Oppenheimer surrounded by a nuclear blast

‘Oppenheimer’ Has People Speaking Out About a Pretty Glaring Omission

Oppenheimer, one of the biggest movies of the year, has been critically acclaimed while managing to be quite controversial and polarizing. Some have already pointed out the lack of perspective regarding dropping atomic bombs on the country of Japan and its impact on Japanese people, with their story virtually left out of the film, but another side is absent from this highly-grossing summer movie: the New Mexico story.

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New Mexico was critical to the development of the atomic bomb and serves as a setting for Oppenheimer. While vacationing in this area, J. Robert Oppenheimer first thinks about combining the locale of New Mexico and his science intrigue. With World War II ramping up, there’s a fear that Germany may jump ahead in the area of weapons and strategy. The War Department seeks to fund a secretive research complex, and Oppenheimer and General Groves decide to use the Los Alamos mesa, in New Mexico, for this project—but the real place wasn’t the empty desert depicted in the film.

There were people in the area, communities that were not given consideration when making the movie—which is sadly how they were treated in real life, when their home was used as the testing site for the first atomic bomb.

A professor at the University of New Mexico, Myrriah Gomez, had a great take on Oppenheimer after one of its screenings, as reported by Source NM: “Neither the project-wide site nor the Trinity site met the stipulations that the government required for either site.” Yet they went forward with it anyway, with disregard for the people who would be hurt, a fact that is glossed over entirely in the film. Individual people—especially indigenous people—have usually not been at the forefront of the government’s mind when they are on such a mission, and that was definitely true back during that time period. In the movie, a ranch school as the only real thing in the pair’s way as they seek to perfect their bomb.

The reality was much different. One woman, Alisa Lynn Valdés, M.S., took to Twitter with a powerful message about the film: “Can’t wait for the Oppenheimer buzz to die. The bomb those men built? They dropped in on New Mexico to test it. On my mother. She was 18 months old, in the fallout zone.”

The first bomb was tested near the homes of mainly Hispanic and Native American residents. Choosing this area undoubtedly had racist intentions; no one would dare try and set up such a dangerous and toxic project in a middle-class/rich white area. The U.S. government had seized land from them in Northern New Mexico, Oppenheimer’s vacation spot, so he knew homesteaders in the area.

In July of 1945, the Trinity Test took place, which was the first bomb detonation near Tularosa and the Mescalero Apache Reservation. Those who lived there were not a part of the process, and traveling back in time, there was no social media to say, “Hey, bombing coming soon to your neighborhood!” Many residents went to the site, not knowing at the time exactly what it was and what had transpired. They took artifacts, some of which would contain contaminated materials. They only learned about a month later that this was a nuclear bomb.

This harkens back to the post made by Ms. Valdés. How many people were impacted by Oppenheimer’s actions? One man, Henry Herrera, spoke to Axios in 2021 before he passed away. The then-87-year-old said that he recalled dust rolling “all over town.” He had memories of the event, as well as health problems that could have come from the Trinity Test. He had suffered from mouth cancer and even had to have his jaw reconstructed. It is said that many other residents had suffered from various forms of cancer.

“Downwinders” are people who live and work close to sites that expose them to hazardous emissions, and nuclear bomb fallout is about as hazardous as it gets. These people are often the most impacted, but Oppenheimer focuses so much on the brilliant science behind the atomic bomb, as it depicts the life and work of the head honcho, Oppenheimer himself. But did so much have to be left unsaid, untold?

Despite the focus of the movie, there definitely could have been more about these people, who have been brushed aside more than enough. According to Tina Cordova of the Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium, no one from the Oppenheimer movie even contacted survivors.

The practice of putting environmental and toxic hazards in predominantly marginalized areas didn’t end at New Mexico and the Trinity Test. In 2021, ProPublica published a fantastic article highlighting what they called “Sacrifice Zones.” This term really struck me because that’s exactly what they are. They focused on the Union Carbide Plant, which is stretched along West Virginia’s Interstate 64, in a mainly Black area. The plant is considered one of the most dangerous in the country. Pollution has been a huge issue for residents here, and specifically the impacts from ethylene oxide, a cancer-causing chemical Union Carbide uses to make a variety of products.

While some white residents face pollution and waste from the plant too, it being located in one of just two majority-Black neighborhoods is not coincidental; West Virginia is 94% white. Another key point when looking at these “sacrifice zones” is the economic impact as well as the health effects. These high-risk cancer areas cause property values to decrease dramatically, which leads to harmful and cyclical disinvestment in these neighborhoods. The local HBCU, West Virginia State, has struggled for increased funding for years and is having a tough time recruiting students. This is an unfortunate fact for an esteemed school that boasts such notable alumni as former NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson. 

This is why the discussion surrounding Oppenheimer has to elevate the stories of those who lived through it, from all angles. Hollywood can tell whatever stories they like and we know that they will, especially when they see such huge box-office success. How many huge war movies failed to show the Black soldiers who fought for a country where they weren’t even free? But these films, while controversial, give us a great opportunity to do our research and better understand what marginalized people have suffered historically. 

When making a movie about these events, regardless of the focus, there could have been more attention paid to the New Mexican people who lived through this. Still, it’s good to hear that President Joe Biden seems to have heard the outcry about this and has signaled support for compensating the people affected, though it remains to be seen what, if anything, will be done.

(featured image: Universal Pictures)

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