The New Mexico Oppenheimer Erases

Films and Tourism Campaigns Depict an Empty State That Is In Fact Full of Life

New Mexico is famously known as the “Land of Enchantment,” writes Latinx studies scholar Alhelí Harvey, and the name evokes a sense of remoteness, isolation, and emptiness. However, Harvey argues, it’s a tourist myth. Still from Oppenheimer. Courtesy of Universal Pictures.

Los Alamos, New Mexico’s tourism website quickly clues visitors into what the city considers its two principal assets. There’s the national laboratory, represented by an illustrated atom, and there are three national parks, represented in an illustrated leaf. Underneath these symbols is the slogan “where discoveries are made.”

In 2021, New Mexico attracted 7.2 billion in tourist dollars. Many visitors come for the leaf: Outdoor recreation added $2.3 billion to the state’s economy that year. Meanwhile, the atom—the state’s nuclear past and present—attracts a subset of tourists who come to visit Los Alamos National Laboratory, the Trinity test site, and the National Museum of Nuclear Science and History in Albuquerque. The most hardcore might also check out the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in Carlsbad.

New Mexico is famously the “Land of Enchantment.” “Enchantment” is an abstract noun that evokes remoteness, isolation, and emptiness. It’s easy to see how environmental tourism seeks this out: It’s about sunset-chasing and finding peace in vast expanses of open desert. Nuclear tourism, meanwhile, is an extension of the military’s expansion into civilian life—the cultural arm of a national mission to continue making bombs. It consists of attractions that erase the deathly realities of nuclear events in favor of mythologies of noble actors doing difficult things for the sake of the U.S.’s democracy. But while these two types of tourism might seem opposed, in seeking enchantment, New Mexico’s visitors are oddly alike. In New Mexico, ogling nuclear weapons and enjoying nature are two sides of the same coin: Both activities conjure the state as a blank slate.

New Mexico began calling itself the “Land of Enchantment” in 1999, lifting its moniker from a 1906 travelogue about the Southwest. Author Lilian Whiting wrote that New Mexico was “a territory…whose ethnological interest” in the “remains of Cliff dwellers and of a people far antedating any authentic records, enchains the scientist,” and that its future “promises almost infinitely varied riches.”

Whiting saw New Mexico as the one of most “uncivilized localities” of the Southwest, replicating 20th-century attitudes that assumed Indigenous people were on the brink of vanishing. She described the region as unpopulated, but what she meant was that it hadn’t been settled by Anglo-Americans.

The contemporary earthy tourists that come to see White Sands, the Gila National Forest, or Shiprock caption their Instagram posts with similar language to Whiting’s. They’re exposed to the language and imagery of enchantment and emptiness by the state’s tourism campaign. Today, the slogan is “NM True,” but the vision it’s peddling is the same: star-studded vistas, mountains, forest, and sand dunes all empty and isolated. Vacancy—as an assumption that erases racialized communities—is central to enchantment.

There is no such thing as the frontier freedom that Oppenheimer thought New Mexico’s landscape promised.

The more complicated reality is that these seemingly empty destinations are products of multiple, contradictory layers of history: resource extraction, the seizure of land for national parks, and military land uses. Nowhere is this most apparent than at the seemingly empty sites visited by nuclear tourists.

In the 70 years since the Trinity site—where the Atomic Age’s first blast melted the sand in an explosion 1.5 times hotter than the surface of the sun on July 16, 1945—first held an open house, New Mexico has become ground zero for nuclear tourism. Army officials installed the obelisk of igneous rock marking Ground Zero in 1965. Today, it is a favorite spot for tourists to snap pictures. Officials designated the site and its grounds a National Historic Landmark in 1975.

In 1969, Congress established Albuquerque’s National Museum of Nuclear Science and History “as an intriguing place to learn the story of the Atomic Age, from early research of nuclear development through today’s peaceful uses of nuclear technology.” Initially staffed by Air Force personnel, the institution is a testament to Cold War efforts to sustain curiosity and enthusiasm around nuclear science.

In Los Alamos, the operational laboratories are closed to the public, there are lots of visitor opportunities—including, since Christopher Nolan’s film, downloadable maps of filming locations and local “Project Oppenheimer” themed experiences that involve drinks, shopping, and sightseeing. Soon, the Los Alamos location of the new Manhattan Project National Historical Park—comprised of three sites across the U.S. that played a significant part in developing the bomb—will open to the public. The weekend of Oppenheimer’s premiere, local news reported a “swell” of calls to the Museum of Nuclear History in Albuquerque and tourists “flocking” to Los Alamos.

Seeing the state as a giant playground for recreation and experimentation is not so different from conceiving of it as an amenity for private enjoyment. In both the nuclear and outdoors tourist economies, it pays to be empty. You can see this in Oppenheimer, much of whose plot turns on the title character’s lifelong yearning: “If only I could combine physics and New Mexico, then I’d truly be happy.”

What is he yearning for? Emptiness, it seems. Emptiness offers Oppenheimer freedom from harm, guilt, and accountability. At times, the film feels like an ad campaign for New Mexico’s nuclear tourism: the empty landscape is both a source for finding the secrets of the natural world and a key to a scientific revelation that functions as spiritual enlightenment. But there is no such thing as the frontier freedom that Oppenheimer thought New Mexico’s landscape promised.

Even attempts to dissuade viewers from romanticizing the events of the film reinforce emptiness. In New Mexico, a somber 15-second public service announcement from the Union of Concerned Scientists preceded screenings of Oppenheimer, reminding viewers that nuclear tests contributed to high rates of infant mortality, cancers, and the poisoning of soil and water. The PSA showed a landscape viewed from a passenger train. It evoked Oppenheimer’s ride to the town of Lamy in Nolan’s film, but also could have been Alamogordo, near the test site. The lack of specificity established the scenery as abandoned: modest discolored buildings, absence of people, the toll of a single bell in ambient natural sound.

The concerned scientists likely didn’t intend to glance over the people of New Mexico, but the PSA nevertheless reaffirmed the idea that the state is empty. Is this a result of the bomb’s devastation, or was it always the case? Who used to inhabit this space? Who still does?

Indigenous and Hispano New Mexicans who were present in the region long before Oppenheimer have been the most impacted by the lab. Many New Mexicans know “Downwinders”— residents of the rural Tularosa Valley downwind of the blast who have borne the brunt of the ecological, economic, and negative health outcomes from nuclear testing, but who have yet to receive any formal recognition or reparation from the U.S. government.

Despite those who profit from silence and emptiness, New Mexico is a land of testimony. This state is full of life and full of people who have dedicated their lives to holding each other close. Organizations like Tewa Women United, an all-volunteer organization founded in 1989 that seeks to create and foster spaces that center Indigenous women’s knowledge and health practices, speak to the specific ways the bomb has affected Indigenous communities in the state. The Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe held an entire exhibition devoted to the topic in 2022, orienting viewers toward the global connections and hazardous histories that arise from the first blast of the Atomic Age in New Mexico’s desert.

Telling stories like these is what makes New Mexico a real place—not the empty “Land of Enchantment” packaged for tourists. When you visit, work towards listening, and you’ll begin to see past the vistas.


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