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Angel of Peace: Homies Unidos and the Art of Handgun Alchemy

Erick Moreno, aka Sen, left, with Melinda Isordia, Juan Cenizales, Alex Sanchez, Albert Sanchez and Athena Cuevas
Erick Moreno, aka Sen, left, with Melinda Isordia, Juan Cenizales, Alex Sanchez, Albert Sanchez and Athena Cuevas

"I could be kicking it in my projects right now," says Albert Sanchez, intermittently making eye contact and shoe-gazing on the patio at La Fonderie, a bronze and steel foundry on Glendale Boulevard in Silver Lake. "I live in Ramona Gardens projects in East L.A."

The 17-year-old with shaved head and mustache wears a giant black T-shirt with an iconic cholo tattoo art-inspired graphic depicting a woman's bifurcated face -- one side alive and seductive, the other an exposed skeletal death mask framed by roses formed from hundred-dollar bills. It is presumably a representation of the extremes of fast and hard street life in feminine form, but he might wear it just because it looks cool.

Albert is part of a group of young alchemists from Homies Unidos, a nonprofit gang-violence prevention and intervention organization, who are collaborating with the Violence Prevention Coalition of Los Angeles on the Angel of Peace project to turn metal from guns into art for peace.

"I'm trying to find out about it," says Albert, who is part of the organization's leadership program. "They do a lot of good stuff: help out the community, help out a lot of families. I'm trying to volunteer, help others."

As the group makes its way through La Fonderie, Homies Unidos executive director Alex Sanchez says, "We're learning something right here." Indeed, what the group sees is art-induced chaos, with big graffiti murals looking down on craftsmen laboring over half-rendered sculptures, seemingly oblivious to the cloud of dust their work stirs up and to the storm of sound created by the grinders, buffers and other tools.

Deep in the foundry's steamy entrails, 19-year-old Melinda Isordia's big brown eyes reflect a fiery caldron of molten metal from melted handguns cooking at 1,700 degrees Fahrenheit.

She's wearing a muted pink and lavender psychedelic-print wifebeater. Her lip is pierced and she sports a shoulder tattoo of a ghoulish Keane-waif anime rendering of woman-child with black eye sockets.

Isordia moves in closer as La Fonderie founder Danny Serfaty pours the white-hot liquid gun metal into molds, transforming firearms into angels to be presented as awards by the Violence Prevention Coalition.

 

"Being in this place is awesome because they have a bunch of murals and awesome graffiti everywhere," Melinda says. "I really, really like that. It makes me feel good and makes my community better."

Sanchez uses art to mold young minds. "We're exposing these youngsters to the experience of art," he says. "The project is melting down some confiscated guns from the Mother's Day buy-back."

LAPD's annual Mother's Day gun buy-back took more than 2,700 guns off the street this year.

For comparison, California law enforcement agencies last year recovered 32,673 guns that were submitted for tracing by federal authorities.

"Nearly 80 percent of L.A. County's murders every year are committed with a firearm," Violence Prevention Coalition director Kaile Shilling says. "Each of those [Mother's Day buy-back] guns potentially represents two lives saved -- the potential victim and the potential perpetrator."

The angel statues will be presented to Angel of Peace awardee Connie Rice and Community Angel awardee Ralphs Grocery at the Angel of Peace award luncheon on Sept. 28.

The Violence Prevention Coalition is a sort of hub for antiviolence groups working to brand violence as a public health issue. "We believe violence makes us sick, compromises community health and creates and exacerbates health inequities," Shilling says. "By seeing violence as a learned behavior, the Violence Prevention Coalition holds that alternatives to violence can also be learned."

Bringing in formerly gang-involved youth to create the angel makes the symbolism even more poignant.

"Nearly half the annual homicide victims in Los Angeles County are young people -- under 24 years old," Shilling continues.

"This is why engaging these kids matters, and what makes the Angel of Peace not your average award. The very material from which it's made and the process by which it's made both speak powerfully to the idea of preventing violence. These weapons were on our streets. They are being turned into something beautiful by young people at risk of violence, to honor and support those who are trying to stop violence."

Follow Sam Slovick on Twitter and see more of his work at SamSlovick.com.


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