When Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium Co-Founder Tina Cordova got her chance to testify before Congress, 73 years had passed since the world's first atomic bomb detonated in Southern New Mexico. Cordova had been requesting the hearing for eight years, and twice the Senate Judiciary Committee had granted and then cancelled her appearance. Accompanying her to the late June hearing were 12 other New Mexico women affected by the 1945 atomic bomb detonation at the Trinity test site. Some had cancer themselves and some had lost loved ones to radiation-related illness—or both, like Cordova, whose father died battling three simultaneous cancers.
When Cordova started the consortium 13 years ago with another Tularosa native, Fred Tyler, they had never heard of the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act of 1990. The act compensated only Nevada Test Site downwinders in Utah, Nevada and Arizona, though New Mexicans living near Trinity experienced a blast more powerful than the bomb detonated over Nagasaki later that year.
Cordova's testimony asked lawmakers to extend compensation to New Mexico, Idaho and Pacific Islander downwinders, as well as people who worked in the uranium industry after 1971.
Historically, the national government has characterized the test site as sparsely inhabited, and remained closed-mouthed about medical repercussions from the fallout. The US Department of Energy's official website still calls it "a remote corner on the Alamogordo Bombing Range." Census data, however, shows tens of thousands of people, mostly Hispanic and Native, living within a 50-mile radius of the bomb.
Bernice Gutierrez, a member of the consortium's steering committee, was 8 days old and living in Carrizozo when the test occurred 35 miles away. When she was 2, her family moved to Albuquerque, where she lives today. "But imagine all the damage that was done in that short time," she says. "It followed us, believe me.
"My mom had three types of cancer. She had skin, thyroid, and breast cancer," Gutierrez says. "One endocrinologist asked me if we had ever been exposed to radiation. I didn't have a clue. I really never connected the dots. After my brother got thyroid cancer, my sister got it and is currently going through it again for the third time. My daughter had it three times. My brother's daughter got it. My other brother had pancreatic cancer. I had to have my thyroid removed."
She fills the space of six minutes listing the cancer diagnoses and deaths of cousins, aunts, uncles, nephews and nieces.
"To say that we weren't affected is insane," she says. "That is not a normal family history."
Gutierrez learned about the link between her family's medical history and their radioactive exposure only when she saw Cordova speaking on television five years ago. "It was like a lightbulb went on," Gutierrez says.
The group argues that all of New Mexico is affected economically by the lack of federal compensation for downwinders. Medical costs, often reaching millions of dollars for a single patient, are shouldered by the state's share of Medicaid rather than a federal program like that of Utah, Nevada or Arizona. Federal compensation, advocates say, would not only account for costs now absorbed by the state, but might bolster small-town economies as clinics and other small businesses open locally to provide care.
The downwinders consider last month's Congressional hearing a catalyst rather than a victory in the fight for compensation. They're engaged in ongoing lobbying and exposure campaigns, including one unorthodox vehicle for exposure: Doctor Atomic, which opens at the Santa Fe Opera on July 14 under the direction of Peter Sellars. It's set to feature Cordova, Gutierrez and other downwinders performing, the result of a lunch meeting between Cordova, Sellars and choreographer Emily Johnson in March. "They said, 'We want to embrace you,'" Cordova says. The three discussed bringing the downwinders' story into the production, as well as that of the Pueblo people of Northern New Mexico affected by the construction of Los Alamos.
"In a group setting recently, with a number of downwinders present," Cordova says, "I told Peter and Emily: Imagine, we're a group of people that don't have access to the opera, much less access to being part of the opera. We will access an audience that we would have never had access to before. And through this art form I believe that people will open their minds, their hearts to the understanding that we have been harmed in this process, and that we have been left all these years to deal with this on our own."
In addition to the exposure offered by the production, Gutierrez emphasizes the emotional weight of hearing the story told. Watching the scene in which General Groves ignores the advice of his medical advisor not to detonate without evacuating the area, she says, is an "intense moment of supreme anger. … We were in the dark for many many years, because history doesn't tell the whole truth. And to hear it being told factually, it's amazing. It's something we were never ever told."
The downwinders' ultimate goal is to receive acknowledgement, apology, and compensation from the federal government—"just like other downwinders," Cordova says. "There's a moral and ethical imperative to right this wrong after 73 years. In those 73 years, people have suffered immensely."