Buried secrets, poisoned bodies

Why did a Truchas woman die with extraordinary amounts of plutonium in her body — and why was she illegally autopsied? For this reporter, the answers hit close to home.

| December 20, 2023 searchlightnm.com

The first reference to her comes, of all places, on an airplane. It’s the end of April and sitting next to me is Jay Coghlan, the executive director of Nuclear Watch New Mexico. Both of us are on our way back to Santa Fe from Washington, D.C., after the Alliance for Nuclear Accountability’s weeklong annual gathering. Coghlan, galvanized by the last several days of activities, spends most of the flight ticking down his list of Los Alamos National Laboratory’s most recent sins. But suddenly he turns to the past.

“Did you know that the person with the highest levels of plutonium in her body after the atomic detonation at Trinity Site was a woman from Truchas?” he asks me. The remark, more hearsay than fact, piques my interest. As Coghlan knows, that’s my pueblito, the place in northern New Mexico where I grew up on land passed down through many generations of women. Tina Cordova — co-founder of the Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium — would know more, he adds. “Ask her.”

Truchas, short for Nuestra Señora del Rosario, San Fernando y Santiago del Río de las Truchas, sits on a ridge in the Sangre de Cristo mountains, 8,000 feet above sea level. With some 370 people in town, most everybody keeps up with the latest mitote, or gossip, at the local post office. A regional variation of Spanish is still spoken by elders. Bloodlines go back centuries. And neighbors might also be relatives. If she is from this tiny, but remarkable, speck on the map, I must at least know of her. My mom, a deft weaver of family trees, definitely would.

Scroll to top