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Downwinders

April 25, 2022

Last month I was honored to go support and learn from the Downwinders Consortium at the Trinity Site of White Sands Missile Range in southern New Mexico. Twice a year the feds open this secured area to the public to visit site where the first atomic bomb was detonated. Tourists come from around the world to view this extraordinary moment when humans developed the ability to destroy the world. Though we haven’t fully exterminated ourselves yet with these bombs, the shadow of the mushroom cloud still haunts us to this day, especially with the current situation with our fellow nuclear armed adversaries in Russia.

But this fear of being nuked is not just a threat to some. For others it is a nightmare that they are still dealing with. Everyone is aware of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the two Japanese cities that were exterminated by the two atomic bombs dropped by the United States. But people often forget or maybe don’t even know about the population that was bombed before them, the people of New Mexico. Surrounding White Sands Missile Range are Hispano/MexicanAmerican populations that the government deemed expendable for the sake of science. This top secret project didn’t allow any kind of warning before or after about the hazards of living so close to such an extreme danger. Though these communities were not directly hit by the bomb, the second act of the bomb’s destrucive power is what affected them. “Fall out”, which is the radioactive particles that spread out past the blast site, contaminated the surrounding area and as far as the wind blew. This is where the name Downwinders derives from, because all living things downwind of the 1945 atomic blast were contaminated with deadly radioactive particles. 

Photo by Jane Feldman

Farms and ranches, wild game like deer, elk and fish, fresh water sources like rivers and streams, lumber that was used to cook and heat homes, the fertile soil for planting: there were countless ways that the radiation crept into the daily lives of these rural communities. If you look at a map, the fallout from the blast can be seen covering the heart of New Mexico. Ranchers and farmers were dependent on the food they produced and sold. Contaminated crops and cattle were put into the markets and consumed by these communities not being told by the government that anything was wrong. 

Map curtesy of National Geographic’s article: Trinity Test Site

Since the Trinity Site, the United States has also been testing nuclear bombs in other parts of this country and beyond. The Marshall Islands in the Pacific, Puerto Rico in the Caribbean, but only in Nevada, Utah and Arizona, can citizens file for the Downwinders Cancer Benefit Program. Which is a program that helps with medical benefits to compensate people for radioactive exposure from nuclear testing. It’s a shame that a state in our union that actually got nuked, does not qualify for these benefits. A new bill being proposed is trying to finally get New Mexico recognized by the federal government, to help the generations of people affected by the atomic blast. Senate Bill 2798 will also give benefits for those who were affected by the uranium mining, like the Diné of the Navajo Nation. This bill is about to expire this July if it is not pushed forward in congress. Please read how you can help with this important effort at the  Downwinders Consortium website.

A personal note:

My wife, my son and I went out to the downwinders demonstration because we wanted to show our support to my fellow Nuevo Mexicanos. But only after this trip and learning more about the greater impact of the bomb on the larger community did I realize that my own family members are Downwinders as well. My parents are from a small town called Torreon, in Torrance county, directly above Socorro county, where the bomb exploded. If we look at the map that demarcates the fallout zone, a huge portion of Torrance county was hit and even higher level of radiation actually hit the Estancia valley, the “pinto bean capital of the world.” My grandpa Fidel died of cancer. My dad’s oldest brother Abe, died of cancer. My dad and his other brothers Sunny and Milton have had cancer. I had always known this tragic part of New Mexican history but it wasn’t until I went to the Downwinder’s demonstration did I make the horrific personal revelation/connection. Thank you to the Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium for educating me and the continuous fight against this injustice.

Hasta la victoria Siempre!!!

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