Each year on the third Saturday of October, the Trinity site on the White Sands Missile Range opens so visitors can experience the location where the US Army on July 16, 1945 detonated a nuclear weapon for the first time. This year, members of the Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium will hold their 10th annual demonstration there to ensure those interested in the history of the Manhattan Project also hear the stories omitted from the country’s nuclear-age narrative in films such as Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer.
Those voices provide the bedrock for Lois Lipman’s heart-wrenching documentary First They Bombed New Mexico, which tells the story of what University of New Mexico Assistant Professor Myrriah Gómez describes as the third instance of colonization in the state. As a result of the US government’s nuclear occupation here, generations of New Mexicans living within proximity of the Trinity test have fallen sick and watched improbably high numbers of family members die from various cancers.
Academic, scientific and political commentary throughout the film, along with historic footage, bolster the personal stories to create an irrefutable and excoriating chronology of environmental injustice, although one that feels overly compressed at moments.
Despite their documented suffering, New Mexico downwinders and pre-1971 uranium workers don’t receive coverage through the federal Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, despite years of efforts to secure that small amount of justice.
Central to those efforts: Consortium co-founder, downwinder and cancer survivor Tina Cordova, whose steadfast determination to find justice for her community emerges as the film’s beating heart.
“We’re not going to be martyrs anymore,” Cordova tells attendees at one of the countless meetings where she speaks. “They counted on us to be unsophisticated, un-educated and unable to speak up for ourselves. We’re not those people anymore.”
While the US Senate in July passed an amendment to expand RECA—which sunsets in June 2024—to cover New Mexico victims, the amendment’s prospects in the House remain uncertain (someone should lock the members in a room and force them to watch this film). Cordova remains steadfast.
“I will do this until the day they finally acknowledge,” Cordova says toward the end of the film, “or the day they put me in the ground.”
+ powerful storytelling; speaks truth to power
– feels rushed at times
First We Bombed New Mexico
Directed by Lipman
Santa Fe International Film Festival, NR, 95 minutes