Spreading Marvin’s Light

An alumnus who left the nonprofit world to create stained-glass art still gives back to his community—while responding to personal tragedy

During his tenure as the outreach and recruitment coordinator of a nonprofit organization in Somerville, Nelson Salazar frequently walked past a stained-glass shop on his lunch breaks.

“Everything about the artwork interested me,” says Salazar. He ended up taking a class at the shop; the owner gave him a starter kit and sold him some supplies so he could keep creating stained glass at home.

What started almost by accident has turned into an avocation marked by a portfolio with hundreds of artworks, a home studio where Salazar brings his artistic visions to life, community events where he showcases his work, and a continuous stream of fundraising efforts that support local nonprofits.

But this wasn’t the first time Salazar had turned something that caught his attention into a full-blown passion to pursue.

Having emigrated to the United States from El Salvador in 1980, Salazar, AG08 first made a living in the U.S. as a dishwasher. “Washing dishes made me interested in trying to learn other things in the kitchen,” he says. “Whenever I wasn’t busy, I would ask the cooks, ‘Do you need any help?’ Little by little I made my way to the food-preparation side of the kitchen.”

Eventually, he earned an associate degree through a culinary arts program at Bunker Hill Community College. He spent 10 years in the food industry and loved it, but, he says, he continued to feel a calling toward something else: “Feeding people is good, but I wasn’t doing much else to help people. There were a lot of Central Americans in the area at that time, and they needed help.”

Stained glass by Nelson Salazar

A stained glass artwork by Salazar

Salazar switched tracks and earned a degree from the College of Public and Community Service at UMass Boston. He went to work for a Boston-based nonprofit that served Central Americans, then for the City of Cambridge’s Human Services Department, and then for a Cambridge-based Latino youth program.

Wanting to contribute more to his own community in Somerville, Salazar became executive director of the Somerville-based immigrant advocacy group The Welcome Project. Setting out to strengthen the relationship between nearby Tufts and his organization, he sought ways to integrate the university into his organization’s work and that of other local nonprofits.

Through the collaborations he successfully established with individual Tufts faculty and campus organizations like Hillel and the Leonard Carmichael Society, he learned about the Neighborhood Fellows Program, a scholarship in the Department of Urban and Environmental Public Policy for individuals from underrepresented groups who have experience in the community service space. In 2006, he applied, became a fellow, and earned his master’s in public policy.

I don’t want to become a well-known artist.

I want to be known as a person who is giving back to the community. 

Nelson Salazar

Healing through Helping Others

Salazar continued working in nonprofit administration until 2019. That year, tragedy struck: Salazar’s 26-year-old son, Marvin, died.

Making the decision to leave the field he loved—and the families he served—was tough. However, it became difficult for him to work with those families. “I would visit them to encourage them to participate in the program I was working with,” Salazar says. “During my interviews with them, they would ask me, ‘Do you have any children?’ That was a little bit hard for me. I thought that doing stained-glass work might help me therapeutically.”

That’s when he turned to his art full time. He still frequently thinks about his work with local communities. “I miss the families,” he says. In reality, though, he hasn’t stopped working with them.

His shift to creating stained-glass art full time coincided with the pandemic. Salazar knew restaurants were particularly hard hit, many restaurant workers were undocumented immigrants, and immigrants without documents would have a hard time accessing pandemic-related relief programs and other benefits.

Stained glass of a bird by Nelson Salazar

Despite his new career producing stained glass like the kind shown here, Salazar doesn’t see himself as an artist. “I don’t want to become a well-known artist,” he says. “I want to be known as a person who is giving back to the community. What I’m doing now helps me heal, helps the community, and is a tribute to the memory of my son.”

“I decided to do a fundraiser,” he explains. “Every day for 24 days, starting December 1, 2020, I posted a photo of a piece of my work on Facebook, and I said that whoever was the first to donate would receive that piece.” He wasn’t expecting much of a response, but the fundraiser took off.

“It almost became a contest,” says Salazar. “People started saying, ‘It’s not fair! You’re not telling us when you’re going to post it!’” By the end of it, he raised thousands of dollars, all of which he donated to The Welcome Project.

He followed that up with similar undertakings. As a teenager, his son had participated in a youth employment and leadership program run by an environmental health nonprofit called Groundworks Somerville. Salazar made and sold a dozen lanterns, launching an informal initiative he calls Spreading Marvin’s Light and donating all of the proceeds to Groundworks Somerville. Soon after, a local nonprofit arts organization reached out to him, inviting him to showcase his work at their café; Salazar donated 30 percent of his sales to the organization in Marvin’s memory.

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