OJO CALIENTE — Every time Luis Peña Sr. drove by a massive mural of the Virgin Mary on the side of the highway in this small Northern New Mexico community, he would take off his hat and make the sign of the cross.
But now, Peña, 62, said he can’t bring himself to show the same level of respect to the mural of the Virgin Mary — known locally as la Virgen de Guadalupe — after a vandal or vandals desecrated it by painting over her face and praying hands.
“Ahora es un relaje persignarme a una marranada que hicieron ahí,” he said Friday in Spanish, which, loosely translated, means that it is embarrassing right now to make the sign of the cross at the filth that was left behind.
Residents of this close-knit and devoutly Catholic town are outraged and struggling to understand why the mural of the Virgin Mary was vandalized not once but twice this year.
The mural on an old dance hall was first vandalized in January, prompting the community to come together in February to repaint it. But sometime between Sunday night and Monday morning, it was defaced again.
“When it happened the first time in January, it was such an upsetting experience, and then to have it done again within six months is even more upsetting,” said Bridget Trujillo, part-owner of Oliver’s Country Store next door.
“It’s really affected the community,” Trujillo added. “People are just upset. They feel that not only has the mural been violated but, personally, they have been violated.”
Mario Campos, 23, said the mural has been around as long as he can remember. He called the vandalism “very disrespectful.”
“There’s no reason to do it,” he said. “It’s very wrong.”
It was actually vandalism that gave birth to the mural.
About 15 years ago, a high school student spray-painted a marijuana leaf on the side of the building where the defaced mural now stands.
“The owners of the store were looking to press charges,” said Luis Peña Jr., 41, who grew up in the neighboring town of Servilleta.
“At the same time, I was working with another community activist, and he had acquired a grant for community engagement,” he said. “He reached out to me, asking if I would be interested in doing a mural at the same time this young man got in trouble, so fate kind of put the opportunity in my path.”
Peña, who was teaching art classes in La Madera at the time, said he put the young man, a distant relative of his, and a group of his friends through a “boot camp art school.”
“We started the process of mapping out dimensions of the wall, learning about ratios and color theory,” he said.
While a lot of effort went into the preparation, he said he made the mural intentionally simple — “like a coloring book.”
“The intent wasn’t that we execute something that was technical but that we execute something with the full involvement of the community and especially people who don’t consider themselves artists,” Peña said. “That’s the secret weapon, engaging people and showing them that they do have skills that they don’t think they possess by giving them an opportunity to do stuff like that.”
In a perfect world, he said, an art project created by people in the community creates ownership.
“Those kids, they loved that mural,” he said.
The mural has turned into a shrine of sorts with memorial crosses hanging on the wall for two of the original painters, brothers Adolfo and Robert Chavez.
“They both passed away about a year apart, and it was hard on the family and it was hard on the community when they passed away,” the younger Peña said.
At the foot of the mural is a descanso for James Jimmy Fissel, who was found dead on the property, he said.
Peña Jr. said the mural “is not a mural anymore. It’s a shrine. It’s been blessed twice. We’ve done multiple pilgrimages to it.”
While some people have blamed area youth for the vandalism, Peña Jr. suspects an adult and an accomplice or accomplices are responsible. The first time the mural was vandalized, he said, “they used a roller and an extension and had gray paint poured into the tray.” The second time, he said, “it looks like they used some pressurized way to get the paint out.”
“Most kids would just use spray paint,” he said.
“Everyone keeps saying, ‘It’s the fault of the parents. The kids these days have no respect,’ ” he added. “But the kids from the Ojo Caliente area are very, very respectful. We have our issues just like anybody else, but it’s my opinion that the kids from the area are the ones who initiated the mural in the first place.”
The younger Peña called the damage to the mural an overt attack on women.
“The first time it happened, it was the day of the Women’s March, so someone is sending a clear message that they don’t really appreciate the Catholic faith, and they definitely have something against women. It’s unfortunate that the community has focused their anger toward young people. I think it’s misplaced.”
The elder Peña said he has his suspicions about who is responsible for the vandalism.
“I think I know who’s doing it, but I can’t prove it,” he said. “But I’ll get him. I’ll get that [expletive].”
The younger Peña said he has every intention of repainting the mural.
“Unfortunately, I actually saw this coming just based on the nature of the first defacement, so I bought additional pigments,” he said. “I saw it for what it was the first time. It was a message.”
While some people want to put up surveillance cameras and additional lighting, as well as install an anti-graffiti coat over the mural after it is repainted, the younger Peña said he’s somewhat conflicted.
“Yeah, I guess prevention is a good measure to take,” he said. “But that doesn’t change the intent of the person that’s out there. You build a better mousetrap and the mouse just gets smarter, and I really don’t want to start playing the game. I would much rather just show that if you deface it a hundred times, we’re going to fix it a hundred times.”
Follow Daniel J. Chacón on Twitter @danieljchacon.