I left in the pale pink of morning. Turning my back on that gorge and the smell of sage brush fresh with rain, I left the circle of blue mountains I had called home. I had forgotten how difficult it was to leave a place that felt like home. Amid the aridity, the alien landscape and eclectic people I met I had become rooted without fully realizing it. A long drive through the strawberry mesas dotted with piñon and juniper allowed for respite and reflection. Every moment I had to spare here in New Mexico had been spent on my feet, eagerly pursuing discoveries to be made in this ever-expansive land.
Through mountain passes and cow pastures, I searched for a pink ribbon tied to a speed limit sign. High on the continental divide trail beyond the reaches of cell service and the comforts of modern life, I found myself for the night. Nestled in Douglas Fir I set up my tent and wandered into the rolling meadows, the alpine forest luring me. Sheep and deer skeletons littered the trail I followed forged by loggers at one time or another. Past clay deposits the Pueblo used to plaster their homes, I walked along the spine of a river bed:
Hiking through the alpine grass
Dried Animal bones
Elk calling through misty pine
A little scared in my tent alone.
Coyote yips through underbrush
Rain puddles on my abode
Through mountain passes on horseback
Crow calls through aspen grove.
This was my second-to-last weekend in New Mexico, and Stacey and Lisa, my hosts, had invited me to ride horses on the trails around Hopewell Lake. The following day, we’d ride the mountain ridges through wood and montane pasture, on a path seldom taken save for those real Mexican cowboys who spent their summers in high solitude tending to roaming cattle herds. This was the essence of the American West in a well-insulated time capsule.
From the aspen-laden meadows to the stark red rocks of Moab, I traveled next, stopping in Denver to pick up an old friend. Whereas the New Mexican landscape had struck me, the strange orange Utah rocks were almost extra-terrestrial. In the encroaching heat of the morning, we headed to Canyonlands National Park. It was difficult to really absorb what we had been observing, an expense of crack red earth as far as the eye could seek. It was everything and nothing, and even after a few days this setting did not feel real. From Canyonlands to Arches National Park we traveled next, marveling at the strange formations masterfully sculpted by the wind.
On my last day in New Mexico I peered upon the Sandia Mountains and walked that same muddy path along the Rio Grande in Albuquerque. My eyes chased lizards fast as whirlwinds. Before leaving the city and returning to the East coast, I spent my last few hours at the National Hispanic Cultural Center, immersed in interpretations of New Mexico’s rich historical past and present, reluctant to leave this mystifying culture.
On July 16, 1945, a bright light burgeoning through the Jornada del Muerto desert and an impenetrable pillar of billowing smoke would abruptly transform our world, eternally. So began the nuclear age. Marking the world’s first successful detonation of a nuclear weapon, the explosion at Trinity Site would catalyze the imminent victory of the Allied parties in World War II. The explosion was the fruit of the Manhattan Project, a highly-secretive U.S. military project found in 1942 with the objective of creating the first nuclear weapons. With mounting fear that the Germany, who had recently prevailed in splitting a uranium atom and releasing its formidable energy, would succeed in harnessing nuclear energy to create weapons, the U.S. was swift in establishing the Manhattan Project. Managed by General Leslie R. Groves and physicist Robert Oppenheimer, this mysterious project was carried out in three covert locations across the United States: Oakridge, Tennessee, Hanford, Washington, and Los Alamos, New Mexico. Our historical accounts on the subject ring with names like Enrico Fermi, Robert Oppenheimer, Gen. Leslie Groves, Norris Bradbury – a handful of prominent individuals drafted to work on the project. But 600,000 other men and women worked on the Manhattan Project. What of their stories?
In New Mexico, Hispano and Pueblo workers from the Española valley were indispensable to building and maintaining the Atomic city. They laid the groundwork for Los Alamos, building roads, facilities, power lines and buildings, and later transported workers from the valley to the city on the Hill. They worked as health monitors, mail clerks, secretaries, truck drivers, servers, babysitters, janitors, contractors, electricians and even technicians. For everything the Manhattan Project and Los Alamos did for people in the valley, it all came at a steep and inequitable price for Los Alamos has a dark legacy that is sparsely alluded to in the literature. One of the most challenging aspects of this project has been reading, and reliving, the stories of individuals and communities who lived immediately downwind of atomic bomb test sites. In a final report for the National Park Service, and in a report that will be made publicly-available upon request to anybody, I cover these contributions and unintended consequences in more depth in people’s own words. I also explore common themes that emerged in peoples’ oral histories, such as the evacuation of the Pajarito Plateau homesteaders and the beginnings of the Manhattan Project, secrecy in Los Alamos, the impact of Los Alamos on the Española Valley today, contamination in the Pueblos, Navajo Uranium miners, people’s reflections on the bombs, and some recommendations to the park service in representing these stories. If you’d like a copy of this report or have any questions about the Manhattan Project in New Mexico, please don’t hesitate to send me an email.
The last interview I had carried out in Dixon brought me from MAPR to the present day. Despite the number of Hispano and Pueblo laborers working in Los Alamos, and despite an authentic sense of pride many felt for their contributions to the Manhattan Project, prejudice was an unfortunate reality many confronted throughout their involvement in the Manhattan Project and in their daily life in Los Alamos. While not all Hispano and Pueblo workers involved experienced prejudice, I found it to be a recurring theme in many of the oral histories I encountered. Most instances of discrimination I found to be racially based or tied to the level of one’s education. In exploring this topic, I had wondered whether this situation surrounding discrimination had improved with time, and I was dismayed to conclude that it hadn’t, this last interview being the “night cap” on my conclusion. The woman I interviewed, who shall remain nameless to protect her identity, had a husband working as a high-level chemist in Los Alamos until the early 2000’s. Despite his ingenuity and his enthusiasm for math and science, he was stifled by a glass ceiling. “It was very heartbreaking. Its like if, you know, you see a kid choking and you know how to give the Heimlich maneuver and someone gets right between you and says ‘you’re not going to’. It’s like, its attacking your spirit,” she recalled on this painful subject. More-than-qualified for certain directorial positions, others with less experience and fewer credentials would be promoted above him. Towards the end of his career when many of his peers retired, his projects would suddenly become defunded, forcing him to find his own funding. He attributed this to his Hispanic heritage. One of his supervisors had even told him, “Well you know, all you have to do is change your last name” to overcome these barriers constantly placed in front of him.
Under a near-full moon Lisa and I rode horses into the dark mesa the night before I left. I thought of those I had met along the way and the sun and the mountains upon me and around me, and all I had learned from this project, and I felt rich. Despite this fullness, I thought about this project and how it still feels incomplete. There are hundreds more stories needing to be told, people eager to be given a voice, families seeking recognition and compensation for their contributions to the Manhattan Project, whether willing or not. One could dedicate decades to this endeavor. I do plan on continuing this research next year once my studies have culminated, in one way or another.