EAST LOS ANGELES : Virgens Going Up Against Gang Wars

A contemporary depiction of the Virgen de Guadalupe, a respected symbol among Latinos, will adorn billboards for the next month in areas where gang turf wars have heated up.

The billboards will display a painting of the Virgen, in a brilliant-green veil and an expression of anguish, holding a slain gang member. The depiction is similar to Michelangelo's "Pieta," in which the Virgin Mary holds a slain Jesus in her lap.

The painting by artist George Yepes will go up on 10 billboards in the city, said Councilman Mike Hernandez, whose office helped raise $3,000 in donations for the reproduction and installation.

"This is not the little space in the corner that nobody sees. We're putting this up where the turf wars are going on," Hernandez said. "I think it's better than (a billboard for) a can of Coors."

The billboard project is part of an anti-gang effort by Gus Frias, who works with the county Department of Education's anti-gang program. Frias was awarded a six-month, $25,000 contract, funded by Hernandez's office, last year to coordinate efforts against gang violence in the city. He has had several leadership training meetings with gang members, trying to improve self-esteem and filming the sessions for a video.

Yepes painted the "Pieta" for St. Lucy's Catholic Church, where it was unveiled on the day of the Virgen's celebration on Dec. 17. Pastor Juan Santillan said then that the painting shows a connection between the Virgin Mother's sorrow at the loss of a young Latino and many mothers in the community who also lose their sons to gang violence.

The billboard project aims to show that sorrow to the gangs, in the hope that they will start thinking about the effects of their actions, said Bonnie Kingrey of Gannett Outdoor, a billboard company which, along with Patrick Media, is donating the billboards.

"I don't think any of us are naive enough to think that a billboard will stop this violence from happening, but combined with (Frias') program, it may make a difference," Kingrey said. "Everybody who sees (the painting), even if they're not Catholic or religious, just stares at it. There's something about it."

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