The mural started to take shape in mid-November, swirling across the face of the Santa Fe County Human Resources building on West Alameda Street. It’s a scene depicting Spanish colonial New Mexico, with figures tilling soil and chopping wood beside a sweeping Southwestern vista. Looming large over the pastoral tableau, a man on horseback points a sword at a seated figure on the ground before him. The character holds a cross in one hand.

Not long after the public art project began, local artist Chris McLean contacted his friend Nina Elder. "He called me on the phone and said, 'I live really close to this mural that's going up. I find it deeply offensive, and I don't know what to do,'" said Elder. Elder, an Albuquerque artist, is currently enjoying a residency in Oregon, but her previous work in Santa Fe as an activist and arts organizer helped guide her next steps. "I said, 'Well, I think getting the public involved would be the best way to go,'" she says. "We knew that as a couple of white people, it might not be our place to cry out against it. My goal was to get our Native friends involved and get their voices in the front of the conversation."

On Nov. 26, Elder posted an image and description of the partly completed mural on Facebook. "We have seen enough of this imagery," she wrote. "We need to stop glorifying this narrative. How can we confront this inappropriate painting in a very public place?" The community response was swift and diverse. Some online respondents called for a halt to the project, while others protested against censoring the work and hiding New Mexico's history. In the comments thread, Elder posted a statement she received from Mayor Javier Gonzales on the issue. "It does seem in an era where we are seeking healing that the mural would depict harmony," he wrote.

As the comments stacked up, details about the mural came to light. It's part of a series of public art projects organized by Santa Fe County Teen Court, which pairs up local artists with first-time teen offenders to complete community service hours by beautifying public spaces. The artist who designed the controversial image is Glen T Strock, head pastor of the Pecos Valley Cowboy Church.

The mural is not meant to show a conquistador, as Elder and several online commenters originally assumed. It recounts a story of Tomás Vélez Cachupín, the Spanish colonial governor of New Mexico in the mid-1700s. After a battle between the Spanish settlers and the Comanche, a Native boy brought a cross made of reeds to Cachupín as a plea for mercy. The governor accepted the offering and spared most of the battle's survivors, kicking off a period of relative stability in the region.

Strock told Albuquerque news outlet KRQE that the image is meant as a tribute to Cachupín as a "man of peace." It's a debatable reading of a historical moment that took place after a bloody conflict with numerous Comanche casualties. When the mural was vandalized on Dec. 2, KRQE returned to the scene and captured Strock defending the piece from county officials who sought to remove the figure on horseback. "This guy's a hero, you know?" he told them. "This is a beautiful story of courage."

Community members have varied perspectives on the mural. Local artist and educator Cristina González, founding chair of the visual arts department at the New Mexico School for the Arts, says that cultural dominance is woven into the very structure of the image. "The whole visual construction of the painting reinforces a Eurocentric model … in a very particular painting tradition," she says, pointing out the grandiose size and position of Cachupín relative to the Native boy. "Just from a purely formal analysis, that presents a problem. The public will read it in a certain way."

González just completed a six-year stint with NMSA, which is housed in the historic St. Francis Cathedral School building, and is now a full-time artist. "There are murals in the entryway [of the school] that tell the story of the reconquest," she says. "That's where I noticed it on a daily basis… the degree to which, in sometimes subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle ways, racism and colonialism are perpetuated by visual imagery."

Jason Martinez currently lives in Omaha, but caught wind of the mural controversy through Elder's Facebook post. He grew up in New Mexico, and descends from Spanish settlers who came here in the 18th century. "In this picture, I see the Spanish, I see the Mestizos, I see the Natives. I look at it as a whole and say, 'Yeah, that's who we are,'" Martinez tells SFR. "There's a lot of good and a lot of bad, but it is what it is. To deny yourself any part of that history is to deny yourself completely."

During his career in the US Military, Martinez spent time in Germany. He says seeing World War II-era public art there helped him understand the importance of keeping dark histories visible. "Once you erase what the whole story is, you're erasing the whole story itself," he says. "You might be doing it for the sake of protecting people, but you're actually leading people down that road to forget it. You sterilize it, and desensitize people to it."

As the debate rages, Teen Court Program Manager Jennifer Romero has been focusing on moving the debate from the mile-a-minute digital sphere and into the real world. She says the project didn't receive the vetting it should have, partly because they wanted to move forward on the first phase of the mural before winter set in. "I think a big misconception that people had was that [the mural] is going to go up, and that's just how it is," she says. "That's not how we work. We need and invite community input." This is the 12th mural in the program since its founding in 2009, and Romero says participating artists have shifted imagery before based on community input.

The county held a public meeting at the Santa Fe Art Institute on Dec. 5, with Strock in attendance. Now they're turning to the teens in the program to help change the imagery, a process that Romero hopes can be "fast-tracked." She plans to hold another meeting at SFAI when new sketches for the mural have been completed.

A few days after the gathering, Strock responded by email to SFR's request for comment. "In the wake of our lively discussion … I have committed much serious consideration to everyone's concerns, while fending off blows," he wrote. "The passions run deep and I am grateful that the work has opened this door of creative dialogue. There is so much pain in our community."

Meanwhile, other local creatives are seeking to broaden the discussion. Artist Israel Francisco Haros Lopez posted a link to his GoFundMe campaign for community mural projects in the comments thread of Elder's post. "There are so many walls in this town that have depictions of similar images," he wrote SFR in a Facebook message. "All the while this conversation is happening, we are finishing one mural and starting on another. [We are] getting more queer, more Native, more Chicano, more people on board to work on walls. So I figure it's a perfect opportunity to heal, to create alternatives and not to get stuck."