has worked in various print and digital media there for more than three years. She is always looking for stories to tell the world and to give a voice to those who need it most.