Editor’s Note: With little fanfare, the United States is moving to modernize its stockpile of nuclear weapons. A massive part of that project will happen at Los Alamos National Laboratory. It’s a project that promises to bring at least $15 billion into New Mexico and presages enormous, inevitable changes for our state.

It’s with this in mind that Searchlight New Mexico launches a new area of coverage devoted to nuclear issues. The following essay by Alicia Inez Guzmán, the reporter responsible for this coverage, sets out to describe her personal and family history with the Lab. Her essay also serves as an act of disclosure. None of us has the luxury of disinterest when it comes to nuclear proliferation but it can be argued that Alicia has a more personal connection than most journalists. Her capacity for fairness in covering this all-important story is without doubt.

My parents’ house sits at the foot of the Sangre de Cristos facing west toward the setting sun and the Jemez Mountains. I still remember nights looking out across the vast darkness at the twinkling lights of Los Alamos, the secret city, “a place,” as the late anti-nuclear activist and Ohkay Owingeh elder Herman Agoyo put it, “with no public memory.” 

As the crow flies, Truchas is 30 miles from Los Alamos, separated by the great Tewa Basin and arid badlands checkerboarded by Hispano settlements and Indigenous Pueblos. For most of my young life, I took the Lab for granted. It was there in the background, omnipresent like a low-frequency hum. 

But it didn’t always just exist. It was forced onto our homeland and into our consciousness, even if most origin stories about the Manhattan Project and the Lab’s continued presence in the region treat local people like extras in a movie. 

“For the several hundred workers required to man these plants, there must also be several thousand service and supporting personnel,” a 1950 internal report read. Its writer was debating whether Los Alamos was the best place for the weapons Lab moving forward. 

Scientists performed clandestine work here, yes, but that work required and continues to require the effort of so many others — “supporting personnel” — who can also be on the frontlines of exposure. 

I am reminded, for instance, of an experiment that went horribly wrong just nine months after American forces decimated Hiroshima and Nagasaki with nuclear bombs. A Canadian physicist, Louis Slotin, was trying to gather data on nuclear chain reactions when the screwdriver he was holding as a wedge between a beryllium tamper and a plutonium core accidentally slipped. For a brief second, the beryllium and plutonium reached fission, sending out a blast of blue light and radioactivity. 

Slotin’s death in 1946 has been famously recorded in histories of the Lab. But there were several other people in the room that day, including several colleagues and a security guard whose fate has largely been eclipsed. All that was noted in records of the event was his fear. Apparently, it was said, the security guard ran out of the room and up a hill. And that’s where his part in the story ends. 

But he was there, a witness — and one, I imagine, who was exposed to the same plutonium that within a matter of nine days killed Slotin. I’ve long wondered: Who was he? What was his story? 

When I think of that man, I think of my Grandpa Gilbert. Many auxiliary staff were local people who got their start on “the hill” as security guards for the Atomic Energy Commission. That was his story — a career begun as a security guard in 1946 and ended some three decades later as a staff member of the Lab and the University of California, which managed it. The position was a distinction that not many Hispanos held at the time. My mom says he felt dignified by his work there — the only means he had to raise five kids after World War II. But there was a trade-off, including discreet trips to the doctor where he was screened for cancer on a more-than-routine basis. 

Grandpa Gilbert arriving home from work, May 1969

Many family members would follow in his footsteps — my Uncle Jerry among them. Los Alamos was a place abounding in conspiracy theories and Uncle Jerry found himself at the center of one of them. He believed that racism had created a culture of retaliation, so toxic that it led to his being framed for intentionally dosing his supervisor with plutonium-239. After my uncle’s death two years ago, the Santa Fe New Mexican published a column narrating the sordid events — his boss ultimately recanted the allegations and my uncle and others won a settlement — but he was haunted by a lasting specter. The multiple cancers that consumed his body decades later were products of the Lab, in his opinion, like sleeper fires set within him. 

I only recently came to know the fragments of my Uncle Pat’s story. During his three years at the Lab in the late 1970s, he was flown on two occasions to California with a locked box chained to his wrist. His destination was TRW, the predecessor of Northrop Grumman Space Technology, and his cargo, he told me, was top-secret technology that could detect nuclear weapons testing from outer space. 

There’s a kind of mental acrobatics required to compartmentalize these different realities — the opportunity and the harm, the secrets and the consent. I know this compartmentalization well, this desire to draw a line in the sand between the good and the bad. When I was 19, I spent a summer working as an undergraduate intern in the Lab’s explosives division, a building perched behind a maze of fences and guards. I didn’t have a security clearance at the time, nor could I foresee getting one, so I spent most days marooned at my desk in the front office, filing papers and sending emails. I couldn’t even take a bathroom break without a chaperone accompanying me. 

Nothing of that work rings more clearly than a memory of two scientists stumbling out into the hallway, covered in blood. An experiment had gone awry — nothing radiation related — but it was so shrouded in mystery that parsing what actually happened is like trying to put a puzzle together that’s missing half the pieces. I watched in horror from the doorframe.

After that, I transferred to the Bradbury Science Museum, also in Los Alamos, where I walked by replicas of Little Boy and Fat Man daily to get to my desk. I spent that summer, among other things, writing exhibition text about the Manhattan Project’s early architects — J. Robert Oppenheimer, Enrico Fermi, Richard Feynman. I wrote not the history of mi gente, but of those agents of immense creation and destruction, those who’d exacted what Myrriah Gómez in her book, “Nuclear Nuevo México,” calls nuclear colonization. The irony. 

It was only when I left the state that I had the distance to understand the debt our communities pay for the good jobs. I began to unpack what it means for New Mexico to be what the writer D.H. Lawrence once called the moon of America. This place was distant enough in America’s consciousness to be foreign, exotic even. But as that “tierra incognita,” the unknown and unknowable blankness stretched across mental maps of the Southwest, our world became America’s wasteland. We continue to sit at the periphery of centers of power, yet we have been forced into the epicenter of this nation’s nuclear weapons complex. 

Now, as I write about the role of nuclear weapons across New Mexico, the nation and the globe, Toni Morrison’s words come to mind: “The subject of the dream is the dreamer.” Her ideas about literature were deeply influenced by psychoanalysis. Indeed, to her mind, the act of dreaming was not unlike the act of writing. Or, to put it another way, the subject of the writing is the writer. Here, that is me. 

My family and community’s own tangled history with the Lab sits in my subconscious like an inchoate thought. Only when I hold it up to scrutiny does that thought form into the imperative, allowing me to fully fathom what the Manhattan Project birthed in our backyard. Perhaps this is what Gómez refers to as an “innate knowing,” our local “sixth sense.” 

“The locals know their local land and water supplies are contaminated from the nuclear material that was either buried in nearby canyons or on riverbanks,” Gómez writes in her book. “They know their presence on the Pajarito Plateau is being erased from national memory. They know they were placed in dangerous jobs because of their identities. They know the plutonium exploded into the atmosphere during the Trinity Test is making them sick. They know nuclear waste, if buried in their backyard, poses severe threats.”

I know all of this when I drive along Highway 84/285, an artery that connects Pojoaque Pueblo to Española and the Pueblos of Santa Clara and Ohkay Owingeh, below a billboard sprawled against sienna-hued bluffs. A woman with a complexion like my own holds radiation detection equipment and smiles down at me. 

A billboard south of Española advertising the workforce pipeline program at Northern New Mexico College. Michael Benanav / Searchlight New Mexico

“Radiation Control Technicians are vital to operations at LANL,” the billboard proclaims. “Start your career as an RCT at Northern NM College now.”

My worldview will always shape my writing on a topic that hits so close to home, but the focus of this series — The Atomic Hereafter — is to highlight all the communities most impacted by 80 years of nuclear presence, from the most recent attempts to modernize the nation’s nuclear arsenal to the long, drawn-out ways radiation can transmit from mother to child. Nuclear issues in this state are generational. I will take them one story at a time. 

— Alicia Inez Guzmán

Raised in the northern New Mexican village of Truchas, Alicia Inez Guzmán has written about histories of place, identity, and land use in New Mexico. She brings this knowledge to her current role at Searchlight,...