December 19, 2022
In Nuclear Nuevo México, Myrriah Gómez examines the experiences of Nuevomexicanas/os who have been impacted by the nuclear industrial complex, both the weapons industry and the commercial industry. Gómez argues that Los Alamos was created as a racist project that targeted poor and working-class Nuevomexicana/o farming families, along with their Pueblo neighbors, to create a nuclear empire. The resulting imperialism has left a legacy of disease and distress throughout New Mexico that continues today. Below read an excerpt from the book.
On June 20, 2008, my family and I gathered for my cousin Ricky’s funeral. Our large family occupied ten pews in Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe church in Pojoaque, New Mexico. Ricky—the second oldest of fifteen grandchildren—left behind a wife and two daughters. He was a lifelong employee at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, where he was a victim of at least one nuclear spill that exposed him to radiation. Afterward, he suffered multiple-organ failure over the course of ten years. We buried him exactly one month before his forty-second birthday. When he was dying, Ricky revealed to our family that after one exposure incident, he had walked into the Los Alamos grocery store after work. The grocery store was shut down and decontaminated after his passage, yet no one came to Ricky’s house, or our neighboring houses, to check on our potential exposure with Geiger counters after Ricky came home. His obituary says that he died from an “undisclosed illness,” and the cause of death on his death certificate reads “unknown,” but we know what killed Ricky: Los Alamos.
My cousin Ricky was not the first member of our family whose life was claimed by “the Lab,” as northern New Mexicans call it. On December 23, 1977, my family buried my paternal grandfather, Ramón Gómez Sr., eight years before I was born. My grandpa and three of his four brothers—Pedro Ramón, Tobias, and José Margarito—all worked in Los Alamos at various times. Those four brothers died of cancer. My grandpa cleaned the tools that were used on plutonium and uranium; he died of colon cancer at age seventy-three.1 Their sister, María Felisita (Feliz), never worked at the Lab; she lived to be ninety-two years old. Grandpa Gómez passed away three decades before his grandson Ricky. Both died because of their jobs at Los Alamos.
I grew up in El Rancho, New Mexico, a rural community in the Pojoaque Valley. El Rancho exists within the traditional homelands of the Tewaspeaking peoples of Po’woh’geh Owingeh, known more widely by its colonial name of San Ildefonso Pueblo. Every Sunday morning my family and I attended Catholic Mass inside the pueblo. Every Feast Day (January 23) we shared a meal at my grandmother’s house, and we attended visperas at the pueblo the evening before. It is an Indo-Hispano community by definition and in practice, and it is also a community overshadowed by the Los Alamos National Laboratory. The Lab has brought much pain to many residents of the Pojoaque Valley, including those who work(ed) on the Hill where the Lab is located.
In the 1940s military and scientific personnel chose the Pajarito Plateau to site Project Y (or Site Y) of the secret Manhattan Project, where scientists would develop the atomic bomb. My grandmother’s family and other Nuevomexicanas/os and Tewa people were forcibly dispossessed of their ranches and sacred land on the Pajarito Plateau with inequitable or no compensation. Beginning in the 1940s, Lab personnel directed Valley vecinos to bury contaminated everything in the Los Alamos canyon and nearby along the Rio Grande. The soil and the water that Nuevomexicanas/os once used to irrigate crops is now polluted with toxic chemicals and remnants of nuclear materials. Cancer, thyroid disease, and unexplained organ failure, among other illnesses, now plague our community.
Myrriah Gómez is a Nuevomexicana from the Pojoaque Valley. She is an assistant professor in the Honors College at the University of New Mexico.