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How ‘Oppenheimer’ Left Out the Cost New Mexican Latines Continue To Pay

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Did you know that New Mexican Latines and Native Americans were the first victims of the atomic bomb, portrayed in ‘Oppenheimer’? You wouldn’t know from watching the film, but here are 7 essential historical facts that were not included in the box office hit.

It’s been over 78 years since the world’s first nuclear explosion, code-named Trinity test, occurred 210 miles south of Los Alamos, New Mexico. Seventy-eight years is a long time, and yet, the consequences of that explosion continue to reverberate and devastate many New Mexican Latines and Native Americans, but you wouldn’t know that from watching Christopher Nolan’s 3-hour-long blockbuster film “Oppenheimer.”

The movie, based on the biographical book “American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer,” is about J. Robert Oppenheimer, the head of the Manhattan Project— a top-secret government program set up in 1942 to develop the atomic bomb. The Trinity test explosion on July 16, 1945, marked the successful culmination of the project, and Oppenheimer has since been referred to as the “father of the atomic bomb.”

Oppenheimer once said, “My two great loves are physics and New Mexico.” Fittingly, those two great loves play huge roles in the film. Oppenheimer, as played by Cillian Murphy, in the movie says, “When I was a kid, I thought that if I could find a way to combine physics with New Mexico, my life would be perfect.” 

Spoiler alert: He did find a way to combine those two loves, but in doing so, he managed to devastate the lives of New Mexican Latines and Native Americans for generations to come. But you would not know that from watching the film. You would not know that New Mexicans were the first victims of the atomic bomb. No, there are no records of anyone dying from the blast, but the health consequences have been devastating. But again, you wouldn’t know that from watching the film. 

The movie only tells part of the story and leaves out the continued suffering of New Mexican Latines and Native Americans.

“One film can’t do it all, but I can’t help feeling that the retelling of this story, as it stands, is a missed opportunity. A new generation of Americans is learning about J. Robert Oppenheimer and the Manhattan Project, and, like their parents, they won’t hear much about how American leaders knowingly risked and caused harm to the health of their fellow citizens in the name of war. My community and I are being left out of the narrative again,” writes Tina Cordova, co-founder of the Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium, in a New York Times opinion piece.

The human cost of the Trinity test

The movie makes it seem like the area where the atomic bomb was tested in New Mexico was a huge desert devoid of people. The thing is that there were actually more than 13,000 New Mexicans living within a 50-mile radius of the test site and almost half a million within a 150-mile radius of the detonation site. And, as you probably know, radioactive fallout from atomic bombs travels for long distances, especially downwind from its source, and contaminates everything along the way.

Witnesses at the time had no idea what was happening

Keep in mind that the Manhattan Project was top secret, and civilians who witnessed the Trinity test from a distance had no idea what was going on. Some people genuinely thought the world was ending when the bomb went off at 5:30 a.m. The world didn’t end, but the sky rained radioactive ashes for days.

The government straight up lied 

Since the development of the atomic bomb was top secret, but the explosion from the test site was visible from as far as 160 miles away, the government had some explaining to do. A press release attributed the explosion to “an accident involving ammunition and pyrotechnics.” No one was warned against possible risks to their health or advised to stay away from the test site. Some people even went to ground zero to have picnics and grabbed radioactive pieces of green glass created by the explosion.

Weeks later, when bombs were dropped over the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the U.S. government still didn’t bother to warn New Mexicans who were exposed to radiation from the Trinity site about potential health risks.

How were New Mexicans affected by the blast?

There was an immediate increase in infant deaths. Shortly after, families with no prior history started experiencing cases of heart disease, leukemia, and other cancers. The Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium, founded in 2005, “has documented many instances of families in New Mexico with four and five generations of cancers since the bomb was detonated.”

To add insult to injury, New Mexico is not included in the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act

In 1990, Congress passed the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, which has provided billions of dollars “to individuals who contracted certain cancers and other diseases as a result of exposures to radiation released during aboveground nuclear weapons tests and/or during employment in uranium mines.” But guess what– the people of New Mexico who may have been exposed and affected by the Trinity test are not eligible for compensation.

It’s up to us to tell and amplify our stories

The Oppenheimer film failed to tell or even mention the devastating effects the world’s first nuclear explosion has had and continues to have on southern New Mexican Latines and Native Americans, so it’s up to us to share and amplify this story. An easy way to do so is by sharing this article. 
To learn more about how southern New Mexico families continue to suffer from the U.S. government’s atomic bomb legacy and what you can do to help, visit: Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium.

Photo courtesy Bernice Gutierrez, via Searchlight New Mexico.


About the Author

Claudya Martinez

Claudya Martinez is a writer and content creator with a sense of humor. She loves collaborating with #WeAllGrow. You can follow her at @byclaudya on IG. You can read more of her pieces here.

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