My grandmother watched [ ] from her high school in Socorro. She moved to Tularosa, forty miles [ ]. There, she raised four daughters. I watched [ ] with my mom and dad and all three aunts. The [ ] beginning to end. [ ] A noise to my right. I look. [ ]
When my grandfather died, his wife and daughters [
]. All those years, and we never [ ]
In New Mexico it was a summer for heat. Every day, I sat in my office watching the temperature tick upward and upward on my computer, until I got a notification: new record for today. Once, the thermometer read 107º F on my drive home. The car sat in the parking lot all day, the air conditioning was slow. I started hyperventilating. Maybe it was my new medication. I wasn’t sure. I would have to stop my car. No shade. I would pass out in the sun, miles from anywhere. Maybe no one would find me.
I kept driving home.
This summer, I worked in state government, in a communications office. In some small way, it was my job to learn how the story of New Mexico is told. I paid close attention to local news, researched policy, and answered the phone for constituents. I found both great respect for the work the government does, and wariness. On one hand, government is where real change occurs. Lots can happen in the non-profit and university spheres, but the change they can directly affect is limited. Government, as a fellow state employee told me, is where the rubber hits the road. It’s where ideas are put into practice so they can affect our daily lives.
With that power comes ambivalence. It was my second day in the office. My supervisor, a brilliant civil servant who cares deeply about the state and its people, told me that anything said in the office must stay in the office. Telling the story of New Mexico means leaving some things out; a governing body, the implication went, loses efficacy when it is entirely transparent. When I worked the phone, people called because they couldn’t afford their rent, or needed medical attention. They’d been on the phone for hours and hours, getting sent from office to office, and no one could help them. But I was an intern. All I could do was hear them out, send them along, and tell them to call back if nothing got fixed. Maybe we could work something out. At the end of the day, I walked back to my car in the heat.
What’s there to do for fun in the desert? Barbenheimer was huge in New Mexico, like it was everywhere. Barbie won at the box office, but Oppenheimer made a bigger splash. J. Robert Oppenheimer founded the town of Los Alamos, New Mexico, for the Manhattan Project, where he and others conducted the research necessary to create atomic bombs. They tested the first device at the Trinity Site in southern New Mexico. There was hype: The Los Alamos sections of the movie were filmed in state, at Ghost Ranch. It was the biggest movie in years to take place, even partially, in New Mexico, and it was a landmark for the state’s growing film industry.
Oppenheimer doesn’t aim to give a history of the Trinity test; it aims to tell one person’s story. In doing so, it adds something specific and valuable to the American blockbuster: a capacity for melting, scene to scene, image to image. Much of the film proceeds associatively. The plot is a series of conversations. They do not build, but accrue—each another link in the web. And Oppenheimer’s images function in much the same way. Early scenes are calculatedly stifling, either in the four-walled domesticity of a classroom or house party, else in a grayscale palate. When the camera cuts to a wide shot of the blue hills of early morning New Mexico, it feels like something is finally beginning.
Nolan’s film was the first I’ve seen to understand what makes New Mexico’s landscape compelling. How many times has my father—who grew up in the Soviet-style apartment blocks of post-earthquake Bucharest—told me, you’re lucky. To have grown up with all this space. He was looking out to the distant trees and mountains in Cedar Crest, where I grew up. We have a sky in New Mexico, a big one, and film producers have noticed. Case in point, Breaking Bad, which bought fully and unequivocally into notions of harsh, sparse, desolate beauty. Empty flats west of Albuquerque, tufts of grass. A single bent line of horizon. The desert audiences think they want to see.
Oppenheimer and his wife-to-be stand beneath a juniper to steal a kiss. It’s early, not hot yet. They’ve been riding horses; they must be tired and sweaty. Maybe it’s one of those mornings, when the wind is soft and still smells a little like last night’s rain. Something no one tells you about the desert: it invites. The plains stretch so much further than we can see. It’s unsettling. From a bird’s eye view, we would be overwhelmed. But the trees here, junipers and piñons warped by drought, are just taller than we are; they give the expanse a human scale.
After watching the film, I paid more attention to my commute. One hour and ten minutes up State Road 14, from Cedar Crest to Santa Fe. At seven, the sun paints one side of the grama grass, leaving the other pale gray in shade. Driving home, I tried to imagine each hill as it would be on that perfect moment of evening, under the light of pink clouds, trailing monsoon, still some forty miles in the distance. Why, during the first twenty years of my life, hadn’t I spent more time seeing this?
New Mexican history is a history of elisions. Our state has a unique dialect of Spanish, and it is vanishing. My grandmother spoke it natively as a child and young adult, almost never when she left home. None of her daughters learned. Neither did I. The first New Mexican history book I read was about white ranchers from Texas. Natives and Hispanos are depicted as either helpless or as enemies, if they are depicted at all. Today, there are twenty-three Indigenous tribes recognized by the State of New Mexico. Outside the State Capitol building in Santa Fe, there is a sculpture covered with names. Each belongs to a tribe that lived here before the conquistadors, before this land was ‘New Mexico.’ There are dozens of names on the statue, maybe hundreds, and none of those tribes exist today.
Our car rolled to a stop somewhere on the high road to Taos, en route to Mora. It was a trip for work, with two state officials from the Energy, Minerals, and Natural Resources Department. We stopped where the road turned, at an overlook, a place where we could look out and see the valley. One of the officials pointed. Up there is Hermit’s Peak, and you can see all the way down. It’s burnt. Brown hillside and the skeletons of blackened trees.
What is now known as Hermit’s Peak/Calf Canyon began with a U.S. Forest Service prescribed burn and ended as the largest fire in New Mexico’s history. No one was killed, but over three hundred acres burned. After the fire came monsoon season. For twenty minutes every evening, a torrent of water blotting the sky. Natural protections against erosion had been destroyed; topsoil melted like black snow. People put out sandbags to save their houses from the worst. Those sandbags remain. There is still flooding in the summer, now and again.
At the edge of town, the landscape is a plain of grass, a valley receding to rock and tree. A strange pattern, half-burnt, half-healthy. The distribution seems random. It looks almost like a mosaic.
My day in Mora was, in many ways, a positive model for what the government can do. One of the officials was himself from Mora. He knew the town, understood the concerns of its residents, and was willing to engage with them candidly, face to face. But the interactions between those affected by the fire and the government is not always ideal. People asked whether better communication between State and Federal governments could have mitigated the fire, or prevented it entirely. But if this fire hadn’t happened, another would have. Climate change and drought have made New Mexico a tinderbox. When I left home this summer, there were a dozen active wildfires in the state.
If climate change is having destructive effects in New Mexico, why aren’t we doing more about it? New Mexico is the second or third largest producer of crude oil in the United States, especially in the southeastern Permian Basin. Climate activists continually lobby to reduce drilling, but critics claim that oil is the single largest driver of the New Mexican economy and subsidizes our struggling public schools. Legislation to limit oil and gas would need to pass the New Mexico Senate and House of Representatives; incremental efforts like increasing the economic presence of renewable energy may be the best we can do for now. But how do you tell that to someone who has lost their home? Relief efforts for Hermit’s Peak/Calf Canyon are ongoing and advertised. Some residents find those aid policies labyrinthine, of little practical help. The official narrative of the fire does not necessarily reflect the lived reality of the people affected.
If the government can’t always tell New Mexico’s story, who will? Might art have a role in setting things right? Hopefully it will. But many of the landmark works coming out of New Mexico today have different goals in mind. When Oppenheimer released, Tina Cordova, a high-school acquaintance of my mother’s, made it to The New York Times Opinion section on behalf of the Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium. For Cordova, Oppenheimer represents a missed opportunity to discuss the localized impact of the Trinity Test. She argues that radioactive waste contaminated the land where she and over ten thousand other New Mexicans—mostly Indigenous and Hispanic—lived, and continue to live. Five generations of Cordova’s family have been diagnosed with cancer.
My mom works at our state’s largest medical school. When I showed her the article, she shrugged. She thought Tina’s message was important, and it was good she’d found a platform. But Trinity wasn’t just Tularosa. The winds blew north. By the end, it was everyone in the state.
Alicia Inez Guzmán, a writer from northern New Mexico, has a series for Searchlight New Mexico focusing on her home’s atomic legacy. In a recent article, she takes on Oppenheimer, which she described as a movie that not only played up the romance of the landscape but also made it appear that the atomic bomb test “only affected an elite group of scientists watching raptly in cars and bunkers.” Watching the film, I had similar thoughts. Oppenheimer might ‘understand’ the New Mexican landscape in one sense. It also depicts the place where I grew up as not much more than somewhere for people from the coasts to ride horses and have affairs.
There’s power in not having to care. As Inez Guzmán remarks, the film Oppenheimer can leave New Mexico just as its subject did: apparently without a second thought. But there’s also power—more ambivalent, yes, but also more lasting—that comes with needing to pick up the pieces. That is to say, we have lived here, and we are not leaving. That is to say, this place has its scars. These scars—burnt, flooded, elided, irradiated—mirror our own. The time will come when they are ours for the telling.
My grandmother watched the Trinity Test from her high school in Socorro. She moved to Tularosa, forty miles from the blast, for her husband’s work. There, she raised four daughters. I watched Oppenheimer with my mom and dad and all three aunts. The theater is silent, beginning to end. The bomb goes off. Deafening. A noise to my right. I look. My aunt Mary, crying.
When my grandfather died, his wife and daughters got a medal from Holloman Air Force base: William Hartley is commended for his years of service, and for helping to keep our nuclear weapons safe. That’s what he spent his life doing. All those years, and we never knew. But now we know.