It was the early morning of July 16, 1945, when ash unexpectedly fell from the sky, wafting down from the heavens like thick snow. Soot shortly covered everything, from clothing lines to the gardens people depended on for food. Cecilia Gallegos Romero sat on her back porch watching it fall as she and her family drank their morning coffee. They had seen a bright flash just moments before. She was just 14 years old, and wouldn’t learn until years later that she had just witnessed the first detonation of an atomic bomb.
In an effort to keep the test top-secret, the government had not evacuated or informed residents who lived nearby the Trinity Test Site. The Gallegos Ranch was approximately 11 miles from it, making Cecilia’s family some of the closest civilians, and some of the first people to experience the effects of a nuclear bomb.
The cattle on their ranch went completely white on the side that faced the blast: their skin bleached by airborne radiation. Later, the irradiated beef found its way into the marketplace. Afterward, cattle on the Gallegos Ranch were often born with physical deformities or other defects. And cattle weren’t the only ones affected by the test. Water sources, vegetables, and other resources were saturated in radiation. The poor farming communities of New Mexico lived off the land and were now forced to do so in a toxic environment — completely unaware of its lasting impacts on the body.
Radiation that is present in nuclear fallout can damage and alter a cell’s DNA, which can lead to mutations and other effects. Studies have shown that individuals exposed to radioactive fallout can have a mutation rate up to 80% higher than normal. These mutations can be spread genetically to the next generation, which can result in cancer, birth defects, and other issues. Generations later, Cecilia’s family have all experienced some form of cancer, thyroid disease, or other illnesses that can be linked to radiation exposure.
Yet, New Mexicans have been continually left out of The Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA) that was passed in 1990 to compensate “Downwinders,” those affected by nuclear testing. Groups in Nevada, Utah, and other regions were included but the government has continually denied the existence of the effects of fallout on New Mexicans. Instead claiming, falsely, that the region was “remote and uninhabited” at the time the testing occurred. Organizations like the Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium (TBDC) have continually fought for restitution and recognition under this act, despite meeting all its requirements.
Cecilia Gallegos Romero saw the bomb tested as a teenager. She would carry it with her, her entire life as a mother, a friend, and an activist, protesting the harmful effects of the Trinity Test Site. She wrote letters to her representatives, begging them to “please do something right in my lifetime.” She passed on January 10, 2018 – her pleas unanswered.
One of the things Cecilia feared the most, was that once she passed, younger generations would not take up her work and protest the cancerous effects of the Trinity Test Site. She feared the prolonged suffering that those affected would endure and the lasting effects for future generations to come.
I stand with Cecilia Gallegos Romero, whose family reached out to me in response to a blog post I wrote on the effects of nuclear testing for the organization Beyond the Bomb. I share this story in memory of her and so many generations of victims that have lost their lives because of the Trinity Test Sites. I share it in hopes for a better, safer world that Cecilia once dreamed of. I share it because it’s our duty as a people to hold the government accountable for the lives of its own citizens. It is our duty to fulfill Cecilia’s vision, and continue to raise awareness about the unspoken victims of the first atomic bomb. To ensure that the life of no man, woman, or child is overlooked by the government in the pursuit of scientific progress ever again. I stand with all of the victims of the Trinity Test Site who mirror Cecilia’s protests. After all, it’s not just Cecilia’s story.
Rachel Traczyk is a Sociology student at New Mexico State University and works with Beyond the Bomb to help recruit and train the next generation of anti-nuclear advocates.