Life at Los Alamos

Life at Los Alamos

J. Robert Oppenheimer hosting a party in his home at Los Alamos. Photo courtesy of the Los Alamos Historical Museum Archives.

Oppenheimer's Choice

Juanita Chavez on her wedding day in 1936. Photo courtesy of Dimas Chavez.

A Lesson Exchange

  • Oppenheimer's Choice

    Oppenheimer’s Choice

    J. Robert Oppenheimer explains why he selected Los Alamos to be the site of the top-secret Manhattan Project weapons laboratory.

    Narrator: Los Alamos laboratory director J. Robert Oppenheimer believed that if you had to confine people in an isolated place, you needed to provide them with an inspiring view.

    J. Robert Oppenheimer: My feeling was that if you are going to ask people to be essentially confined, you must not put them in the bottom of a canyon. You have to put them on the top of a mesa. It was not a place where you felt locked up.

    I will quote Emilio Segrè. When he first came there in April of ’43, he stood by this building that is still there called Fuller Lodge, a sort of hotel. At that time, there was nothing in front of it and you looked out over the desert and to the Sangre de Cristo, which were covered with snow. It was extremely beautiful.

    And Segrè said, “We are going to get to hate this view.”

  • A Lesson Exchange

    A Lesson Exchange

    Dimas Chavez recalls the deal his mother made with scientists’ wives, to tutor him in English in exchange for Mexican cooking lessons.

    Narrator: Dimas Chavez was only five when his father moved his family to Los Alamos for his job with the Zia Company. Dimas, who spoke only Spanish, struggled to learn English, and he found himself falling behind in school. His mother created a lesson exchange with Lois Bradbury and other scientists’ wives to help him.

    Dimas Chavez: I found myself in trouble because as the rest of the class was reading and proceeding, I would translate as much as I could into Spanish and then back into English. I found myself falling way behind. Plus the fact when you are in school with the super students of eminent scientists and so forth who set the bar, I was intimidated, tremendously intimidated.

    Well, my mother was a marvelous cook. A lot of the scientists’ wives were basically bored to death, those who weren’t part of the project, and they would just walk around. But they would walk by our house and they would smell these lovely odors coming out of her kitchen.

    Unknown to me at that time, they knocked on her door one day and wanted to know, “Why, what is this lovely smell?” and so forth and so on. And Mother, in her way, explained. They said, “We would sure like to know how to cook some of that stuff.”

    My mother says, “Well, let’s make a deal.” The deal was, Mother would share with them how to prepare a variety of Mexican dishes, in exchange for tutoring me after school.

Quick Fact:
The diverse communities of Los Alamos all played roles in the Manhattan Project. Many Hispanics and Pueblos worked as construction workers and household servants during the project.