By KAY MATTHEWS
Before I went to the Historias de Nuevo Mexico conference this weekend in Española called “Querencia Interrupted: Hispano and Native American Experiences of the Manhattan Project,” I overheard an activist rail against LANL, which she views as responsible for wrecked lives and a toxic earth. At the conference, a man in the audience stood up after a panel discussion and said that the economy of New Mexico would be bankrupt without Los Alamos National Laboratory and we ought to erect a statue to Robert Oppenheimer.
So there you have it, from the extreme sides of the LANL conundrum. To their credit, many of the panelists at the conference tried to fill the “in between” with their personal and professional accounts of relationships with the Lab: Estevan Rael-Galvez, Erwin Rivera, Matthew Martinez, Kathy Córdova, Kathy Sanchez, Tina Córdova, Joni Arends, Ken Silver, and others. As La Jicarita has documented for many years, the legacy of this institution is fraught with contradiction: pain, gratitude, anger, loyalty. Who has actually benefited from the billions of federal dollars that have kept it afloat? Who has suffered physically and culturally from the development of weapons of mass destruction? As corporations and universities vie for a new contract to manage the Lab in 2018, the Trump administration continues to lobby for an increase in plutonium production that will keep this so-called economic engine running but at whose expense.
One of the panelists, Peter Malmgren, a 40-year resident of Chimayó, has addressed the complexity of this legacy in his new book, Los Alamos Revisited: A Workers’ History (disclosure: I am coauthor of the book). In 2000 El Rio Arriba Environmental Health Association at Northern New Mexico College initiated an oral history project to tell the story of the creation of Los Alamos from the point of view of the people who helped build it into the behemoth it is today: the technicians, engineers, welders, machinists, truck drivers, secretaries, and contractors. Peter volunteered for the project and ended up interviewing over 150 people throughout northern New Mexico. The interviews were transcribed and placed in the New Mexico State Records Center and Archive (along with a photographic exhibit), but Peter always wanted to turn this archive into a book that the workers and their families could hold in their hands and leave as legacy for their children.
The stories these workers tell are as complex as the Lab itself: the desire to help the war effort of the early recruits; the dangers of the bomb tests in the Pacific and Nevada test site; the near-fatal accidents they helped prevent onsite; the horrible illnesses they contracted as a result of their exposure to radiation and toxins; the financial ability to send their kids to college; and the retaliation they endured to expose mismanagement and corruption.
The book has finally come to fruition and we’re just waiting for the printer to deliver copies. At the conference Peter took names and contact numbers to let folks know when the book is here. Order information is included on the flier attached below. We’ll also get them out into bookstores and set up some readings at libraries and bookstores in northern New Mexico.