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The side of New Mexico that ‘Oppenheimer’ doesn’t show you 

By October 19, 2023No Comments6 min read

Oppenheimer downplays one of the darker aspects of the Manhattan Project. Including what happened to the people who were there first.

Growing up in Albuquerque, I realized New Mexico was best known for the AMC series Breaking Bad. However I think that this show is a poor reflection of what actually occurs in New Mexico, and it is unfortunate that people commonly associate us with it. All of this changed with the arrival of Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer. As someone whose family has worked at a Department of Energy National Laboratory, this movie felt like an opportunity for the world to see New Mexico in a new light. 

For those who haven’t seen what is now the second highest-grossing R-rated film of all time, Oppenheimer — directed by Christopher Nolan — is a biopic covering the life of theoretical physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer. The film highlights the moral qualms associated with his heavy involvement in the Manhattan Project and the creation of the atomic bomb. It’s a fascinating feature, but it’s also a reminder of one of the challenges of historical films. Filmmakers whose goal is to narrate historical events constantly have to pick and choose the moments that matter the most when telling a complicated story.

Oppenheimer doesn’t include much about the New Mexicans who were there before the Manhattan Project arrived, nor the suffering they endured. This may, at first glance, come off as ignorant, but it unfortunately joins a long history of neglect. Oppenheimer and his team didn’t pay much attention to the harm they would cause these inhabitants; therefore, it makes sense that a movie about him would leave out the communities he ignored and harmed. Understanding his story is important, but so is understanding the stories of these New Mexicans.

Cillian Murphy as Oppenheimer

A false notion of emptiness.

Based on what we know, J. Robert Oppenheimer chose Los Alamos as the site for the Manhattan Project because he and the U.S. government thought that only a few people lived in the area. Jon Hunner, a history professor at New Mexico State University, stated that the area “was isolated, and it was also beautiful, which was something [J Robert] Oppenheimer used when he recruited people”. This may have been a great recruitment strategy, but it is undeniably false.

People have lived in Los Alamos since at least 10,000 BC by the indigenous Cochiti, Comanche, Jemez, Jicarilla, Nambe, Pecos, Pojoaque, San Felipe, San Ildefonso, Santa Clara, Ute and Zia peoples. While some of these groups later dispersed, Pueblo, Athabaskan, Anglo, and Hispanic Americans with Mexican and Spanish ancestry into the 19th and 20th centuries continued using the land. Yet the creation of the Manhattan Engineer District (MED) in Los Alamos barred these groups from entering their home. 

Cillian Murphy as Oppenheimer

According to National Parks Service records, homesteaders offered up their land to the government for $7-$23 per acre without putting up a fight. However some families have said that the homesteaders “were forced off their property by gunpoint and some were not given the amount the government initially offered them and ended up receiving a lower payment.” The government forced innocent Americans out of their homes, offering them little compensation, to test a weapon that would harm them.

To make matters worse, they never had the chance to return to their land.

In the movie, once the war is over and the team of scientists in Los Alamos goes their separate ways, Truman asks Oppenheimer, “I hear you’re leaving Los Alamos. What should we do with it?” To which Oppenheimer responds, “Give it back to the Indians.” This suggests an understanding of displacement they caused, as well as a proposed reality by Oppenheimer that things will change after the war. This reality couldn’t be further from the truth.

According to an article in the  Union of Concerned Scientists by Myrraiah Gomez an Associate Professor at the University of New Mexico, “Not only is this comment ignorant, but it’s also racist. Oppenheimer and Groves knew who they had displaced to institute Project Y; they just didn’t care…Not only did they not return the land, but the colonizers never left.”  The idea that Oppenhimer would not have wanted to use the land is a falsehood. The suggestion of this paints Truman and Oppenheimer as more morally sound than they were in reality at the expense of those from Los Alamos. 

Matt Damon and Cillian Murphy in Oppenheimer

The fallout continues. 

The painting of Oppenheimer in a positive light continues as the movie does not discuss Carrizozo downwinders, the people who were living anywhere from 20 to 150 miles from the Trinity Test site, and who suffered harm from contamination to their water and drastic health consequences as a result of radioactive fallout. U.S citizens from New Mexico were the first victims of the atomic bombs. They were not informed of the fact that nuclear testing would impact their health for generations, becoming forced contributors to this endeavor. 

Project Y, which is now Los Alamos National Laboratory, continues to have a sizable impact in New Mexico despite its lack of presence in the movie. It’s important to know about it and how it affects the state’s most vulnerable population.

You can see this in places like Española, a city around 20 miles away from Los Alamos. “We’re really a poor state,” Hunner says. “So you plop this federally supported research and development lab, where you have to pay people a lot of money to stay there, and of course there’s going to be a disparity between the people who live there and the people in Española.” Cristian Madrid-Estrada, the director of a regional homeless shelter in Española agreees: “There’s no economic development in our areas because it’s all focused on Los Alamos”. 

The data on inequality in the state reflects this.

According to the U.S Census Bureau, between 2017-2021 the percent of people 25 years or older who have bachelor’s degree or higher is 15.6% in Española City and 69% in Los Alamos. The same dataset found that the median household income was about $42,000 thousand in Española City, which is about a half hour away from Los Alamos, where the median household income was about $ 118,000. This reality reflects the divided nature of New Mexico’s economy, which is in part due to the focus on investing in the Department of Energy National Laboratories. 

Matt Damon in Oppenheimer

However, the presence of Los Alamos National Laboratory is complex, much like Oppenheimer himself. According to the University of New Mexico Bureau of Business and Economic Research in 2019, Los Alamos National Laboratory “brings out-of-state dollars into New Mexico, provides moderate to high wage jobs to New Mexicans, supports New Mexico businesses and contributes to state and local tax revenues.” According to their research, out of the total 14,688 employees at Los Alamos National Laboratory 11,882 lived in New Mexico while 2,806 were from out of state. This points out to some positive impacts that the laboratory has had on individuals in New Mexico, as well as the economy of the state as a whole. 

Moreover, on August 3rd, 2023, Raúl Torrez, New Mexico’s Attorney General, and 12 other Attorneys General wrote a letter to Congress, requesting that they include those exposed to radiation from the Trinity Test site under existing legislation known as the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act. This legislation will provide them with compensation for their suffering.

This is not enough.

There is a lot of work to be do, but as we remember Oppenheimer’s work, it’s important that we also continue to remember the impact it had on the people of Los Alamos and New Mexico as a whole. The shockwave of that explosion still reverberates over the state. Nevertheless, this letter and the laboratories employment of those New Mexicans suggests that things are moving away from ignorance and toward reality. Here’s hoping that continues.

 Images courtesy of Universal Pictures. Read more articles by Campbell Small here.

Campbell Small

Campbell Small is a senior political science and public health major at Linfield University in Oregon. She specializes in cultivating communications, journalism, and political analysis about political and public health issues. She grew up attending the International Hot Air Balloon Fiesta in her hometown Albuquerque New Mexico.

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