A Double-edged Sword & a Look to the Future

On a Monday afternoon in La Cocina, a New Mexican cafe nestled in the heart of Española always brimming with locals, I am discussing the impacts of Los Alamos’ existence on surrounding communities with Patricia Trujillo. Specializing in community mobilization and Chicana studies at Northern New Mexico College, Trujillo’s roots are deeply embedded in Española. Her grandmother even worked as a matron in Los Alamos in the very beginning of the Manhattan Project. She tells me that in the case of Española, one of the larger cities which lies at the base of the Pajarito Plateau east of Los Alamos, “it’s complicated” expresses the relationship between the two cities perfectly.

Northern New Mexicans took buses from the Española Valley to work in Los Alamos (Source: Santa Fe New Mexican)

The changes precipitated by the Manhattan Project on the Española Valley are undeniable. Before the inception of Los Alamos, the surrounding area had relied primarily on agriculture and subsistence production. Echoed in many of the oral histories I encountered was the notion of a lack of opportunity in the Española Valley before the Manhattan Project came along. Esther Vigil, who grew up in the Española Valley with her family and eventually worked in Los Alamos as a babysitter for several scientists, admits that “before the lab, there was no money, no education: one was destined to become a farmer or a farmer’s wife in Española”. Many families had no other option but to send their sons and fathers to find seasonal labor elsewhere. “I remember before the laboratory, there was nothing here. After the laboratory, now you can see in the community there are better homes, a lot of cars, televisions and all the things like that,” recalls Nick Salazar, a Manhattan Project veteran and former state representative. The creation of Los Alamos afforded a world of opportunity to those living in surrounding communities. Suddenly, people weren’t required to leave the state and their families behind for work. People were able to earn a living, send their children to better schools and acquire modern commodities that made life that much easier. In their oral histories, project veterans celebrated the ability to finally be able to afford a refrigerator, a telephone and a dependable car or truck to rely on instead of traveling by foot or on horseback.

Española, New Mexico, circa 1920’s (Source: Palace of the Governor Archives)

While the existence of Los Alamos continues to provide more lucrative employment opportunities for local people than they are able to secure elsewhere, these communities also have to live with legacy waste and contamination from the Manhattan Project. Moreover, while Los Alamos provides jobs to those in the Española Valley, communities surrounding Los Alamos experience few, if any, other benefits. In 2012, Los Alamos ranked sixth in the nation for having the highest wealth gap between neighboring counties, the average income in Los Alamos being more than double that of neighboring Rio Arriba County. In addition to formidable investment flooding into Los Alamos, the allure of a high-paying job and opportunities draws many gifted and highly capable individuals out of surrounding communities into Los Alamos, resulting in a domestic “brain drain” out of the Española Valley. It appears that the local benefits of such an institution in the present day are mixed.

Reflecting on this meeting with Trujillo, and the complex relationship between Los Alamos, Española, and surrounding communities, I came to realize that “it’s complicated” adequately describes almost everything I’ve encountered in relation to Los Alamos and the Manhattan Project. This is a sentiment that was often reflected by project veterans, whose oral histories attest to the social, economic and moral complexities that workers confronted daily, and continued to live with after the project had culminated. While we can marvel at the contributions of New Mexicans who built the city of Los Alamos in every sense of the word, we lament the steep price many paid in sickness, suffering, and death, often without their consent.

Rio Arriba County vs. tiny Los Alamos County [Source: World Atlas]

While we can acknowledge the momentous role the Manhattan Project assumed in putting an end to World War II, we fiercely decry the sacrifice of over 200,000 Japanese civilians that died as a result. It is simply impossible to characterize the Manhattan Project as being one thing or another. Too much happened. This was a time of extremes—a time of chaos, secrecy, fear, immense loss, immense hope, moral complexity and uncertainty. The Manhattan Project at once could mean a plethora of different things to a single person. Having immersed myself into the raw details and spectrum of emotions transmitted through people’s stories, for a long time I struggled to find a way to characterize the project. And while it feels incomplete, I believe we must settle on “it’s complicated,” for establishing the project as one thing or another could never do justice to diversity of Manhattan Project experiences.

We can look at “historical facts,” but without the stories of those who lived through events we are left hungry for more, with little knowledge of the human experience and an idea of what daily life would have been like. Oral histories provide us a window into the minds and hearts of those who’ve lived and experienced revolutionary events. Our mainstream histories are too often boiled down to a recapitulation of “facts,” black words swathed in objectivity confined to a page, bound to a book, and condemned to a shelf. But history is not objective, the human experience is colorful, emotional, conflicted, raw, complicated, curious, sometimes riddled with trauma and deceit and at others euphoric. Above all the human experience is personal and irreproducible: these stories are neither “correct” nor “incorrect”. Lavish in details and descriptions and riddled with emotions, their stories become relatable in our present space.

“Untold Stories of the Manhattan Project” strives to bring to light stories less told of local communities involved in the Manhattan Project here in New Mexico. By archiving existing oral histories and collecting new oral histories on the roles of Pueblo and Hispano communities in the project, we can generate a more accurate history on the Manhattan Project, an inclusive history that recognizes those who’ve been omitted from dominant historical narratives- and one that enriches our monochromatic historical perspective.

The stories collected through this project will serve to inform the interpretive exhibits at the Manhattan Project National Historical Park site in Los Alamos, which will feature not only these lesser-known stories of local Pueblo and Hispano communities, it will also feature photographs and voice clips from their oral histories. As an intern for the National Parks Conservation Association, I conducted this research in order to ensure that local voices and experiences are part of the narrative. The National Park Service, the federal agency responsible for managing U.S. national parks and many national monuments, will ultimately be responsible for using the database of oral histories I created to formulate the interpretive exhibits at the new Manhattan Project National Historical Park.

As I prepare to hand off my research to the National Park Service, I’ve come up with a handful of recommendations for NPS to take into consideration. Here I mention briefly only two of these, but am willing to provide a list of recommendations to anyone upon request. In order to better tell the whole story of the Manhattan Project and recognize the contributions and experiences of local communities properly, involving local communities in the creation of the interpretive exhibits in as many ways as possible will be critical. Helping communities build their own community-managed oral history archives related to Los Alamos is one avenue for community engagement. Extending the national park boundaries virtually, by creating an app-based Manhattan Project tour of Española Valley communities is another. Local people are eager to share their stories, and a virtual tour of their communities created by local people via stakeholder engagement meetings would not only provide visitors a first-hand experience of life in the communities surrounding Los Alamos, it would enable communities to highlight and share their most cherished stories.

There are still hundreds of stories out there. There is no denying that a significant amount of time has passed since the Manhattan Project concluded, and that many of those who worked on The Hill at that time have since passed. Those that remain, in their mid-80s to 100s, are difficult to track down, but some are still around. For those who have passed on, their stories still live through their children and grandchildren. These second-hand stories are still valuable, and should be collected while the children of those who worked on the Manhattan Project are still with us. In addition to collecting these second-hand stories, I believe it is important to collect stories on the downwinder experience, and those whose lives have been compromised as a result of the Manhattan Project. They deserve our respect and our recognition for all they have endured. While recognizing their stories could not even come close to compensating their invaluable losses, it is the right thing to do. To ignore their tribulations and keep their stories in the dark is to promote a deceitful version of history.

Los Alamos during MAPR (Source: Atomic Heritage Foundation)