“They thought the world was coming to an end,” Genoveva Peralta Purcella explains.
On July 16, 1945, the first-ever nuclear bomb was tested in New Mexico, in the Southwestern United States. The detonation was code-named “Trinity.” It is the day that would seal the fate of many Americans living in the surrounding areas for generations to come.
Seventy miles from what became known as ground zero—the Trinity test site—Genoveva’s family lived on a ranch just outside the village of Capitan in New Mexico. Genoveva was born the year after the blast. Now 74 years old, she solemnly recalls how her family remembers the day that would change their lives forever.
Genoveva’s sisters had come to visit their father and pregnant mother at the ranch. At precisely 5:30 a.m., as dawn broke, the sky suddenly went pitch dark. Having no other point of reference, they mistook the abnormally loud roaring and rumbling in the sky for thunder. The entire house began to shake. Fear-stricken, the family huddled together in a corner.
When the sky cleared, her father stepped outside the house and found himself being showered with a white powder. The powder was everywhere and covered everything around them. Nothing escaped it, not the cows the family had raised, or the vegetables in the garden, or the rainwater they stored in the absence of running water. Like other families who went through this experience, Genoveva’s family also dusted off the powder and consumed their vegetables and the stored water.
The blast produced so much energy that it incinerated everything it touched and formed a fireball that rose to more than 12 kilometers into the atmosphere. The fireball created ash that snowed over the communities surrounding the blast site. The people did not know it then, but this ash that covered thousands of square miles was the radioactive fallout from the explosion.
Dread gripped the communities in Tularosa Basin who either witnessed or experienced the phenomenon they could not make sense of. Meanwhile, the immediate reaction of the staff of the Manhattan Project, which created the bomb, was of “surprise, joy, and relief.”
Paul Pino, Genoveva’s cousin, who was born nine years after the Trinity blast, says that his family, which lived 33 miles from the blast site, was one of many who were unaware of what had transpired on that day. In the days and months leading up to the blast, U.S. government officials did not notify anyone who lived in the region about the imminent nuclear bomb test. Nobody in the Tularosa Basin was evacuated to safety.
In the aftermath of the nuclear test, officials began to cement a false narrative into the consciousness of the nation; the region was remote and uninhabited. Tens of thousands of people, in fact, lived in the Tularosa Basin in 1945. For a long time, the people of the basin believed that the blast was an ammunition explosion. “We were lied to by the government,” said Pino.
It takes 24,000 years for half of the radioactive plutonium used in the Trinity bomb to decay. The people of the region have inhaled and ingested radioactive particles for 75 years because of environmental contamination. Those in power refuse to accept responsibility and take any corrective action. To this day, there have been no cleanup efforts.
Radiation exposure has caused high rates of aggressive cancers, thyroid disease, infant mortality, and other health abnormalities in generations of families in the Tularosa Basin region. The scale of the health impact cannot be determined accurately as long-term epidemiological studies have only been undertaken recently. The findings of the latest research studies by the National Cancer Institute were published in September 2020 in the journal Health Physics.
“There were 10 of us; now only one is surviving,” Genoveva says, speaking of herself. She has lost everyone in her family to cancer.
In a country without universal health care, debt from medical expenses has brought economic ruin to the communities near the Trinity site. “All the pain and suffering we have had to endure, and not a speck of help from the government,” Pino says. “Meanwhile, it has spent trillions on thousands of nuclear weapons.”
Genoveva’s story is not an exceptional one. It is the story of tens of thousands of families in the United States.
More than 1,000 nuclear bomb tests have been conducted in the U.S. between 1945 and 1992. A total of 100 above-ground tests were conducted at the Nevada test site from 1951 to 1962. The winds carried radioactive fallout for thousands of kilometers. Hundreds of millions of people living in the U.S. have been exposed to varying levels of radiation over the years, unknown to them.
New Mexico was downwind of the Nevada test site, and the people living there continued to be exposed to radioactivity for decades after the initial exposure during the Trinity nuclear test.
People from the impacted communities founded the Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium in 2005 to fight for justice for the survivors and their descendants. Tina Cordova, one of the group’s cofounders, was shocked to find out that a few of the impacted states neighboring New Mexico were receiving financial compensation under the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act since 1990. The communities in New Mexico, however, were left out of the act.
When asked why, Cordova responds with, “It is the billion-dollar question. I think we are being left out because we are mainly Mexican Hispanics, Natives, and Latinos. We are minorities and we are poor.”
Cordova herself is the fourth generation in her family to have cancer. She has joined with others like her to educate and organize the affected communities, to fight to establish the truth. “In their [the government’s] rush to bomb Japan, we were sacrificed in the process. We were enlisted in the service of our country, unknowing, unwilling, and remain uncompensated.”