Climate journalism is urgent. Help US raise $125,000 by December's end.

Goal: $125k

This story was originally published by High Country News and appears here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

A cartoonish skull grins out from the churn of irradiated plutonium particles, molten earth, screaming water vapour and shredded detonation tower debris. Thousands of feet below, behind the mushroom cloud’s roiling stem, Uncle Sam is blowing rhythmically, sending five toxic bursts over southern New Mexico’s Tularosa Basin. The farthest plume envelops a small ranch cabin. Above it, an ominous text looms: 5th Generation with CANCER.

Eric J. Garcia’s black-and-white drawing Generational Blast (2022) was among the works of 17 artists in the exhibition, Trinity: Legacies of Nuclear Testing — A People’s Perspective, which runs from mid-July through Sept. 23 at the Branigan Cultural Center in Las Cruces, N.M. Garcia’s timeline-collapsing caricature succinctly depicts the world’s first nuclear weapons test — Trinity — and its long-obfuscated impact on surrounding New Mexican communities.

At 5:29 a.m. on July 16, 1945, the United States military’s clandestine Manhattan Project detonated a plutonium implosion device just north of what is today White Sands National Park. To maintain the project’s secrecy, the locals were neither warned nor evacuated. Later, officials buried information about radioactive fallout that blanketed the Tularosa Basin region. Plutonium has a half-life of 24,000 years.

Trinity: Legacies of Nuclear Testing was organized by the Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium (TBDC), which, since 2005, has been fighting to expand the 1990 Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA) to cover New Mexicans living “downwind” of Trinity.

Courtesy of Las Cruces Museums – Branigan Cultural Center

To date, RECA has compensated nearly $2.6 billion to some 40,000 individuals diagnosed with cancer resulting from atmospheric nuclear testing and pre-1971 uranium mining, milling and transportation. Consider, however, that $2.6 billion is roughly 0.4 per cent of what the U.S. anticipates spending on nuclear weapons programs over the next decade. Currently, “downwinders” only qualify for compensation — and acknowledgment — if their exposure occurred in limited counties in Nevada, Utah and Arizona downwind from the Nevada Test Site, where the U.S. detonated over 1,000 nuclear bombs — 100 of them aboveground — between 1951 and 1992. RECA sunsets in July 2024, but proposed bipartisan amendments in both houses — S.2798, by Sens. Ben Ray Luján, D-N.M. and Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, which the Senate approved on July 27, and H.R.5338, by Rep. (and downwinder) Teresa Leger Fernandez, D-N.M. — could extend coverage to New Mexicans and other downwind communities. The TBDC has been making a lot of noise, coordinating outreach, events, and an exhibition.

Appropriately, mushroom cloud imagery suffuses Trinity: Legacies of Nuclear Testing. Yet the exhibition represents a diversity of media, geographies and generations. Zuni artist Mallery Quetawki’s paintings Autoimmunity (2018) and Immune Response (2017) incorporate totems and animals of strength — wedding baskets and war ponies, medicine wheels and buffalo — as avatars for the body’s defensive cells. As artist-in-residence with the Community Environmental Health Program in the College of Pharmacy at the University of New Mexico, Quetawki acts as cultural translator between medical professionals, scientists and Native communities regarding abandoned uranium mines.

Courtesy of Las Cruces Museums – Branigan Cultural Center

Uniquely, New Mexico is a “cradle-to-grave” nuclear state; the government contracted uranium mining in the Grants Mineral Belt, invented nuclear bombs at Los Alamos, exploded one at Trinity, and buries radioactive military waste at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad.

What downwinders inherited at #Trinity. #RECA #Cancer #RadiationExposure #LCMusems #TularosaBasinDownwinders #ManhattanProject #Oppenheimer

Such cycles have influenced Detroit-based artist Shanna Merola’s kaleidoscopic collages, where layers of nuclear blasts, gloved and exposed hands, rock fragments and uranium discs point to invisible gamma radiation, industrial extraction and apocalyptic paranoia.

Tucson silversmith Adam Ramirez (Ute and Acoma Pueblo) presents bomb-stamped bolo ties and a bracelet, the sales of which will benefit the Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium. Dominant narratives describe the Tularosa Basin in 1945 as uninhabited, but Ramirez’s grandmother lived less than 50 miles from the blast site. The 1940 census recorded 13,000 residents within that radius, living on ranches and in nearby towns like Socorro, Carrizozo, Tularosa and Alamogordo, as well as the Mescalero Apache Reservation — primarily Hispanic and Indigenous families who were poised to be poisoned; they grew their own vegetables, raised livestock, and collected rainfall and groundwater in open cisterns. Trinity fallout saturated everything. Plutonium is especially dangerous when ingested, and it’s insidious, potentially festering in the body for years before resulting in cancer, making it difficult to prove causality between exposure and illness.

Courtesy of Las Cruces Museums – Branigan Cultural Center

Critical discourse on nuclear colonialism — a term describing extant legacies of nuclear testing, uranium mining and radioactive waste dumping that disproportionately impact Indigenous or other vulnerable populations — is shaping contemporary art in the American West and beyond. In addition to Trinity: Legacies of Nuclear Testing in Las Cruces, recent exhibitions including Specter by Cara Despain at the New Mexico State University Art Museum and the travelling group show Exposure: Native Art and Political Ecology, among many others, have audited and articulated the impacts of nuclear weapons programs from the Four Corners region to Japan and Australia.

In Trinity: Legacies of Nuclear Testing, the Swiss-born, Los Angeles-based photographer Reto Sterchi presents arresting portraits of some of the Trinity downwinders he met through writer Joshua Wheeler, whose essay Children of the Gadget (2018) about the Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium had riveted the photographer. Sterchi installed his portraits as diptychs alongside regional landscape photos, contextualizing and making visible the people who lived (and continue to live) in the Tularosa Basin. Additional portraits by Las Cruces photographer Emmitt Booher document consortium members demonstrating outside the biannual Trinity Site “open house.” Among them were Louisa Lopez, Paul Pino and the organization’s co-founder, Tina Cordova, a seventh-generation New Mexican and a thyroid cancer survivor who has testified before Congress on behalf of the Trinity downwinders.

Courtesy of Las Cruces Museums – Branigan Cultural Center

Following the exhibition’s opening on July 15, people gathered in a small Las Cruces park for the annual vigil remembering Tularosa Basin residents who have died from cancer since Trinity. As the sun sank, a field of 800 luminarias, one for each of the dead, glowed orange. Soon, charged purple thunderheads gathered. Distant lightning flashed. It was a stark reminder that July is monsoon season in southern New Mexico, as it was on July 16, 1945, when meteorologist Jack Hubbard warned physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer and Maj. Gen. Leslie Groves that imminent storms would exacerbate Trinity’s radioactive fallout. They dismissed his hand-wringing; President Truman was about to meet with Churchill and Stalin at Potsdam and wanted some nuclear leverage.

Storms provided prominent pre-test narrative tension in Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer (2023), though not because they’d endanger locals. In fact, aside from a passing reference to radiation hitting White Sands, Nolan rendered the Tularosa Basin, and the people who lived there, invisible. Viewers unfamiliar with New Mexico’s complex topographies could easily arrive at the mistaken conclusion that Trinity was tested at the Los Alamos Laboratory. Notably, filmmaker Lois Lipman’s forthcoming TBDC documentary, First We Bombed New Mexico, aims to set the record straight.

At Albert Johnson Park, for two hours, downwinders including Mary Martinez White, Bernice Gutierrez, Paul Pino and Tina Cordova read the names of the departed — names that span four generations now: Brusuelas and Montoyas. Camposes and Silvas. Pinos and, of course, Cordovas. It’s an intimate community, after all. Tina Cordova’s mother and aunt were at the opening. Her niece, MacKenzie Cordova, who lived in Tularosa but now attends college in California, was also there and even has a piece in the show: The Sun (2020), a printed digital drawing riffing on the tarot, featuring Tularosa’s St. Francis de Paula church, hummingbird skulls and the Zia symbol. A mushroom cloud rises in the background. The Sun hangs across the gallery from Garcia’s Generational Blast, which, it turns out, was upsettingly prescient. Last November, MacKenzie, who is 23 years old, was diagnosed with thyroid cancer.

Courtesy of Las Cruces Museums – Branigan Cultural Center

Trinity downwinders know the clock is ticking. If RECA isn’t amended to include New Mexicans before it expires in July, MacKenzie, like generations before her, will receive no assistance in her cancer care. Until then, the U.S. government is rehashing its 78-year-old refrain: You don’t exist.

“Trinity: Legacies of Nuclear Testing — A People’s Perspective” will be on view at Branigan Cultural Center, 501 N. Main St., Las Cruces, N.M., until Saturday, Sept. 23.

Keep reading