Keeping their contributions alive

Scholars aim to shine light on Hispano and Native American experiences in top-secret Manhattan Project


Scientists and engineers who created the world's first atomic bomb in Los Alamos in the 1940s have long been recognized for their groundbreaking achievement.

But the hundreds of Northern New Mexicans who played a lesser, but supporting and important, role in the Manhattan Project have been largely overlooked - an omission that local scholars and others hope to correct.

"The Manhattan Project was probably, according to some people, one of the most significant projects ever by the United States, and hundreds of people from Northern New Mexico contributed to it, so I think it should be documented," said Willie Atencio, who started to record the stories of people from the region who had a hand in the highly classified project about nine years ago.

The 80-year-old, a retired Los Alamos National Laboratory employee whose father was among the Manhattan Project workers, was the driving force behind a conference this week at Northern New Mexico College that aims to shine a light on the Hispano and Native American experiences in the top-secret project. The conference starts Thursday (Oct. 12) with a reception at the Northern Río Grande National Heritage Center in Alcalde.

"We're going to have a big group of those workers there, and we're going to be giving them a medal acknowledging them for their roles as story protectors in our community," said conference organizer Patricia Trujillo, an Española Valley native and associate professor of English and Chicana/o studies at Northern New Mexico College.

"A lot of the stories that we're highlighting have been overlooked," Trujillo said. "They've been erased. They've just not been part of the record. But the way that community members protect stories is we keep telling them."

Northern New Mexicans held a variety of jobs in Los Alamos, from technicians and clerks to baby sitters, drivers and carpenters.

Nathaniel Weisenburg, program manager at the Atomic Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C., which is dedicated to the preservation and interpretation of the Manhattan Project, the Atomic Age and its legacy, lauded local efforts to include more stories in the narrative. The foundation had access to archival collections that tended to be interviews with top scientists, but there was a "real gap" of stories involving Hispanic and Native American workers, he said. The foundation has been working with Atencio and others to get their collections on its website, he said.

"We really want to give a sense of the commonality and diversity of the Manhattan Project," Weisenburg said. "I'm personally trained as an oral historian, and we believe that oral history is a really important way for better understanding the experiences of all the different people who were involved."

People like Lydia Gomez Martinez of El Rancho, who was just a teenager when she went to work in Los Alamos, first as a baby sitter and housekeeper and later as a technician, inspecting and measuring what she believes to be bomb-making components.

"The work was so classified you didn't get a lot of detail," said Gomez Martinez, now 91.

"Super secret is the way I would describe it," she added, referring to the area where she worked.

At the time, Los Alamos wasn't even on any map, according to the Atomic Heritage Foundation.

"No one who went to live and work at Los Alamos was allowed to tell friends or family members where they were going," states the foundation's website.

"A single post office box, P.O. Box 1663, served all Los Alamos's residents. Babies born during the Manhattan Project had 'P.O. Box 1663' listed as their birthplace on their birth certificates. Sears & Roebuck delivery men became suspicious when orders for a dozen baby bassinets came from the same address. By the end of [World War II], five thousand people were assigned P.O. Box 1663."

Atencio said area residents were desirable employees.

"In no time, they could get a clearance for these people," he said, adding that they also had housing and a good work ethic.

"It happened right after the [Great] Depression, so people were very happy to have jobs," he said. "All of a sudden, there was a big demand for labor in Northern New Mexico because of the Manhattan Project."

Atencio's father was a driver in the motor pool, transporting employees to and from Los Alamos in Army trucks or buses.

"In those days, before your times ... everything was going to the war effort," he said. "Everything was rationed. Gasoline was rationed. Tires were rationed."

Atencio said he decided to start documenting the stories of Northern New Mexicans of all races after the publication of a book on some of the people involved in the Manhattan Project.

"Basically, the local people were not included," he said. "At that point, I realized that the hundreds of people from Northern New Mexico that had contributed had never been written about, so I started getting all these stories."

Conference organizer Trujillo said the event is designed "to be a community and academic space to tell stories and to share histories."

"Willie always says, 'If we don't tell our story, who's going to?'" she said, referring to Atencio.

Oftentimes, Trujillo said, history is told from a "mainstream perspective."

"Really, what we want to do by protecting stories is make sure people know that fuller rendition of history, that everybody was making contributions," she said.

Another organizer, Matthew Martinez, an associate professor of Pueblo Indian studies at Northern, who is on leave while serving as lieutenant governor of Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo, said Northern New Mexico is at "the confluence of historical events that shaped who we are today."

"Indigenous peoples and Hispanos come from a history of storytelling, as evident in our agricultural practices, traditions and unique languages," he said. "The Manhattan Project, as a research undertaking, impacted our shared community histories and changed the landscapes of Northern New Mexico forever. Organizers of the conference aim to bring together these historical perspectives that had a monumental effect on determining the course of world history and global relations."

Trujillo said conference participants will receive what she called a community and family history workbook. Plans are also in place to purchase equipment, such as scanners and printers, for people to record their history at the Northern Río Grande National Heritage Center.

"Our hope is that we become the stewards of our own stories and that we can start building exhibits around them, doing memory projects," she said.

"It's really this bigger vision of how ... we continue to support the work so that we bring that pride back to our communities, that we can celebrate the accomplishments and the contributions of our people and share those stories across Northern New Mexico and with the world."

Contact Chacón at (505) 986-3089 and dchacon@sfnewmexican­.com. Follow him on Twitter @danieljchacon. This story was first published in The New Mexican, a sister publication of The Taos News.