By Taryn Fivek
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 U.S. 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.
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.”
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.
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?