December 2017

Reflections on Historias

Historias de Nuevo México/Histories of New Mexico Conference


Patricia Marina Trujillo


The Historias de Nuevo México/Histories of New Mexico conference convened on the campus of Northern New Mexico College in Española, and at the Northern Río Grande National Heritage Center, Alcade, on Oct. 12-14, 2017. The theme, “Querencia Interrupted: Native American and Hispano Experiences of the Manhattan Project,” provided a framework for Manhattan-era workers, their families, community members and academics to talk about the historical impact of the nuclear project on the region, on ending World War II, environmental and health implications, and the project’s continued presence in the world. During the three days of events, more than three hundred people participated in a complicated dialogue about how “the labs” have shaped and continue to shape northern New Mexico.


The opening reception, hosted by the Northern Río Grande National Heritage Area, kicked off the conference by acknowledging the legacy of laborers from this region who worked during the Manhattan Project. Hundreds of northern New Mexicans were trucked, bused or moved into barracks to be support laborers of the new labs since its inception in 1942. For most, this was the first job they held that took them off their ranchos and thrust them into a cash economy. The established dependence on subsistence farming and related occupations gave way to paid employment, daily travel outside the community for work, and a new dependence on fixed wages. This time period has been heavily recorded and written about, but often the contributions of Native American and Hispano laborers has been excluded. Manhattan-era workers were invited to the reception to be publicly acknowledged for their efforts and were recognized with a medal as “Story Protectors.”


Day 2 and 3 were held at the Nick Salazar Center for the Fine Arts at Northern New Mexico College. The schedule included a keynote by Estevan Rael-Gálvez entitled, “Remembering and Recovering from the ‘Radiance of a 1,000 Suns’,” and community-based plenaries that addressed “Life Before the Manhattan Project,” “Not Just the Labs: Contexts of Community Stories and Their Meanings,” and “The Future’s Stories: Community Health and Our Futures.” Additionally, there were breakout sessions, pláticas, a recording booth, and an interactive “Hack the Gallery” exhibit where participants were asked to engage with archival photos of Native Americans and Hispanos from the Manhattan era. Many of the photos were lacking the names of people, or referred to individuals as “An Indian” or “a custodian.” Our invitation to hack the photos asked participants to write the names of people they knew, write in the margins, tell stories and ask questions.


The overarching thread throughout the conference was, “If we do not tell our stories, who will?” Willie Atencio, a community historian, worked on recording the oral histories of these northern New Mexican laborers for over a decade before his project became the inspiration for the conference. He often gave the organizing committee direction by asking about how Native American and Hispano workers’ voices should be included in the history. The conference did not necessarily provide answers to our region’s difficult questions, but it gave community members an opportunity to connect, share their stories and what those stories meant to their lives and their families. As one participant said, “This is the conference we’ve been waiting for; I’ve been waiting for it since the ‘90s after the RIFs (Reduction in Force: major layoffs of support staff). And here we are. It feels healing.” And ultimately that is the goal of sharing our historias, que no? Healing, connectivity and coming together to re-member and re-imagine our beloved communities. To reflect on historias is to reflect on the fact that access to our true histories is an essential part of community health. Grácias á todos who made it happen.


Here are some highlights from the events:


Day 1: Opening Reception at the Northern Río Grande National Heritage Center, Alcalde, New Mexico


Over 150 people gathered at the Northern Río Grande National Heritage Center for an honoring of northern New Mexicans who worked for the Manhattan Project (1942-47)


The medal presented to workers from northern New Mexico. It reads Historias de Nuevo México in Tewa and Spanish, and states, “In acknowledgement of your role as a Story Protector.”


Three Manhattan Project workers (l-r): State Rep. Nick Salazar (New Mexico’s longest-serving legislator), Nestor Domínguez and Severo González await the presentation.


Camila Bustamante, board president of the Northern Río Grande National Heritage Area, points to her tía, Ana Vieira, in a USO photo from the era.


The recognition also included Manhattan Project employees (l-r) José Vigil, Ester Vigil and Isabel Vigil-Torrez (in black hat). Family member Alicia Sánchez sits with them.


Willie Atencio, community historian whose oral histories of Manhattan-era workers were at the heart of the conference.


Day 2: Conference Begins at Northern New Mexico College


Patricia Trujillo, conference committee chairperson, thanks the organizing committee. Historias utilizes a community-based participatory conference structure, and the committee was comprised of community members who worked during the Manhattan era, or worked for LANL (Los Alamos National Laboratory) themselves.


L-R: Thomas Romero, executive director of the Northern Río Grande National Heritage Area; Charles Strickfaden, National Forest Service; Cindy Kelly and Nathan Weisenburg from the Atomic Heritage Foundation were all participants in an encuentro about national projects (like the Manhattan Project National Park) that seek to include Native American and Hispano voices.


Plenary 2 speakers Peter Malmgren, Ken Silver, Kathy Sánchez and Myrriah Gómez added context to people’s understanding of
the labs.


Carmen Rodríguez contemplates an image in the “Hack the Gallery” exhibit. How do archives change when people from traditional and indigenous communities get to be the curators?


Kathy Córdova, author of Life on the Pajarito Plateau, shares with the audience her family’s history before they were forcibly removed from the Pajarito Plateau.


L-R: Myrriah Gómez, Joni Arends and Tina Córdova are members of the Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium who, along with other Tularosa residents, compile data on cancers and other diseases that plague communities surrounding the Trinity Test that occurred on July 16, 1945. Arends demonstrates how survivors often hold completed health surveys to their chest, understanding that it represents their struggle for health and justice. (



Day 3: Thinking about the Future: Continuing the Project


The Historias committee provided sage bundles for conference goers, keeping in mind that many of the subjects being discussed conjure up distress and pain for listeners. Herbs and quiet spaces for reflection were an acknowledgement that healing is part of the story work we must do in our communities.


Mujeres poderosas! Plenery 3 brought Mayor Alice Lucero, Liddie Martínez, Ana X Gutuiérez Sisneros, Polly Cisneros and Corrine Sánchez to talk about the area’s collective futures.


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