Out of the blue haze, the desert revealed itself, desolate in its barrenness and aridity. Soon I saw the mountains dotted in sparse and thirsty trees. The plane lurched, burping and hiccuping with every simmering hot pocket of air below. We approached a land baked by the sun, and I was confused by the environs which were devoid of anything remotely resembling a city. Upon landing, Albuquerque shielded herself behind the mesa, her mysteries to be revealed once I set foot in this foreign land.
I was fortunate to be hosted by family friends my first couple nights in New Mexico. Almost immediately upon arrival, I dumped by exaggeratedly enormous suitcase in my room and set out under the afternoon sun towards the Rio Grande! Until this moment she had existed only in history books. Her tan banks, silvery with the movement of water, meandered slowly under the beating sun: slowly as all life moved here in this heat. I admired the caked adobe houses along the river valley, the strange birds with elongated beaks plucking invisible organisms out of the soft silt. I walked a lone footpath along the Rio Grande’s banks adorned with cottonwood trees and swainson peas, their crimson flowers wilting in the searing heat. I wandered like this in the bosque, the forest that grows beside the river, for several hours, crouching in the shade of a bush every once in a while to sip water out of my thermos.
Traces of once gushing tributaries were apparent all over, though the earth was parched. This year marks the seventh year of drought in New Mexico, and like the banks of the Rio Grande, all of New Mexico was thirsty. Water and New Mexico have a tumultuous relationship. In the Northern part of the state, Hispanic and Native American communities have traditionally depended on long-established irrigation systems fed my mountain streams. With burgeoning populations to the south in Albuquerque and Santa Fe, these communities in the north have watched their access to water whittle away as the state diverts it farther south to support urban populations. This has rendered agriculturally-based livelihoods exceedingly difficult, culminating in a multitude of conflicts between these communities and the state, which places the livelihoods of small northern communities on the periphery. One of the most well-known water conflicts occurred here, in Taos, my home for the next few months.
I head out towards Taos, eager to acquaint myself with the mysteries the landscape and the future hold. I hike up into the Sandia Mountains on my way out of Albuquerque, my eyes drawn in by a glinting light in the valley floor. I later find out this is a piece of metal remaining from a tragic 1963 plane crash. I walk along the rocky ledges beneath the alpine forest, breathless with excitement. I walk out to a rocky cabin under the guidance of a slow-moving savant I encounter on the trail.
From Sandia I forge my way to Bandelier National Monument, bordering Los Alamos, a place where I will likely spend a substantial amount of time throughout my internship. I walk along the watermelon and limestone mesa, jetting out from a brush-covered desert floor. I’ve never seen such an imposing place. I let myself wander and happen upon ancient cave duelings of local Pueblo tribes adorned with petroglyphs. Though no longer inhabited, Bandelier remains a sacred ceremonial site for the neighboring San Ildefonso Pueblo.
A deep scar across the mesa, the canyon to my right hosts the Rio Grande. The Sangre de Cristo mountains jet out of the horizon to my left. It is hard to explain how I felt at this moment coming up upon Taos. I was stupefied by the sheer size of what lay ahead of me, bewildered, overwhelmed and felt small. Small as compared to the vastness of the land, small and insignificant, ephemeral, human.
After several wrong turns, I finally located the unpaved path that would lead to my home here, listening to the gravel crunch beneath the wheels of my car. Lisa and Stacy live on a horse farm in a remote part of the country they’ve largely built themselves out of plaster and adobe over the last decade or so. The place is a dream, and I am very warmly greeted. Lisa shows me the tin work Stacy does and briefs me on the Native American activists lining the walls to my bedroom. Lisa is a teacher with experience in a variety of disciplines from math to anthropology, and Stacy hails from a successful tomato-caning company in Colorado and has spent an enormous amount of time living with Pueblo tribes and farming throughout New Mexico. Between the two of them there is an enormous wealth of knowledge about New Mexican culture and heritage. I stand outside overlooking the house, for miles I see but desert brush and mountains in every direction. The silence is deafening. It is difficult to believe that such a place truly exists.
I hop in Lisa’s car and we head into the infinity desert brush, taking a sharp right turn that sends us lurching into the canyon below. Chunks of volcanic rock line the canyon wall to my right, and on the left Lisa points out an eagle and a sun, petroglyphs left in the canyon walls from the natives who inhabited the area centuries ago. On our way out of the canyon, she points out hot springs, a stream stocked with trout, the adobe brick-maker’s home and a post office plopped in the middle of nothingness. The sun behind us paints the horizon a deep and violent red, and a soft yellow. Like my affinity for this rugged, lawless and enchanting place, the sky is on fire.
My purpose here in New Mexico is to document the impacts of the Manhattan Project on Pueblo tribes and Hispanic communities as well as their contributions to the project. Los Alamos is a place that evokes an extreme of emotions. This is the site where the nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, costing thousands of people their lives, were created.
The Manhattan Project and the fate of the communities surrounding Los Alamos have been intimately linked. Communities surrounding Los Alamos and the Manhattan Project site, such as the San Ildefonso Pueblo and Santa Clara, were sourced for labor in a variety of roles under the Manhattan Project. These indigenous and Hispanic populations worked in a variety of roles, including the provision of manual labor, toxic clean-up, janitorial work, culinary work, childcare and more. The involvement of such communities in the Manhattan Project to this day is rarely acknowledged. Existing testimony on the involvement of such communities have come mainly from the perspectives of Anglo scientists on the site, a biased and likely inadequate perspective. The purpose of this project is to document the “untold” stories of the Manhattan Project, the stories of Puebloan and Hispanic individuals involved from their own perspectives.
While we seek to understand the effects of such involvement on these communities, including the health implications associated with the project, we also desire to document their contributions to the project. This information will enable us to tell the whole story of the Manhattan Project in a way that recognizes the involvement of these communities, so as to better inform the Manhattan Project Cultural and Historical Park, the most recent addition to the national parks system.
Many of those recruited to work on the site were unaware of its dangers relating to radiation exposure. Workers, when instructed to dispose of some of the tools they used on site, did not comprehend the need to dispose of such functional tools, and often brought these contaminated tools back to their homes and communities. At the time of the Manhattan Project, scientists, technicians and laborers experienced crippling and often fatal illnesses, most notably cancers. These individuals were treated almost criminally for requesting their medical records from the site and were quick to be disposed of. Today, it is said that several of the communities downwind from the site are contaminated by radiation, harboring high rates of aggressive and “inexplicable” cancers.
There is, however, another side to this story. Many of those involved in the Manhattan Project were proud of their service and sacrifices. To these individuals, working on the Manhattan Project was the ultimate patriotism, for its significant achievement in leading to a favorable WWII outcome for the U.S.
The very nature of Pueblo tribes is secretive, which is understandable given a history of exploitation in New Mexico and the struggle to maintain their culture. Despite their reserved nature, there is a desire among Puebloans to share their experiences with the Manhattan Project. Sifting through museums archives and conducting interviews with impacted communities, I will document as much information about their involvement as possible, which has seldomly been recorded to date. The National Parks Conservation Association, under which I am incredibly fortunate to be interning, will provide this information to the National Parks Service to make their new park at Los Alamos both culturally and historically representative of those involved in the project. I must admit that as an outsider to these communities, it will likely be difficult to initially gain the trust of these communities, to encourage them to speak to me about their involvement. I get it, I would be the same way.