When Tina Cordova was growing up in Tularosa, her grandmother sometimes told a story about the day in 1945 when the military detonated the world’s first nuclear bomb just 45 miles northwest of her home. As the fallout rained down from the sky it covered everything in the house. She spent days dusting, but the ash kept falling, coating everything anew.
Others around Tularosa, a small town in southern New Mexico, also had stories about the Trinity test — how the mushroom cloud rose more than seven miles high and how for years after the blast people collected mysterious glassy green rocks from the crater left behind. Members of Cordova’s family recalled collecting the green shards as keepsakes, not knowing they were radioactive. It wasn’t until she left Tularosa for college that she began to see something sinister behind the anecdotes.
Cordova, now 62, studied biology and went on to study medicine, and she started to notice just how many people in her life were sick or dying. Both her grandmothers developed cancer, as did several aunts and uncles; in her early 20s, a close cousin developed a rare type of brain tumor — the list went on. Then, one day during a routine checkup, doctors detected cancer in Cordova’s thyroid gland and prescribed surgery to remove it; she was 39 years old. At first, her doctor seemed confused by the diagnosis — thyroid cancer is rare — and asked if she’d ever been exposed to high levels of radiation, a common cause of the disease.
Cordova knew where the radiation came from. She grew up in a town where radioactive fallout from the atomic bomb had contaminated the air, water, soil and vegetation, leading to illnesses and early deaths.
In 2005, Cordova and another Tularosa resident, Fred Tyler, founded the Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium, a group that has tried ever since to get benefits for thousands of New Mexicans harmed by the 1945 detonation. Downwinders in Nevada, Utah and Arizona have been able to receive federal compensation for the health problems they suffered after the nuclear detonations at the Nevada Test Site in the desert north of Las Vegas. But New Mexico downwinders never got a thing.
“At first, I thought, once the government knows about this, they’re going to come back and take care of us,” Cordova said. “But we were really naive.”
In the beginning, Cordova worked in tandem with Tyler, holding meetings in Alamogordo and other towns around the test site, collecting stories and health surveys, and pressing the government for compensation and health coverage. Tyler died in 2014, but Cordova pressed on, even as the losses mounted. A year earlier, her father had lost his battle with his second round of oral cancer.
Part of her father’s tongue had been removed and his tumors were so large that they burst through the skin of his neck. He told Cordova that his death wouldn’t matter to anyone in the government. Don’t waste so much of your time fighting, he said.
“I just told him that I would never quit,” she said. “This will be my life’s work.”
Today, New Mexico’s Trinity downwinders face a pivotal moment. Cordova, other activists and several lawmakers have been trying for more than a decade to amend the 1990 Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA) so that people affected by the Trinity blast can receive the same kind of health coverage and monetary damages that nearly 26,000 Nevada Test Site downwinders have gotten. The problem is this: although RECA was recently extended for an additional two years, it’s still set to expire in 2024.
Once that happens, Trinity downwinders will lose what has been the most practical avenue to win compensation. When RECA dies, their chance for success might, too.
Cordova and other group members regularly travel to Washington to meet with lawmakers. Each time, they tell their stories, recount the cancers endured and describe family members lost to illness; each time, their efforts to include New Mexicans have been rejected.
But Cordova refuses to fold. When the government started the nuclear program in New Mexico, “they expected us to be uneducated, unsophisticated and unable to stand up for ourselves,” she says. “We aren’t like that anymore.”
Health surveys a mission
On a recent gray winter afternoon, Cordova, now an Albuquerque resident, drives from her office to visit Theresa, a long-time friend in Corrales. Theresa opens the door to her home wearing a cloth cap to cover her hair loss from chemotherapy. Cordova greets her warmly and spends the next hour lending support, offering information and discussing Theresa’s health history. (She asked to only be identified by her first name because she has not shared her cancer diagnosis publicly.)
Cordova has done a version of this sit-down hundreds of times. She’s traveled the state, knocking on doors and holding meetings in communities surrounding the Trinity Site, in what is now the White Sands Missile Range. She estimates that she’s compiled over 1,000 health surveys, four-page documents that ask downwinders about the types of cancers and other diseases they’ve experienced and gives them a space to talk about the financial and emotional toll. In many of the surveys, the writers include firsthand accounts of the Trinity test or its aftermath.
Cordova started collecting the surveys to make sure these stories are preserved and ensure that the evidence of suffering isn’t lost. Today, they likely represent the most robust record of downwinder’s health histories, providing a wealth of information for researchers and advocates.
Downwinders call Cordova from all over the country, sometimes out of the blue, to talk about their concerns. She makes time for them all, holding interviews in person, on the phone and on Zoom. People talk about their health issues, but many also describe the financial ruin that their illness brings on their family.
“It’s part of a cycle of poverty that we get locked into,” says Cordova. She routinely hears stories about how exorbitant medical bills make it impossible to build generational wealth. “People tell me all the time: I’ll never be able to contribute to a child’s education; I’ll never be able to help my kids buy a house; I probably won’t even see my grandkids go to college.”
Stacked together, the surveys cover Cordova’s entire kitchen counter. Some stick to the basic questions. Others detail multi-generational accounts of cancer or have pages of heart-wrenching details about cancer treatments. One woman wrote about her aunt, pregnant during the blast, who said her daughter was born without eyes.
Recent studies have found that the Trinity test is likely to have caused excess cancers and that infant mortality spiked sharply in the years following the blast. As many as 1,000 cancers have occurred or will occur as a result of the bomb test, a 2020 study by the National Cancer Institute estimated. Cordova and others take issue with those results; they say the study was done without input from downwinders and, among other problems, failed to take into account the rural nature of the fallout zone.
There was no running water in those days: People drank rainwater from cisterns. For food, they relied on gardens, orchards, livestock and wild game — all irradiated after the detonation.
In 1945, more than 13,000 people lived within a 50-mile radius of the former ranchland that the military chose for the Trinity site. Scientists with the Manhattan Project ignored these largely Indigenous and Hispanic farming communities and described the area as remote and uninhabited.
The military never evacuated or warned anyone within range of the fallout, before the blast or for an extended period after. Radiation spread as far as 2,700 square miles downwind, a Manhattan Project scientist concluded.
But no research to date has truly captured the health impacts of the Trinity blast. That’s because the government never collected enough data to do a comprehensive study, said epidemiologist Charles Wiggins, director of the New Mexico Tumor Registry at the University of New Mexico Comprehensive Cancer Center. Scores of Trinity downwinders describe battling cancer and losing loved ones to the disease. But “there’s not really a way we’ll ever know what caused those cancers,” Wiggins said.
Many studies do exist, however, about atomic bomb survivors in Hiroshima and Nagasaki: These show a clear increase in cancers and harmful effects on pregnant women and their unborn children. Some 200,000 people in the two cities died by the end of 1945; thousands more would later contract leukemia or a variety of cancers or other illnesses. Children and teens exposed to the fallout were particularly at risk of developing thyroid cancer, research shows.
Cordova is determined to track these and other health issues among New Mexico’s downwinders. She has read every health survey and can summarize many of the contents from memory. Even after years of hearing the stories, they still trigger sadness and outrage.
Theresa, her friend, inspired just that reaction. Born in Socorro County just a few months after the Trinity test, Theresa said most of her 12 siblings died of cancer, and she herself was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer last year. A particularly aggressive form of cancer, it is often associated with radiation overexposure.
“When I think I’ve heard the worst, I hear something even worse than that,” Cordova says. “It’s terrible what people have endured.”
Savvy in many spheres
Cordova had always planned to become a doctor and open a family medical practice in Tularosa. She attended medical school at the University of New Mexico, but after going through a divorce had to drop out to get a job to care for her young son.
She worked as a waitress, eventually becoming the manager of several restaurants. And in 1990, with $5,000 worth of savings, she and her partner, Russ Steward, opened a roofing company in Albuquerque, Queston Roofing & Construction.
Cordova also spent decades championing causes that support women and minority-owned businesses. She’s worked on bills in the New Mexico Legislature and traveled to Washington for political events to support entrepreneurship.
Her varied experiences give her the scientific literacy and political acumen that make her the ideal candidate to lead the downwinders and keep their cause in front of New Mexico politicians, supporters say.
U.S. Senators Ben Ray Luján and Martin Heinrich have backed the group’s bills. Since taking office in 2021, Rep. Teresa Leger Fernández, a fellow Democrat, has taken up the mantle in the House, where she led the effort to pass the two-year RECA extension, signed into law in 2022.
Leger Fernández attributes the bill’s passage to the Tularosa Basin downwinders and their willingness to share what they’ve been through so openly.
“Every time they tell their story, they have to relive that trauma, but they do not walk away from that obligation and responsibility,” Leger Fernández said. “The first time I met with people from the Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium, by the time we got around the table everybody was crying. You can see the impact these stories have on people.”
Still, the newest version of the amendments — the ones that would give New Mexicans RECA coverage — faces an uphill battle in Congress this year. Though it has bipartisan support, Leger Fernández says there are still some holdouts: eight Republicans on the judiciary committee voted against the amendments in 2021. Lawmakers plan to introduce the new amendment bill sometime this month.
Even if the Trinity downwinders are successful with RECA, Cordova still worries about the legacy of the atomic blast in New Mexico. RECA only provides compensation for people exposed to radiation before the summer of 1962. And although there is no scientific consensus, many second-generation atomic bomb survivors believe that the risk of cancer can be passed down to future generations. This would mean that the legacy of Trinity will live on, for far longer than any legislation can reach.