The movie “Oppenheimer,” starring Cillian Murphy, features a line where the main character mentions that the proposed site for a secret atomic weapons lab in northern New Mexico only has a boys’ school and Indians performing burial rites. However, there were homesteaders living on that land. In 1942, the U.S. Army forced 32 Hispano families on the Pajarito Plateau to leave their homes and land within 48 hours, sometimes at gunpoint, in order to build the lab that would create the world’s first atomic bombs. This information comes from relatives of those who were removed and a former lab employee.
During this forced removal, homes were destroyed, livestock was shot or abandoned, and families received little to no compensation. Loyda Martinez, a computer scientist who worked at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) for 32 years, shared accounts from evicted ranching and farming families in the Espanola Valley. According to Martinez, the National Nuclear Security Administration acknowledged that Hispanic farmers were compensated at a significantly lower rate than white property owners. However, the agency claimed to be unaware of homes being destroyed and animals being killed or abandoned. The agency did not address whether the homesteaders were forcefully removed.
Loyda Martinez has spent many years advocating for the rights of the evicted homesteaders, as well as the rights of Hispano, Native, women, and other lab employees. She has successfully won two class action suits related to equal pay and treatment. Martinez believes that this dark episode in American history is often ignored because the homesteaders were Hispanic Americans.
The release of Christopher Nolan’s blockbuster film “Oppenheimer” has brought attention to the conflicted relationship between northern New Mexico and “the lab.” The lab, which is now the region’s largest employer with over 14,000 workers, has provided high wages for many local Hispanos, allowing them to afford homes, higher education, and maintain multigenerational lands in an area that is rich in land but poor in cash. Marcel Torres, whose family has lived in the Penasco area since the 1700s, worked in the lab’s most secretive sectors for 35 years. He believes that the lab valued its employees regardless of their race.
However, for others, the lab represents a legacy of death and dispossession. Loyda Martinez has lobbied for compensation for employees like her father, who died after being exposed to the toxic chemical element beryllium. In 2000, Congress acknowledged that radiation and other toxins had caused the deaths or illnesses of thousands of nuclear weapons workers. The Department of Labor established a compensation fund for those affected, but it took years for families to receive payment.
Myrriah Gomez, an assistant professor at the University of New Mexico, has a personal connection to the lab’s impact. Her great-grandparents were evicted from their ranch to make way for the lab, and her grandfather died of colon cancer after working on the Manhattan Project. Gomez believes that Oppenheimer had no qualms about displacing people from their homelands. Alisa Valdes, an author who has written a screenplay about Loyda Martinez, points out that scenes in the movie shot near Abiquiu, New Mexico, depict the lab in an empty landscape, reinforcing the U.S. government’s narrative that the area was uninhabited.
The lab was built on lands that were sacred to the local Tewa people. These lands were initially granted to Hispano settlers under Spanish colonial rule and later allotted to both Hispano and white homesteaders after the United States occupied the area following the Mexican-American War. In 2004, homesteader families won a $10 million compensation fund from the U.S. government.
Today, Los Alamos County, where the lab is located, is one of the wealthiest and most educated counties in the United States. In contrast, neighboring Rio Arriba County, which is 91% Hispanic and Native American, is one of the country’s poorest counties with low academic scores. Cristian Madrid-Estrada, the director of the regional homeless shelter in Espanola, Rio Arriba’s largest town, believes that economic development is concentrated in Los Alamos, leaving little for surrounding areas.
The lab claims that over 61% of employees hired since 2018 are from New Mexico, and most of its workforce lives outside Los Alamos County. They state that they are dedicated to the success of the region.
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