San Jose activist pushes for mural honoring Gilroy shooting victim
Keyla Salazar was one of three victims of the Gilroy Garlic Festival mass shooting last year. Photo courtesy of Katiuska Pimentel Vargas.

Keyla Salazar had her whole life ahead of her when she was shot in the chest at the Gilroy Garlic Festival in 2019 just days before her 14th birthday.

Salazar loved creating art and cared deeply for the humans and animals in her life, according to her family. Almost 200 people from her San Jose community mourned her death at a public funeral mass last year.

Now, with the anniversary of the mass shooting approaching in July, Salazar’s aunt is gathering the community once again to honor Salazar’s memory with plans for a mural.

“Keyla really loved creating art and being able to express herself through art, and we as a family thought that would be a good way for the community to grieve together,” said Katiuska Pimentel Vargas.

Vargas is using her experience as an organizer and activist for immigrants’ rights to rally a group of volunteers to contribute to the mural. She’s lined up art supply donations and local artists and is now working on finding a location for the mural.

“My ideal location would be a community space,” Vargas said. “It would be cool maybe to have it be in a park where there’s kids because, you know, she was a child and she loved kids.”

Vargas emphasized community involvement in the project. She wants the public art display to both honor Salazar’s memory and bring the community together after they supported her family in the aftermath of the mass shooting.

“We want to have our space to allow ourselves to grieve (as a family), but we want it to be a community process,” Vargas said.

Last year, a gunman opened fire at the family-friendly festival killing three people, including Salazar, before he shot himself. Six-year-old Stephen Romero and 25-year-old Trevor Irby of New York were also killed. More than a dozen others were injured.

This year’s garlic festival was canceled due to the coronavirus.

Vargas, who also has an art background, is planning to work with local artists to design the mural with four main themes in mind. She wants the design to highlight Salazar’s perseverance, her generosity, her caring nature and her love of art.

“Keyla was an artist and she left us a lot of art pieces we’ve been displaying throughout the community,” Vargas said.

Vargas also mentioned the history of murals in San Jose as political activism. Although the 19-year-old Gilroy shooter left no manifesto, the FBI found ties to white supremacy on his social media.

“As an organizer, an advocate, an activist, it was one of – no, it was the hardest thing I’ve had to live through,” Vargas said.

She wants the mural to honor Salazar’s memory but also serve as a reminder that the Gilroy shooting was an act of racially fueled domestic terrorism.

Vargas, who works as a paralegal at the office of immigration attorney Richard Hobbs, came to the U.S. at 15 from Peru and moved in with her sister and two nieces, including Salazar, who became like her sister.

After the death of her niece, Vargas found it hard to stay inspired to create art but believes in the healing effect of the artistic process.

“I think art is really a vulnerable thing,” Vargas said. “The process of making art is a vulnerable process.”

The push to create a mural honoring Salazar comes as local artists transformed boarded-up businesses in downtown San Jose into murals supporting racial justice and the Black Lives Matter movement. Four out of 20 murals have been unveiled by Local Color SJ.

Vargas is contacting other activists and community members to find a location for the mural. She said she’s thankful for the positive community response to the project.

“It felt like Keyla was such a humble, intelligent, beautiful young woman that had her whole life ahead of her,” she said. “I’m glad she’s leaving behind some lessons but I’m also angry that she had to die this way.”

Contact Stella Lorence at [email protected] or follow on Twitter at @slorence3.

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