Militant Journalism

The tragedy of the Tularosa Downwinders

During a recent recruiting trip to southern New Mexico, members of Party for Socialism and Liberation stopped in Tularosa to meet with members of the organization called the Trinity Downwinders.

Trinity is the name of the site where the first atomic bomb was tested at the nearby White Sands Missile Range. For 73 years, Native Americans and other people of Tularosa have suffered and are still suffering from the radiation that spread across the valley. The  name Downwinders comes from the fact the area was downwind from the nuclear test. The long-term effect of the radiation has been devastating.

Estimates of those who have died from the radiation fallout now number over a thousand. Many dozens of others have suffered from cancer and other related diseases over the years. In many respects, the victims in Tularosa have suffered many of the same effects that Navajo uranium miners did in other reservation areas during the Cold War and beyond. At least for some of those miners, relief was provided by the enactment of the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act of 1990. Downwinders worked hard to have the impacts on their community addressed in the 1990 Act or a similar one, but they failed.

So why after all of these years have the first people to suffer at the hands of U. S. weapons testing not been compensated?

Cancer survivor and founding member Tina Cordova is blunt. “It’s environmental racism.”

She believes that the Trinity site was chose because the majority of the population was Indigenous or Latino. The few white people who lived there were also extremely poor. Few had the understanding or expertise to fight against the creation of the White Sands Missile Range or the nuclear testing that continued. Early resistance was limited by the government’s promise of good paying jobs.

Unfortunately, most of the jobs were low-level, low-paying jobs that had some of the most direct exposure to radiation. Working-class families in the area were also unaware of how devastating the long-term effect on the environment would be.

Downwind organizer Louisa Lopez detailed her husband’s battle with cancer as just one example of many in the community. She explained that as an excavator his job was to move contaminated dirt from the testing site. When he was diagnosed with cancer, the family was forced to sell two of their cars, two of their cattle and use their savings and inheritance to cover the payments for treatment. It took over 55 400-mile round trips to Albuquerque before he was cured. Sadly, though, Lopez lost her sister, mother, and father to cancer caused by radiation exposure.

Just like many others who have been negatively affected by U.S. imperialism, the Downwinders continue to suffer because they were poor, and the military considered the Tularosa basin area of “no consequence.” That their community has not been added to the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act shows that the ruling class still views the Southwest as a colony and not worthy of the same support as other wealthier parts of the country.

The environmental cost to the area has also been devastating. Areas once used for grazing sheep and cattle are still too radioactive to allow people or livestock to enter. White Sands — the largest gypsum sand deposit in the world and also a sacred site for the local Apache tribes — is now only accessible twice a year due to radiation levels.

Socialists know the this is not a unique situation. Nuclear testing was a supposedly “necessary evil” to end World War II and win the Cold War. This mentality is a common to the for-profit military-industrial complex and U.S. imperialism. To insure that the survivors of the Trinity test are compensated and that no one ever has to suffer from radiation exposure caused by weapons testing, we must have a new system. We must have a system that puts people before profits and war. We must end imperialism and dismantle the U.S. war machine!

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