Hanford Reach: In The Atomic Field > Oral Histories

I was born in San Diego Texas, a little town right in the center between Corpus Christi and Laredo. I graduated high school there in 1957, joined the Army's military services: that was the only way out for many of us in those years.

I ended up in Fort Lewis,Washington. I came down on a three-day pass to the Yakima Valley. It was a weekend; I went to a dance, and met my wife Monica... in ’62, we were married. I got out of the Army 1961, graduated from Central Washington University in ’72; by then I had been very visible as a Cesar Chavez organizer; more than that: advocate for farm-workers.

Chavez was organizing picket lines, strikes, conducting boycotts of grapes and lettuce… And there was a lot of interest by farm workers because of their working conditions. Housing; wages; lack of daycare facilities: children had to stay in the cars while they worked; no health benefits… Very bad employment conditions for the farm-workers. They were poor people, the majority from Texas, and that took my interest. We had to do something about their situation… Cesar Chavez seemed to have an answer.

So several of us who were Texans started to organize. And we were trained. The word was empowerment: something that the growers didn't like; they saw the writing on the horizon. The growers at that time wanted the farm-workers to come harvest from March until October, and afterwards: “Go back to where you came from, we'll see you next year.”

And I became director of a public community radio station we founded: Radio KDNA, the voice of the farm-workers. We used the radio station to talk to farm-workers, mobilize and motivate them to establish roots.

All this while Hanford was nearby; we didn't know anything about the history of Hanford. Slowly but surely we learned: about the 1945 to 1957 explosions of radiation that went into the air, that affected the pastures where cows ate and produced milk; how the radiation affected the fish in the Columbia River… We learned about Hanford.

There were farm-workers in this area, the Yakima Valley, the Othello area, the Moses Lake area, which was the path that the clouds of radiation had flown: crossing the United States, the northern part of the country. There were workers from Texas mostly: U.S. citizens, but monolingual, Spanish-speaking. There was also a community of Mexican immigrants that came in 1940. Among those families was my wife's family. They came through and worked in the Phoenix Arizona copper mines, silver mines, then moved on to Montana, Wyoming, and found the Yakima Valley. My wife Monica was two years old when they brought her to Wapato; we have lived there ever since we got married. There were 200 families, big families; they were Catholic. They settled in the Toppenish and Wapato area, and they got along well with the growers; many of the growers were Catholic. And they were very sweet workers, very obedient, didn’t ask questions about anything. They’d work hard; they didn’t challenge social conditions… But nonetheless: they were here when the explosions took place.

And many of Monica's sisters and brothers have since died. And I figure that they were exposed to radiation, but they didn't know anything about it. Who knows what the effects of radiation were on these 200 families. And on the families that were coming in from Texas, who came to this area after the war…

Monica’s mother and her sisters died from Alzheimer's disease, and that's one of the complications of radiation. Again: there's no way that we can prove that Alzheimer's invaded the family because of radiation. But it could have. And the irony of it is that nobody was around to ask questions, to research what might have happened. Many have died from cancer. There are many diseases that can be attributed to the radiation, a lot of health issues connected to radiation.

There's an untold story, and when you understand it, in many cases you might conclude: maybe my father, or mother, or my brother, sister died from that… So, what? There’s compensation for people that worked inside Hanford, and medical benefits. But for farm-workers that were exposed, and maybe died from cancer, there's nothing.

I started to look at obituaries in the newspapers… finding out if the obituary included that they died from cancer, or if they were here in 1945, ’43; maybe they lived near Hanford, or Prosser or Grandview, or maybe in Othello… Getting those names into the record.

We weren't first-class citizens; we were second-class. We were treated as such. We were the minorities. But that was the situation then. To some extent it is still the situation, here. Farm workers are still here. They work under better conditions, but yet… They were perhaps eating fish from the Columbia, and they don't know that those fish might be contaminated.

During the war there were Brasseros brought in from Mexico to do harvest work because many of the farm workers had joined the Army. And the Brasseros lived in this area, Yakima Valley, and they were exposed. No question about it. They drank milk from the cows, they ate the vegetables they were harvesting… I'm sure they were exposed one way or another.

They didn’t know anything about the exposures. They didn’t know anything about what was going on, at Hanford. Hanford was experimenting; they were producing plutonium. There were huge exposures of radiation going up in clouds, and even some of the people working at Hanford didn’t know the effect of that radiation, then.

There have been big fires surrounding Hanford… Tumbleweed fires. And that smoke has covered the area substantially around the Tri Cities. And that smoke might have been contaminated with radiation. Tumbleweeds, they become very flammable when they’re dry; you throw a little match… they explode. And there’s millions of tumbleweeds in this area, because it used to be a desert.

I had a friend, when he told this story, it was hard to believe… He used to collect arrowheads. His family lived in Othello, and he would go looking for arrowheads along the streams around Othello, and that area. Now: Othello is not far from the Reservation.

And he said that one day he saw these Caterpillars making big holes. And then, they were burying trucks; they were burying a lot of heavy equipment. What seemed strangest to him was the burying of vehicles. He told the story, and we just said, “Pete is telling tall stories; why would anyone bury trucks and cars?”

Many years later it came out in the paper that they had found a lot of vehicles and equipment buried in the Hanford Reservation. So his story was true.

He said they looked they looked like people from outer space… Protective clothing: that's what it was. He told us this in the ‘70’s. What he saw. He saw it: the burial.

And then you wonder, well, was this caused by radiation? After knowing about Hanford, I have the tendency to ask questions. Maybe it was connected… There's no proof; there's no research to see if that’s the case…

It’s unbelievable. If you tell that story to many people up and down the Yakima Valley, they would say it's not true… It's like a story from outer space…