First We Bombed New Mexico

New documentary exposes what ‘Oppenheimer’ left out about the impact of nuclear testing on Native, Hispanic people

Generations of New Mexicans — mostly Native Americans and Hispanics — have become ill with cancer after being exposed to catastrophic levels of radioactive fallout from the Trinity nuclear bomb testing.

Now, a new documentary film, “First We Bombed New Mexico,” tells the counter-narrative to the award-winning “Oppenheimer” film, of generations still feeling the impacts of the tests and of government betrayal with tragic consequences.

The film, directed and produced by New Mexico-based filmmaker Lois Lipman, alleges a government cover-up of monumental proportions – bigger than Watergate, bigger than arms for Iran, bigger than government experiments on people of color.

Inspired by New Mexico cancer survivor Tina Cordova, Lipman told ICT she made the film to unearth the story and make the public aware of a compensation bill looming in government to help the families who continue to be ignored.

Congress has until June 7, 2024, to expand the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, known as RECA, to families harmed in New Mexico and in other areas impacted by radiation. The act has provided reparations for Nevada Cold War nuclear test victims since 1990, so why was New Mexico left out? Many blame environmental racism.

“We feel it’s urgent to get this social justice story known,” Lipman told ICT, “and to put public pressure on legislators to understand what this is about and to lend their support to extending RECA (before it expires) to include ignored Downwinders and the post-1971 Uranium miners.

The Senate overwhelmingly voted last summer to include the expansion of the bill in the annual defense authorization act, but in December, the Republican leadership removed it.

“That was a huge disappointment for many,” Lipman said. “So, the pressure is back on to possibly slip RECA in some legislation so it is extended before it finally expires.”

The film premiered at the Santa Fe International Film Festival in October, and is currently making the rounds of the festival circuit.

‘Generations of cancer’

Cordova, who is featured in the film, is a cancer survivor and co-founder of the Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium, an organization started 18 years ago that works to advocate bills through the government and organize peaceful protests.

“My father developed oral cancer without any risk factors,” Cordova, who is Hispanic, says in the film. “He didn’t smoke, didn’t drink, didn’t use chewing tobacco. Had no viruses. The doctor told us this just didn’t happen. But they also told us they see this a lot here.”

She says government leaders need to admit what they have done.

“I can tell you what I believe to be true,” she said. “They have a very difficult time admitting that they harmed American citizens, that they killed American babies afterwards, that’s a very difficult thing to admit to. But that is the truth and that is what happened. The only way that we will ever get past this history is if we finally admit what took place, acknowledge the harm that was done and atone for that harm.”

The radiation exposure stems from the Manhattan Project, which developed the nuclear weaponry that ended World War II. Trinity was the code name for the first detonation of a nuclear weapon, conducted by the U.S. Army at dawn, 5:29 a.m., on July 16, 1945, at a site located 35 miles southeast of Socorro, New Mexico, on the plains of the Alamogordo Bombing Range, known as the Jornada del Muerto, near the Mescalero Apache reservation. The surrounding communities were never warned, never acknowledged, and never helped afterwards. Generations of cancers followed.

New Mexico’s Democratic governor, Michelle Lujan-Grisham,is among those interviewed in the documentary.

“No one should have to fight so hard to get restitution when you are victimized by your government,” she says. “They absolutely knew about the radiation exposure. Lots more science about it today, but they knew.”

Lipman, an American journalist who was based in London for many years, learned of the story after moving to New Mexico.

“I had a big career living in London,” Lipman told ICT. “I worked for ‘60 Minutes’ and the BBC and traveled around the world, making award-winning films, developing them and field producing them. And then I took a break and moved to New Mexico, which I fell in love with. I had a very strong feeling that I need to use my skill to make a difference.

“I discovered this story in New Mexico that had never been told and was bigger than anything I’d ever worked on,” she said, “which was that the U.S. government detonated Oppenheimer’s Trinity bomb as close as 12 miles from New Mexico residents, most of them Native American and Hispanic, and now they have had generations of cancer.

“They have never been helped and they need to be helped,” she said. “I also found government documents that have been top secret that explain all of this. I channeled and struggled with how to tell the story, then I met Tina and clearly Tina is our engine. Through Tina we learned this story.”

‘A true travesty’

The film shows Cordova rallying communities and gathering devastating health information while residents try to continue living normal lives.

“The government continues to say today that no one lived here, and no one was harmed when the bomb was detonated, but nothing could be further from the truth,” Cordova says in the film. “In 18 years, we’ve discovered so very many times … how our government looked away from us. They have never come back. They’ve never done any kind of meaningful study of the impact on us and I’m the fourth generation in my family to have cancer since 1945.”

“I have a 23-year-old niece. She’s a beautiful young woman going to college in California in San Jose. She’s studying art. She wants to work at Pixar. She was diagnosed with thyroid cancer a year ago,” Cordova said.

“That’s the cancer that I had, and the first thing they asked me when I was diagnosed was, ‘When were you exposed to radiation?’ I come from a multi-generational family of cancer patients. I wish I could say we were unique. We’re not. We’ve documented hundreds of families just like mine that are displaying four and five generations of cancer here. It’s a true travesty that our government has looked away from us.”

Cordova says some members of Congress contend it’s going to cost too much to atone for the exposure. The state of New Mexico is unique, since that is where the uranium was mined, where the nuclear bombs were developed, where it was detonated, and now where they store nuclear waste.

“There’s a lot of employment, industry and big business associated with that,” she says. “And so many people believe you just don’t bite the hand that feeds you. You just don’t discuss the hard truths about what that means. At one of the very first town hall meetings we ever held, a woman told me, ‘You’re not going to be satisfied until they close down the Air Force base.’ And I said, ‘That’ll never happen.’”

Cordova says in 1945, the government depended on the Native and Hispanic communities to be uneducated, unsophisticated, and unable to stand up for themselves. Many of them were uranium miners, who went into the mines without adequate protective gear.

That is the Oppenheimer legacy in New Mexico, she said.

“This happened through no fault of our own,” Cordova says. “We did nothing except simply live in the same place for hundreds if not thousands of years. We’ve occupied this land. These are our homelands, and everything has been taken from us because I can clearly tell you that without your health you have nothing,”