Fact Check

Was Land Used for Manhattan Project Previously Inhabited by Hispanos Who Were Forced Out?

Some homesteaders were not compensated for their loss as Oppenheimer and his team of scientists moved onto their land.

Published Jul 25, 2023

 (United States Department of Energy/Wikimedia Commons)
Image Via United States Department of Energy/Wikimedia Commons
In the early 1940s, Hispanic homesteaders in Los Alamos, New Mexico, were forced off their land by the U.S. government and offered little to no compensation to make way for the Manhattan Project, a weapons laboratory led by J. Robert Oppenheimer.

While recollections vary about the length of time the Hispanic homesteaders were given to leave their lands, it is true that they were removed abruptly and offered little to no compensation for their loss.

As the highly anticipated film "Oppenheimer" was released in July 2023, some criticized how it overlooked the stories of communities in New Mexico who were impacted by the Manhattan Project. The film centered around scientist J. Robert Oppenheimer's efforts during World War II to develop the atomic bomb after fears grew of similar efforts by Nazi Germany. 

Novelist Alisa Lynn Valdés wrote on Twitter, "This quote, from the @nytimes review of the OPPENHEIMER film: "He served as director of a clandestine weapons lab built in a near-desolate stretch of Los Alamos, in New Mexico"... It was inhabited by Hispanos. They were given less than 24 hr to leave. Their farms bulldozed." 

The New York Times does indeed include that line in its review of the film. Valdés highlights an often overlooked part of the Manhattan Project's legacy in which Hispano (a term used to describe a native or resident of the Southwestern U.S. descended from Spaniards and used to refer to people of Hispanic or Mexican descent) homesteaders were removed from their lands to make way for the secret laboratory called "Project Y," which Oppenheimer led. 

According to the Atomic Heritage Foundation's Nuclear Museum, a nonprofit dedicated to the preservation and interpretation of the Manhattan Project, the U.S government in 1942 determined that the laboratory would be centered near Otowi, New Mexico, at a boys' school called the Los Alamos Ranch School. The government needed around 50,000 acres of land in the region to create the lab, and while the government owned some of that property, dozens of homesteaders owned land there, as well. 

The homesteads were mostly Hispano-owned, with only two Anglo-owned enterprises (the Los Alamos Ranch School and Anchor Ranch) that the U.S. government took over. Homesteading in the region first began in 1887, and by the time the U.S. Army acquired the land on the plateau in 1942, 12 homesteads were still under the original owner and seven more were still owned by the families.

The homesteaders and the government vary in their accounts of the land takeovers, but Valdes' tweet about the sudden removal mirrors claims made by the heirs of Jose Gonzales, one of the landowners, who claimed they were cheated and "taken for a ride" by the government. According to The New York Times, their family story was that they were thrown off the land without notice: "The story handed down in Jose Gonzales's family is that his father was working in a field on the day the government men came to take away his farm. Up and down he worked the field until they told him to hitch his team and drive it off the property forever." 

The Voices of the Manhattan Project, an initiative by the Atomic Heritage Project, interviewed Rosario Martinez Fiorillo, a descendant of the evicted homesteaders. She recalled:

I found letters that said Éstos son los papeles de la tierra [These are the land papers]. They used to call my grandmother. My grandfather wrote, and their papeles de la tierra, where they had the papers that said "Area 160 acres. Today's area, 55" or something like this. They came and they told him that they had to leave, because they were going to have the soldiers. They called them soldiers or policemen, because they saw them in uniform.

So, they just said, "Well, we have to get out." My grandparents didn't have to get out much, except maybe their equipment that they had [...] They told them that they would pay them, but they never did, I guess, they never did. As I recall, one time that they had offered them $7 an acre, see. But they never gave them any money, I guess. I don't think so.

[...] What else could they do? Because they were frightened by these people in uniform. They came with guns and whatnot, and all of a sudden they came to them and they told them, "Well, you can't come and plant anymore over here. We're going to take over. The government wants your land."

One of the things that was very hard for them to understand is that everything – maybe they wrote letters to them in English, but there was nobody to translate these letters for them. There were all men, you know, and they did not understand most of the stuff. They just agreed, "Sí, sí, sí." What could they do?

The Hispanic homesteaders were treated differently from their white counterparts, The New York Times reported. According to research commissioned by the heirs of the homesteaders and reported on by The New York Times, the school and Anchor Ranch hired lawyers who negotiated their sale prices. The school reportedly was paid $225 per acre and Anchor Ranch was paid $43 per acre for the land. The Hispanic homesteaders were paid as little as $7 an acre, including improvements, and some reported not receiving any payment, according to the research. Some said they were taken off the land at gunpoint, the Times reporting said. 

Teresita Garcia Martinez told The New York Times that her family owned 300 acres after her grandfather had staked a claim in the late 1800's under the Homestead Act. She said her father was paid $23 per acre. 

In 2004, Congress established a $10 million fund to help pay back the heirs of the homesteaders. While the government maintained that it did not obtain the land illegally, it acknowledged that the Hispanic homesteaders did not have legal representation and paid less than other owners. 

The Hispanic community wasn't the only group affected by this project. The Los Alamos area was home to members of the Pueblo community, who, along with members of the Hispanic population, were hired by the laboratory to serve as maintenance and custodial workers, drivers, cafeteria workers, carpenters, gardeners, construction workers, and domestic staff. The Manhattan Project also took over swaths of Native American ancestral lands in Hanford, Washington, for plutonium production, resulting in widespread environmental damage. 

Development happened quickly in the area, with the construction nearing completion and scientists gathering at the laboratory by the spring of 1943. The site grew nonstop during the war, and evolved based on the scope of the work at the laboratory. 

In summary, plenty of documentation and testimony show that Hispanic homesteaders were removed from their lands abruptly and compensated insufficiently by the government in the process. While the exact timeline given by the descendants in their recollections varies, we rate this claim as True.


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"Civilian Displacement: Los Alamos, NM - Nuclear Museum." Https://Ahf.Nuclearmuseum.Org/, https://ahf.nuclearmuseum.org/ahf/history/civilian-displacement-los-alamos-nm/. Accessed 25 July 2023.

Dargis, Manohla. "'Oppenheimer' Review: A Man for Our Time." The New York Times, 19 July 2023. NYTimes.com, https://www.nytimes.com/2023/07/19/movies/oppenheimer-review-christopher-nolan.html. Accessed 25 July 2023.

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Yardley, Jim. "Land for Los Alamos Lab Taken Unfairly, Heirs Say." The New York Times, 27 Aug. 2001. NYTimes.com, https://www.nytimes.com/2001/08/27/us/land-for-los-alamos-lab-taken-unfairly-heirs-say.html. Accessed 25 July 2023.

Nur Nasreen Ibrahim is a reporter with experience working in television, international news coverage, fact checking, and creative writing.