Paul Montoya was 7 years old when soldiers forced him and his family off their land near Anchor Ranch in present-day Los Alamos at gunpoint.
It was 1942, and Montoya knew there was a war going on. He thought the soldiers were probably German or Japanese, not realizing they were part of the federal government's plan to clear the area for the Manhattan Project.
Montoya later wound up working for the Los Alamos National Laboratory as a technician at a site contaminated by uranium, plutonium and fission projects. One of his most salient memories: Transporting thousands of jars containing an unknown substance and hurling them one by one into a trench.
The jars exploded on contact. Montoya never asked what was in them.
"We tried to see who could get the biggest explosion," Montoya said years later. "They go up 20 or 30 feet. We kept pitching those jars … it must have taken us almost two weeks to finish the job. We had to break every one."
Montoya's story is featured in a new book of oral history called Los Alamos Revisited: A Workers' History, which includes about 40 accounts from people who labored as janitors, painters, technicians, secretaries, welders, construction workers, and a number of other professions whose memories of that era have started to disappear as workers age and die.
In the vein of other histories from below, like Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States and the oral accounts of the late Studs Terkel, authors and compilers Peter Malmgren and Kay Matthews examine stories of people who were typically exploited and overlooked in after-the-fact accounts written by those with more power.
Hundreds of oral histories from workers, particularly scientists who worked at the Lab, are also available online through Atomic Heritage Foundation's website. But Melanie Laborwit, curator of the New Mexico History Museum's current Atomic Histories exhibit, says Los Alamos Revisited stands out for its focus on blue-collar workers, especially Hispanic people who had lived in the area for generations before World War II.
The Atomic Heritage Foundation "started adding, because of [Malmgren's and Matthews'] scholarship, they have added a lot more stories," Laborwit tells SFR.
The book recounts remarkable examples of serendipity, like the story of Manuel Salazar of Velarde, who worked as a teenager cleaning out fleets of school buses at Los Alamos and had the chance to ride Robert Oppenheimer's bicycle during one afternoon shift.
While several subjects expressed a sense of duty and loyalty to the United States, a prevalent theme is the racism and injustices that coursed through the entire operation. A former technician named Ray Maestas described to Malmgren the hierarchy of the Lab: "If you were a PhD, you weren't going to say 'good morning' to a technician. You would meet one face to face and he wouldn't say a word. But later on, when he needed your help, he'd sing a different tune."
Workers also described to Malmgren the dangerously lax safety standards under which they operated—supported by a culture of secrecy and incuriosity. Nuclear transporter Leo Vigil was exposed to plutonium during the demolition of D Building, one of the most contaminated in Los Alamos, and for years after would develop rashes when he visited radioactive sites. A doctor employed by the Lab told Vigil it was all in his head.
"I said, 'It's not in my head, it's all over my leg,'" Vigil told Malmgren. "He said, 'What do you know about radiation?' I said, 'I think I know more about it than you because I have worked with it for many years. You're just a company doctor and you don't care what you tell me.'"
Malmgren, a transplant from the East Coast who has lived in Chimayó since the 1970s, tells SFR it took him 18 years to complete the book. Many of his subjects had reached their twilight years, and their fear of speaking out against the Lab had waned. He gave the stories that didn't make it into the book to the state's historical archives.
“I went from senior center to senior center, word of mouth,” Malmgren says. “Some people said, ‘Don’t even bother, people won’t talk to you.’ I didn’t listen to them or get discouraged, and I found to my amazement that out of 150 people, only one or two really had a bad feeling about it [and declined to be interviewed]. Everyone else was amazingly open and hungry to talk;” though he says he encountered resistance when he tried speaking with people on the state’s Pueblos.
The final chapter in the book centers on the stories of LANL whistleblowers Chuck Montaño, Manny Trujillo and Joe Gutiérrez, three men from New Mexico who reported systemic improprieties at the Lab and were punished for it. Montaño later published a tell-all memoir about his experiences, while Gutiérrez was a founding member of the Pajarito Plateau Homesteaders Association, which won a $10 million settlement from Congress in 2004 for land lost to the Manhattan Project.
Co-author Matthews, who knew the three whistleblowers from her work as the publisher of La Jicarita News, says she and Malmgren tried to capture the complexity of the Lab's legacy.
"People see it in black and white," Matthews says. "You have to figure out, OK: The Lab did provide jobs for people in Northern New Mexico, but often at their own risk. A lot of people became sick and ill and died. And you know, both of those things are kinda valid looks at the Lab."
The book is available on Amazon, but Malmgren, who self-published it, encourages readers to contact him directly for a copy. We are including his contact information with his permission:
Phone number: 505-351-4558
Address: PO Box 438, Chimayó, New Mexico 87522