Memorias de Manhattan

La gente and the making of “The Bomb”

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I remember my grandmother Dolores “Lola” Valdez (1915-2008) casually referring to her early work experiences outside the house in the 1940s, much like a contemporary young adult talking about a first job at a movie theater. No big whoop. She was in her early 30s, already married with children. Her husband and brother were away fighting in World War II, and she had to earn income to help keep her family afloat. The U.S. Army was hiring people from many of the local villages and pueblos in Northern New Mexico, so she applied. 

Except it was a big whoop. She and other Northern New Mexicans were struggling to stay financially afloat and to keep their ranchos productive while many of the men were fighting in Europe or, like my grandfather, in the South Pacific. Around the United States, it was uncommon for women to work outside the house, but the war effort created unique job opportunities. Grandma Lola got the job she applied for at Los Alamos Laboratory, serving the Manhattan Project. Like many World War II-era New Mexicans, she survived scarcity and rationing by being open to changes and by a willingness to serve the war effort by working at a new and highly secretive government facility.  

Throughout my life, I’d hear her stories about being a “house matron,” the women she worked with and the demands of managing a house for women who worked at the lab. They served in domestic, support and secretarial roles. One of these women remembers her fondly: “She was strict, but she let me go out on dates with my future husband. We are always grateful and gave her a lot of credit for our marriage.” Many of her memories of the Manhattan Project involved lifelong friendships and connections shared with fellow workers.

These stories were always part of my family’s history of Northern New Mexico and the Manhattan Project. I understood them alongside the highly researched and often writ history of the Manhattan Project, the research and development undertaking during World War II that produced the first nuclear weapons. That history often heralds male scientists as the great heroes of the effort and frames Northern New Mexico as a sparsely populated locale. 

As I continued to learn the “official” history — from the science to the politics, from the literature to the social and environmental impacts — I was always left wondering: Where are the stories of my grandmother and the other women like her, aside from those told in our living room pláticas or around the breakfast table? I always imagined her as a manita (Northern New Mexican) Rosie the Riveter. Where were the images of the men, like my tío, who were carpenters, facilities workers or custodians at the lab? Where were the stories of the Northern New Mexicans who served their country as a labor force during the Manhattan Project? 

Conference upcoming

These questions, and many others, will soon be given a forum. The conference Historias de Nuevomexico/Histories of New Mexico convenes Oct. 12-14, 2017, at Northern New Mexico College in Española. This forum will let people of the Northern Río Grande National Heritage Area tell their stories and speak to the theme of “Querencia Interrupted: Hispano and Native American Experiences of the Manhattan Project.” The conference emphasizes sharing of community stories to provide a fuller rendering of New Mexico history. It pluralizes histories to signal that there is not one singular story of New Mexico but that there are multiple, coterminous stories.  

Cultural geographer Doreen Massey proposes that “space can be understood as the simultaneity of stories told so far.” When we think of the Manhattan Project and Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL), we often think only of the small town on the Pajarito Plateau. But the history of the Manhattan Project is actually comprised of stories of the small town and the surrounding communities. 

To appreciate the region, it is imperative to understand that it is a collection of deeply storied places. It is important to understand the context of places and their relationships to one another. For instance, Los Alamos County is the smallest county in the state and was created from lands originally in Sandoval, Santa Fe and Río Arriba Counties. 

The Pajarito Plateau is, first and foremost, Tewa Pueblo homelands. Before there were land grants, homesteaders, a boys’ school or laboratories, indigenous peoples were building homes and making lives there. Ancestral Pueblo peoples utilized the canyons and mesas to create settlements on the cliff sides and engineered complex waffle gardens to best utilize scarce water resources. For contemporary Pueblo people, these lands stand as sacred sites and commons where resources have long been collected. A trip to Bandelier National Monument or the Puye Cliff Dwellings offers visitors the opportunity to see early Pueblo architecture and agriculture in locations of continuous history for Pueblo people. 

Just down the hill from Los Alamos are multiple communities, including San Ildefonso Pueblo, El Rancho, Santa Clara Pueblo and Española, whose people utilized the Pajarito Plateau long before the U.S. government commandeered it in 1942. Many people from these communities became part of the government workforce. The locals were ideal candidates for positions during the highly secretive project, as most people were skilled laborers, had not traveled extensively — and therefore passed background checks easily — and were loyal to the war effort. 

From this workforce, stories sprung. Willie Atencio, a community member committed to protecting stories of the Manhattan Project, asserts, “Local people assisted the scientists in every which way. Without the work of these people, the scientists couldn’t have done their work.”

Stories y historias

On a gray and rainy monsoon afternoon in July, I sat down to interview Atencio regarding his passion for collecting oral histories. He worked at LANL from 1961 until his retirement in 1993. Since then he has stayed busy: he’s worked at the Bradbury Science Museum and collaborated on many history books, such as Homesteading on the Pajarito Plateau, 1887-1942 and the recently released Santa Cruz de la Cañada: 320 Years of Parish History. He has also spent years researching and recording the stories of Nuevomexicanos who worked for the Manhattan Project. He and his colleague David Schiferl have conducted  more than 15 interviews, several of which have recently been published on the Voices of the Manhattan Project website. These interviews are also the impetus for the Historias conference.

Born in 1937, Atencio grew up in the changing landscape that connected his family’s agrarian lifestyle with newfound opportunities that came to Los Alamos with the Manhattan Project. He recalls his paternal grandmother being visited by relatives who were kicked off their land at the beginning of the project and how, even at a young age, he understood how traumatic that was.  

Though his memories from childhood made an impression, they are vague, he states. More present are memories of his father’s employment at the lab. At the start of the project, Atencio’s father was hired to work in the motor pool. He drove an Army bus that picked up workers from his community and transported them up and down the hill each day for work. “There weren’t that many vehicles around in those days,” Atencio recalls. “Maybe a family would have a pickup truck.” 

But for travel to the laboratory, he remembers, “each community had a bus. Santa Cruz, El Rancho, Española; Santa Fe probably had several.” He recalls children playing in the buses and how they became a part of daily life, transporting workers from their ranchos to Los Alamos to be of service to their nation. “Gas and tires were rationed at the time, there were no cars, but they were desperate for help up there. [The buses are] how we could do it.” Atencio himself rode in an Army bus once; his father was allowed to use it to take his family and neighbors to a coming home celebration for Ben F. Williams, who returned home after surviving years of captivity under the Japanese.

Atencio’s passion for sharing his family’s history shows how community memories buttress academic history. He states, “Hundreds of people [from Northern New Mexico] contributed to one of the most significant breakthroughs in the U.S., but few know that. We know it, and if we don’t tell our story, who will?” 

Not many people immediately connect Hispanic and Native American citizens to the history of the Manhattan Project, but Atencio believes that “collectively, our people did something heroic, something historic. It was estimated that it was going to take over one million American soldiers’ lives if Japan was to be invaded, and our people helped keep that from happening.” He understands the complexity of the history, how people were displaced and harmed, and of course the underlying morality issues surrounding the creation and use of nuclear weapons. He is careful to remember, “This was a difficult and different time. But we contributed to the end of the war, and that’s important.” Atencio also credits the laboratory with providing access to new resources and educational opportunities.

Historias de Nuevomexico seeks to build on that legacy and will engage in these topics and more. The conference will encourage dialogue about the critical contributions of Nuevomexicanos to the Manhattan Project, how the project continues to shape north-central New Mexico and the many complex understandings of citizens’ relationships to the lab. The conference is part of how “we complete the story,” says Atencio. “What I did was a start, and now hopefully the younger generations will continue this work. I want to get the story out, to let the world know that the gente, the people, of New Mexico contributed to something great.”

For more information or to register for the conference, visit riograndenha.org/Historias/.

Voices of the Manhattan Project

Can’t make it to the conference? You can still hear some of the stories. The Atomic Heritage Foundation and the Los Alamos Historical Society have created Voices of the Manhattan Project, a public archive of oral history collected from Manhattan Project veterans and their families. The online collection features 400 audiovisual interviews with Manhattan Project workers and includes stories recorded by Willie Atencio and David Schiferl. 

Interviewees include Eulalia (Eula) Quintana Newton, who worked at Los Alamos for a total of 53 years, beginning in 1944. In her interview, she discusses the many jobs she held at the lab. After working in the housing and secretarial departments, she eventually rose to the position of group leader in the mail and records department. Quintana Newton recalls being the first Hispanic woman without a college degree to become a group leader at the laboratory. She also describes the impact of Los Alamos and the Manhattan Project on the Española Valley community.

Nick Salazar is a longtime Los Alamos National Laboratory employee and a New Mexico state representative. He has been close to LANL his entire career, from spending his high school summers as a mess hall attendant during the Manhattan Project, to his 42-year stint as a research scientist, to serving on the lab’s board of governors. In his interview, he discusses his numerous experiences with the laboratory and his goal of improving relations between the lab and Northern New Mexico’s communities. Visit manhattanprojectvoices.org.

Patricia Trujillo, PhD, is the Director of Equity & Diversity and an associate professor of English and Chicana/o Studies at Northern New Mexico College. Trujillo is a faculty adviser for ¡Sostenga! Farm and serves on the boards of the Northern Rio Grande National Heritage Area, NMWomen.org and Tewa Women United. She is the creative writing editor of “Chicana/Latina Studies,” a national journal housed at University of Texas at San Antonio.  

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