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The Toxic Legacy of Racism and Nuclear Waste Is Very Much Still With Us in Los Alamos

A company town where the business is nuclear weapons.

New Mexico — The air is crisp, cool and fresh. The sun is warm, but not too much. Residents picnic at a pond complete with cruising swans and ducks. The vistas of the Jemez Mountains and the mesas of the Pajarito Plateau are breathtaking. Flowers are in bloom. Everything is green. The historical structures are quaint and rustic, ranch-style houses made of wood and corrugated tin. The city is quiet and peaceful, a perfect slice of small-town America. It’s difficult at times to remember that this is the part of the world where the nuclear bomb was invented. It’s hard to picture the hundreds of thousands who died in Hiroshima and Nagasaki while standing in this environment, filling your lungs with fresh air; difficult to imagine the sounds of the celebrations that ensued after receiving the news via telegram from Truman while you listen to the wind rustle through the trees. No one could hear the screams of burning children halfway across the world from all the way up here.

Los Alamos is the definition of a boomtown, a town that was built in a hurry. After the site was selected in 1943, 8,900 acres of private land were condemned by the US government and its inhabitants evicted. The government got quite a deal on what would one day be the most valuable property it owned; it paid $225 per acre to the white landowners, while the Hispanic homesteaders received far less, some only $7 per acre, some not paid at all.

What Oppenheimer had estimated would be a city of only 100 people ballooned into 6,000 almost overnight. These scientists and soldiers needed help. They found it in the valleys below the “Hill,” from the nearby San Ildefonso and Santa Clara Pueblos, and from the nearby city of Española. When the first pioneers of nuclear holocaust arrived, they bused up Native American and Mexican men to build the structures and women to be maids, cooks and nannies, paying them about $3 an hour in today’s money.

The site of Los Alamos was chosen because there were few people nearby, though according to census numbers available at the time, tens of thousands of people already lived in the area. The majority of area history is about the Los Alamos Boy’s Ranch, a scout-like health resort for the sons of the wealthy, staffed by Harvard and Yale alumni. Census numbers for Pueblo people during that time are difficult to find. It’s difficult to find the numbers of people who came up to work from the Pueblos, from the nearby Spanish-speaking villages and cities. Rebecca Collinsworth, archivist for Los Alamos, tells me they’re probably buried in an archive in Washington D.C., and maybe even classified. As far as history tells it, Los Alamos was mainly built on a land without people for a people without land.

Much else is classified: the weapons of mass destruction being built nearby, the 10,800,000 cubic feet (enough to fill 1.4 million 55 gallon drums according to the Los Alamos Study Group) of radioactive waste stored in the ground, the theft of land and contamination of natural resources, the exploitation of local labor and the cancer rate. Forget the ghosts of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, shuffling by with mouths agape at this peaceful scene, witnessing children playing in the shadows of monuments honoring the architects of mass slaughter. You can see the ruins of a Tewa Pueblo from Oppenheimer’s back porch, hollowed out like the Genbaku Dome left standing as a skeletal memorial in Hiroshima. The only war memorial I could find in town honors the dead from the 9/11 attack on the Pentagon.

No one I interviewed for this dispatch agreed to be photographed. Some refused to allow me to record the interviews by audio. There’s a surface tension in this part of the Pajarito Plateau that is hard to navigate. The only man who was open about his opinions regarding Los Alamos was Ed Grothus, who once ran a military supply store called the Black Hole and preached against nuclear war from his nearby A-frame where he held “bomb unworshiping” ceremonies. Grothus died in 2009. His store and nearby church are now boarded up, empty and rotting. I thought about his words, which Mother Jones reported in 2003: “I don’t change their minds. They’re convinced. I just try to make them cognizant of what they do. If I weren’t here, there’d be nobody speaking out — nobody.”

In 2016, it feels like he’s right. Occasionally there are protests put on by people “from Santa Fe,” I’m told, not from around here. This is, as Jean Wilson calls it, “a company town.” She’s been here since the age of 7, when her father came up to run the meat commissary for the military. She does not agree to be recorded, though we speak for nearly an hour. She tells me about buses that brought up men and women from neighboring Pueblos and “Hispano” villages to work as laborers and maids. Wilson describes a caste system, with the elite scientists at the top earning their houses on “Bathtub Row” (named because they were the only dwellings with bathtubs) while the majority lived in substandard housing.

Wilson tells me no one really knew what was going on, except those at the top. Machinists made parts, physicists solved problems and the different components were assembled by a select few. People had an idea, however. When the Gadget was taken to the desert near Socorro, Wilson’s mother took her to Nebraska after hearing rumors that the atmosphere would catch fire. But her father wrote saying that the “cat screamed all night” after they left, code for the success of the first detonation of an atomic weapon on the planet, on July 16, 1945. It was called “Trinity” after Oppenheimer’s love for the poetry of John Donne and for his dead communist mistress who first introduced him to Donne’s work. The wives who had stayed in Los Alamos after the Gadget left for Southeast New Mexico stood on top of the nearby mountains to see the light of the explosion almost 200 miles away. Wilson tells me they drank heavily in those days.

There were celebrations and parties after the bombs ripped through Hiroshima and Nagasaki, blasting away hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians and sending a message to the Soviet Union, which, having defeated Hitler in Europe, had turned its attention to Japan in the East.

It remains a company town even after the war, Wilson says, telling me that the city isn’t too political, that it’s family oriented. She tells me the only real problems they have in this quiet, idyllic community are high rates of brain cancer, though scientists are quick to swat away the statistics of four-fold rates of thyroid cancer by insisting it’s too small of a sample size, saying perhaps other factors are responsible. Not necessarily the millions of barrels of nuclear waste nearby.

The other problem, Jean Wilson tells me, are the drugs being brought onto the Hill by those people from the valley. She’s probably not incorrect; in addition to high rates of poverty, communities such as Española and Chimayo have some of the highest rates of heroin use in the country. That they sit next to and service the most affluent city in New Mexico (and second most affluent in the United States) is no accident; here is a poor community that’s probably too busy fighting heroin and poverty to put up a fight about nuclear war.

I’m curious about this labor. It goes almost unmentioned in the history, outside of oral histories and a few pages in books such as John Hunner’s Inventing Los Alamos. There’s an exhibit at the Bradbury Museum of Science on “Voices of Project Y” which features a Santa Clara Pueblo woman named Dasheno Chavarria, who was paid around $4 an hour (in today’s money) to clean up after the scientists who were poisoning her ancestral land. She says, “I was disappointed to learn that making a bomb was what was being done in Los Alamos.”

Residents tell me the buses to take the women and men up the Hill would stop under the Pueblo’s famous cottonwood tree.

I drive to the San Ildefonso Pueblo and watch a VHS for the first time in years. It was produced in the late 1990s and is about the relationship between the San Ildefonso Pueblo and Los Alamos. “In our backyard, we have the capability of wiping out the entire planet,” says one of the members on the tape. Outside, thunder rumbles across the valley and rain starts to fall. The tape says the biggest threat to the Pueblo is the stormwater pushing “legacy waste” into the Rio Grande, where not just the Pueblo, but many millions downstream get their water.

“The tribes weren’t really fully aware of what was going on,” says Elmer Torres, former governor of the San Ildefonso Pueblo. I speak with him in the back of his shop where he sells jewelry and art to tourists driving past on NM-502. He is softspoken, hands folded on the table.

“Years before, it was very uneasy. Like I said, the trust wasn’t there.”

Torres says that in the early 1970s, officials started to bring up local tribal leaders to visit their ancestral sites and explain what was going on at the lab. “Just like any other high official they would bring in, congressional folks from Washington, they were treated the same. As a VIP.”

Does he think if that visit had happened before the Manhattan Project that the Pueblos and local communities would have allowed the Los Alamos Laboratory to proceed? Torres thinks so, but then again, “I think we had so many different players at that time. A lot of our tribal leaders or governors at that time were not as educated as we have now. I think they would have stepped up to the plate a little bit more. But back in those days, everything was handled through the Bureau of Indian Affairs.”

“Step up to the plate”?

He pauses, thinking. “They probably would have asked a lot more questions. And to see what was really going on, why they were going to be there, all that. And maybe, they probably would have said, We don’t want Los Alamos up there. But that’s in the past now.”

How does he think people in the San Ildefonso Pueblo reacted when they found out what was being built at Los Alamos?

“I think they were pretty shocked to hear what happened. But at the same time, they may have supported it, back in the early days.”

I told him that in my research, I read about celebrations taking place at the Pueblo to commemorate the success of the bomb.

“I think it was mainly for them [the scientists] as well, but I think for the Native Americans in this area, it was probably not, as one of those, you would say, a celebration…it was more a somber type, knowing something else happened.”

I ask Torres what he thinks is the biggest challenge facing the country today. He is immediate and firm in his response. His main concern is stewardship of the environment. “If you don’t have clean water, clean air and clean soil, there’s no way we’re going to survive.” I ask how the lab has contributed to the environment in the area, and he tells me he’s grateful that they are starting to teach the tribe how to conduct its own water, soil and air monitoring for contamination. The EPA has standards, he says, but there’s no way they can enforce everything.

Elmer Torres worked at the lab himself for many years. He says things are more diverse on the Hill now, and that management makes an effort by including tribal members in quarterly meetings and allows the San Ildefonso governor to request to visit their ancestral sites on the Hill. But the town is still in its own “little world” in many ways. He says some of their sacred sites had been vandalized by “young kids from Los Alamos,” so LANL put up barriers.

Does he feel welcome in Los Alamos?

“Some of the people up there don’t know about the Pueblos. That’s their livelihood. They go to the office, go to the lab and work, but if you ask them about the Pueblos they have no idea, they have no clue.” Torres tells me the Pueblo is only five miles away from Los Alamos as the crow flies.

Back in the day, he says no one thought there were people living in the area when they chose the site for Los Alamos. But surely the Bureau of Indian Affairs would have known.

“On the one hand, you’d trust the federal government to protect the Native Americans for something like that, but on the other hand they kind of let us down.”

Other Pueblo people are more open about how they are treated. One man told me that when he takes his family to the movie theater in Los Alamos, he gets looks from the residents that indicate to him he’s not welcome. A woman living on the Hill tells me her son wears his hair long in the traditional native style and gets the same stares, sometimes even disrespect.

Emma is friendly and says she judges people by their good energy. She is half Chicana and half Pueblo Indian, originally from Southern New Mexico, from Luna County, the fifth poorest in the state. She grew up thinking that people in Los Alamos were well-off because they got everything handed to them; though to be fair, Los Alamos is one of the most federally subsidized cities in the country. After living here since the 1970s, she has changed her mind. “It’s probably because we have very hard-working people. That’s what it really comes down to. You have to work hard, apply yourself and persevere.”

Emma married into a family of some of the first scientists to arrive in the 1940s. “Nothing was handed to them. They worked hard.”

“I’m sure they weren’t greeted with open arms, but after a while, they were. We’ve seen pictures of Pueblo families entertaining physicists. And vice versa. The governor of the San Ildefonso Pueblo would come up here and make bread.” She smiles broadly. “He made wonderful bread.”

“Throughout the years, the relationship that I’ve seen between the people and the Pueblos have been pretty, pretty good. They’re kind to each other.”

But others say when they come up to the Hill, they don’t feel altogether welcome. Does she think that’s true?

“I do. I do. Back then, I don’t know, I wasn’t here, but I think they had a pretty decent relationship with them. I know that some of the Pueblo people were up here. I know Louis Bradbury and his wife went to the Pueblo for feast days. But I think right now, there might be that.”

“It’s hard to explain because for many years, this perception about Los Alamos and the people up here is that they’re handed everything, they’ve got all these opportunities….and people who live down in the Española Area, the San Ildefonso and Santa Clara, and what is it — the Okeo Winge Pueblo in that area — they’re struggling a lot. And that’s from years and years of poverty. Not just ten, fifteen, twenty, it goes back generations and generations. And sometimes I think when they’re not given a hand up, they feel like they’re let down, left behind, oppressed.”

So she thinks it’s all about perceptions?

Emma pauses. “I think it’s a combination.” She says she was out with some special needs students she works with and was crossing the street with the right of way, when a woman rolled down her window to shout racial slurs at her. The children started to cry, not understanding. She brushed it off and told them to “just turn around and laugh.”

She relates another story in which she was waiting to be helped at a store and the clerk told her to step aside so she could help the two blonde boys behind her. She says this was two years ago.

Emma chuckles, shaking her head. “It does happen here.”

The Los Alamos National Laboratory was built with Pueblo and Spanish-speaking labor. Children were raised by Pueblo and Spanish-speaking women. The land being poisoned by nuclear waste is Pueblo land. The San Ildefonso hope to remain on their land forever, but the rich who work in the labs will retire elsewhere. Spanish-speaking homesteaders were evicted by the government when it came time to build a weapon that would wipe out a quarter-million Japanese people. Was this city built on the idea that some lives are worth more than others?

“Back then it was a different world,” Emma explains. “And I don’t think it was, ‘our lives matter more than their lives.'”

History tells a more complicated story.

To Emma, Los Alamos will always be around. Even though some of the scientists felt bad about what they were doing, she tells me, the government owned the bomb.

Los Alamos is indeed a microcosm of the US. Some people might feel bad about what’s going on, but individual conscience does not override that kind of policy. The history reads that it was a land without a people for a people without a land, those touched by brilliance to push the boundaries of human accomplishment, Prometheus-style. No matter that it was built with exploited labor; they are not included in the history anyway. No matter that it was done to kill hundreds of thousands of civilians; there is no memorial here for them.

Things will continue on in Los Alamos, no matter who is elected US president in November. The political roots run deeper than the surface justifications of security or scientific advancement. And like the rest of the United States, the lasting effects Los Alamos has had on the planet will be felt for millennia to come, if humanity outlasts the product of its labor for at least 24,100 years — the half-life of plutonium-239.

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