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National Museum of Nuclear Science & History

Esther Vigil’s Interview

Manhattan Project Locations:

Esther Vigil was living in the Española Valley with her family when Los Alamos was selected as a site for the Manhattan Project. She attended school at Los Alamos for several years. Both she and her mother worked at Los Alamos, babysitting for famous scientists like Edward Teller and Stanislaus Ulam. Vigil also worked for the Supply and Property Department. In this interview, she discusses not only her experiences at Los Alamos but also her later contributions to preserving local culture, a passion her mother also shared. She also explains how she helped preserve and reintroduce the tradition of colcha embroidery.

Date of Interview:
September 12, 2022
Location of the Interview:


[Thanks to David Schiferl and Willie Atencio for recording this interview and providing a copy to the Atomic Heritage Foundation.]

Willie Atencio: Okay, we’ll try to do this informally. First of all, can you tell us about where you were born and who your parents were?

Esther Vigil: I was born in San Pedro. My mother was Maria Teofila Ortiz Lujan, and my father was Pedro Jose Lujan.

Atencio: Did you go to school in the Española Valley before?

Vigil: Yes. I went to school with the nuns in Santa Cruz in the first grade. My mother, who had worked all her life, was a school teacher. She was out in the workforce during the time that generally most women were at home. Anyway, she was working, and I had the opportunity to go to school at Loretto in Santa Fe with Mr. and Mrs. Alvidrez and their daughter Lucy. They wanted a companion for her because originally, she did not speak any English. I went to Santa Fe, and we both went to Loretto. Mr. Alvidrez was working in Los Alamos. 

Atencio: Who did Mr. Alvidrez work for?

Vigil: What is that?

Atencio: Mr. Alvidrez. Who did he work for?

Vigil: I believe he worked for [inaudible]. He was a carpenter.

Atencio: Okay.

Vigil: In 1941 and 1942, there was so much building going on up here. He had the opportunity to get housing, so they decided to move to Los Alamos. At that time, they asked my Mom and Dad if I could go with them to Los Alamos. But even then, there was some type of a secrecy. They claimed that the camp was going to be closed, or frozen, as they called it. Nobody could go in or go out. My father and mother said, “Well, she can stay up there as long as that does not happen. Should that happen, she would have to come home.”

Atencio: What grade were you in?

Vigil: By that time, I was in the third grade.

Atencio: Okay.

Vigil: I believe it was during the mid-part of the third grade. The Army was up here. I can still remember we were living in a four-plex. It was a two-story building right close to the main drag, what they called the main drag there. I do not remember the name of the street.

Atencio: On this picture, could you find your residence where you were living?

Vigil: Let me see. 

Atencio: This being Trinity, and then—

Vigil: Trinity Sites?

Atencio: And Central [Avenue] would have been—

Vigil: Yeah that is what—

Atencio: Central would have been here.

Vigil: Okay. We lived in what they called – it was an apartment house, kind of an—

Atencio: How far from the [Fuller] Lodge was the apartment house?

Vigil: At that time, I do not know. I am terrible with—

Atencio: With Central School being over here.

Vigil: Oh, yeah, the school. We used to walk to school from the area, so we must have been in this area here. I do not remember any water tanks there, and the hospital. This is more towards what was the sites, wasn’t it, where the hospital is?

Atencio: Yes.

Vigil: Right.

Atencio: This was the Technical Area.

Vigil: Yes, right. We were not in that area at all. Maybe it was Trinity Avenue then, where there was a two story four-plex similar to— 

Atencio: Would it be something like this?

Vigil: No, it would be like—these are dorms, I realize. I remember that the military would march early in the morning, singing or doing whatever it is, the Caissons or whatever. Early in the morning, it was very impressive for a child my age to see something like this. You know, Española was the hubbub of nothing but the Spanish people, so this was quite an interesting thing.

Anyway, I went to grade school and I went with some of the foreign. There was this one particular boy. I do not know if he was Russian or what he was. I believe his name was Ronald. I cannot remember his last name, but his name was Ronald, and he was quite the bookworm. He was quiet, not a mingler.

Atencio: Was he the son of a scientist?

Vigil: Yes.

Atencio: Okay.

Vigil: Very intelligent. He was a very intelligent boy, and he stayed during recess. While we were out playing ball, he would stay in the class and read books. Very nice.

One thing that really struck me that was really strange was in the fifth or sixth grade – I am not quite sure which one it was. This gentleman came in and proceeded to tell us about the atom bomb. You know everything was secret in Los Alamos and Española. No one knew what was going on, but he proceeded to tell us about the makeup of the bomb. I cannot imagine why he would be doing this because we are children! We are young children. Our technical view of what was going on was—I mean, there was something that would not have been imagined, I would think. I know for myself it was not.

He proceeded to go to the blackboard and draw these little circles, and tell us that these were atoms or nuclear whatever, and when they collided they would explode and develop more so that the chain reaction that was happening could cause a tremendous explosion. To this day, I still don’t know. After the atom bomb was dropped, it was probably, what, in 1945. By that time, I was what? I was born in 1933.

Atencio: You were twelve years old.

Vigil: The connection there was never there before, and I cannot imagine why this gentleman had gone into our room to tell us that. The opportunities we had were far beyond anything that I had seen going to school with the nuns, first in Santa Cruz and then in Santa Fe. We had activities that went beyond reading, writing, and arithmetic.

I remember they used to bus us to a lake outside where the sites were. There was a pond, a frozen pond, and during the wintertime they would take us ice skating there. This was just such a tremendous outlook on life, having lived in San Pedro with the Spanish people all my life. It was an education in itself. It was a tremendous opportunity, and I was there through the sixth grade. Then, I went back to Española. I went to school there.

Atencio: Do you remember some of the teachers at Los Alamos and their names?

Vigil: Oh, yes.

Atencio: What were your teachers at Los Alamos?

Vigil: I cannot remember the name, but there was this one young lady that left the most lasting impression on my mind. We used to have spelling bees, and one of the things that I think was hard for me was English. Even though my mother had spoken English to us — she had learned in Loretto prior to that — my dad spoke only Spanish. We had to answer in Spanish. I was bilingual, but the language itself. I was told that she was a sergeant in the Army.

She was quite firm, but she taught us the English language by diagramming, and I found that extremely fascinating. It really helped me to cement the adverbs, the adjectives, and everything that went on. It really helped me a lot. I still remember her. I could see her even in my mind though she was, as I said, very strict and very business-like.

Atencio: Do you remember the name?

Vigil: I can’t think of her name.

Atencio: She was a sergeant, you say, in the military. 

Vigil: That is what the rumors were, that she was a sergeant. She ran the class like a military, and the school at that time the Army was there. 

Another thing I remember was when we were in the classroom there would be the nurse that would come weekly in order to call various names, because they were going to give us a shot. We were immunized endlessly, it seemed like. This one time, one of the classmates—it was a boy, he was kind of a slight fellow—ran into the bathroom and he would not come throughout the whole day because of the immunization. I do not know how many different shots they gave us. They would ask you if you were right-handed or left-handed and ended up giving you two in one and one in the other. It seemed like we must have been—I guess they did not want to have anybody carrying any germs or anything. I do not know, we had never gotten shots. I think the nuns used to give us castor oil, but that was the extent of anything like that.

I went to Loretto and I was a boarder there for—

Atencio: In the sixth grade?

Vigil: No, I went to Española. I went to school there on the seventh, eighth and ninth, and the tenth through the twelfth I was a boarder at Loretto Academy with the nuns. I had taken a test with the Merit System Exam, a state test, and I had tested rather well. They had offered me various jobs through the Merit System Exam, but I wanted to work up in Los Alamos. I took an exam, and I went to work up there in 1951.

Atencio: What group did you work for? Did you work for the AEC [Atomic Energy Commission] or for the lab? 

Vigil: No, I worked for LASL [Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory].

Atencio: LASL? What group?

Vigil: I worked for LASL. I was in Supply and Property. I still remember the names of the individuals who were in charge of that group. There was Harry Allen, who was the biggest boss, and Mr. [Robert] Van Gemert was his assistant. My immediate supervisor was Mr. [Hugh] Dubberly. This was in 1951, and we worked in P-Prime. There was a two-story building close by the pond, yes.

Atencio: This corresponds to P-Prime.

Vigil: Uh-huh.

Atencio: That is where you worked.

Vigil: Exactly.

Atencio: Now, at one point or another, you babysat for some of the scientists at Los Alamos.

Vigil: Yes.

Atencio: Okay.

Vigil: Yes.

Atencio: Can you tell us about that. In your own words.

Vigil: Right.

Atencio: That must have been an experience.

Vigil: Well, by this time my mother was working. I do not remember when she started, but she was working in the lodge. In the beginning, I remember that there were many men that lived in the lodge. Fuller Lodge was the only big building that they had prior to the government taking over. There were also some log cabins. I do not know if there were five or six log cabins adjacent to the lodge. That is where the families were. Anyone who had children, they called it Bathtub Row, I believe, which was just surrounding on the outside of the lodge.

Atencio: Right here.

Vigil: Yeah. My mother was asked to babysit with some of these scientists’ children. One of them was Dr. [Edward] Teller’s. There was a boy by the name of Paul and a young girl. She was still a baby, by the name of Wendy. I got to babysit with them. The boy was extremely smart. I would say that he was probably maybe eight or nine years old. He was reading Newsweek and things like that. I was eighteen and I had no interest in something like that! But he would read these articles, and I take it [was] the influence of his father, Mr. Teller.

I ran into Mr. Teller one time in Los Angeles at the airport. I went up and introduced myself, and asked him if he remembered my mother. He said, “Oh, you mean Maria?”

Because in Española she was called Teofila. But here at the lodge, a lot of these people did not know how to pronounce their names, so they would call her “Maria.” I was very, very fortunate in that. Another one that I got to babysit was also—

Atencio: What were your impressions of Dr. Teller? Was he very cordial at the house?

Vigil: Very studious. He was not a conversationalist. You could tell his mind was always somewhere else. The same way as the rest of the scientists that walked through P-Prime, a lot of them with their hands in their pockets and their head down and thinking. There was not a sociability type of thing like we were used to in the Valley with everybody knowing everybody. These were people that were just within themselves. You could tell that they were basically thinkers, and I guess they never quit.

Atencio: What about Mrs. Teller?

Vigil: His wife was very much a homebody. She was not a society lady. She was a mother and I imagine that during the time that we babysat, they must have gone to social occasions. I heard her speaking in her language to Dr. Teller, but I do not think that I can say that I ever really carried on a conversation with her. Mr. Teller was the one—or Dr. Teller was the one, I should say—“Well, we are going to be gone at such and such a time, and we will be back at such and such a time.” I was to feed the children and do whatever was necessary through the evening.

The next scientist that I babysat for was Dr. [Stanislaus] Ulam. He had an only child by the name of Claire. She was born in 1944, so she was eleven years younger than I was. When I was eighteen, she obviously was around seven years old. I remember that she would pump both my mother and I in regard to stories like Christmas, like the birth of Jesus. I do not know if her parents were atheists and did not believe in that, but she was so fascinated that whenever we would babysit she would tell us, “Tell me some stories about this and that and the other.”

I often wondered about her, where she is, what she is doing. I know that I have checked into the internet and both Wendy and Paul were listed as survivors when Dr. Teller died. He was ninety-five years old. I forget what year it was, but he lived quite a long time. I often wonder what they are doing. I understand that Paul has a “Dr.” in front of him, but I do not know if he is a medical doctor or whether he continued as a physicist or what in California. I am sure he is in California, or they probably are in California.

Another person that I babysat with was Robert McKee, and he had an infant child. He was the main contractor in Los Alamos. They lived there in the lodge. I do not know for what length of time. I am sure this was before there was any housing. For all I know, this was a temporary thing. Now, his wife was very social. Sometimes I would babysit for a whole day, because she was out for breakfast or bridge or lunch. Then, he would come home and they were out for cocktails and dinner. I babysat with the little boy for quite a while on weekends.

Atencio: Do you remember the little boy’s name? 

Vigil: I cannot remember. He was an infant. I do not remember if he was also Robert or not. I may be confusing that with the father. It is an experience that apparently, I was in the right place at the right time. Something that has enriched my life tremendously, because I do not think that is an opportunity too many people have, to see all the history and everything that was going on later on. It was terribly fascinating for me.

Atencio: Do you remember anything happening after the Trinity test?

Vigil: With the Trinity?

Atencio: Yes. Down by Socorro, the test of the bomb. Were you aware of anything that went on?

Vigil: No, no.

In Supply and Property, basically what we were in charge of was the materials. At first I was working for Eddie Wortmann, and there was the ordering and, I guess, the placing and also the storing. Then later on, I was given an office where I took care of a lot of these files in regard to this, but as far as having any connection with a bomb— 

Atencio: Very remote.

Vigil: I do not know. I knew that there was a site, and I also knew in the area that we lived there was a canyon. There were rumors that there were deposits in the back of this canyon, and I do not know whether that is true or not. I guess since Lucy and I were both girls, we did not venture out in that area.

But as I said, it was a tremendous experience for me. You cannot imagine how rewarding it was. Now I see that part of history, and to think that I was there in the very beginning, when they were building and they were doing all of that.

It basically was so different, because—my uncle Adolfo Montoya, who was the main gardener, was married to my dad’s sister and had lived up there. They had property; they had their own log cabin. You know, Lucia and the Montoyas. I remember visiting, and to me that was like a haven with all the greenery. It was a little scary coming up that hill because it was like one narrow road. If somebody was coming down, you had to sit on the side and let the individual go by. That was kind of a frightening thing, to come up on that hill. Of course, later on, they had improved it tremendously. 

Atencio: Do you remember what happened after the end of the war? People were able to talk more about what they had done at Los Alamos? Was there a lot of celebration, happiness? Were you at Los Alamos when the war ended? 

Vigil: My mother and I were in California at the time that the war ended. What I remember was seeing all the ticker tape that was coming down from the high buildings. My brothers and my sister were nine to eleven years older than I was. My brother Eddie was in the military. They had just missed the impact that Los Alamos had on the Valley.

It was tremendous because there was no money prior to that. There was basically no education, so if you stayed in the Valley, you were either a farmer’s wife or a farmer. My brother chose to go to California and so did my sister. One of them graduated in 1940 and the other in 1941, or 1939 and 1940, right before Los Alamos started. They went to California. They just missed that era of Los Alamos coming in, to where the people in the Valley were able to send their children to get a further education. Otherwise there was no money. It was a matter of living with the harvest, selling whatever you had during harvest.

There was the one store, which was [inaudible]. My mother, who was very independent, like I say, was one of two women who worked there. I believe that the reason that she was there — because women were not employed and the men were basically the ones that came to the store. They did not want a woman working with them. But because most of the men spoke only Spanish and my mother could speak both English and Spanish, she was more or less of an interpreter in regard to the owners and people there.

There was a lady by the name of Mrs. Haney. She was an accountant. My mother was actually a floor clerk. She said that she remembers that some men would come in and she would say “Can I help you?” in Spanish.

They would say, “I am waiting for Don Elias,” who happened to be even a relative of ours. In those days, it was a different time. My mother was way ahead of her time. She was a teacher.

Atencio: She used her bilingual—

Vigil: Yes.

Atencio: Bilingualism to work both in the Valley and then later out in Los Alamos. She was the matron at the lodge.

Vigil: Yes. She was what they called the housekeeper. She was there during the time the Army was there. I think Mr. and Mrs. Barker were the ones that were in charge of the lodge at that time. I do not know. 

Atencio: Mr. [Matias] Zamora mentioned some lady by the name of Barker was in charge.

Vigil: But she was a housekeeper there. The main cook was [George] Marchi. 

Atencio: That name has not come up at all.

Vigil: He was the main cook there. I looked, but I could not find — I have a picture that came out in the newspaper regarding the celebration when my mother retired. I do not remember how many years, but she was seventy years old. I think at that time the retirement age was sixty-five, but she was very young for her age. She lived four months short of a hundred. She lived basically the last twenty-nine years of her life in her home in Albuquerque.

Atencio: After you worked at Los Alamos, obviously, you went on to other things. What are your big interests now?

Vigil: I graduated in 1951, worked through 1954, and then I married Joe Vigil. We have been married fifty-four years already. When we were in Albuquerque, this friend of ours had set up Traditions in order to retain and preserve the arts of the Spaniards and the Indian arts. He asked me to do a presentation or a workshop in regard to colcha.

My mother and eleven other women had chartered the Arte Antiguo. That was a club back in 1928. This was even before I was born, in order to try to preserve the culture. By 1930, when the Depression was on, the WPA [Works Progress Administration] was coming into New Mexico to try to help the people generate money back into the state. The government informed the state that they were to teach the people the old traditions. The making of furniture, colcha, which was part of the arts, tin work, and anything that they had done during the early years, in 1598, when the Spaniards had come. Since my mother had gotten together with a group of eleven other women, they used to meet every month in each other’s home. By 1930, when the government had gotten into this, they decided to do colcha monthly as part of the preservation of this art. She and Mrs. Cata, who was actually — do you know Libby Cata?

Atencio: I know the girls.

Vigil: I forget what her married name is. Anyway, Mrs. Cata was a very, very good friend of my mother’s. As I understand, she had come with her family, and they were on their way to California when they were detained in San Juan. I do not know if something broke down or what it was. Anyway, Mrs. Cata was about fifteen years old, and they were there for about two years before they went on to California. By that time, she was getting married to Mr. Cata, so she was left there. I understand her father used to come about every two years. Traveling in those days was something that was very hazardous. 

But she adopted all the Indian ways and she even has displays in the Smithsonian. She would make dolls with the garb of the Indians, and she also taught the whole Pueblo how to redo the pottery that their ancestors had done. Because obviously between the 1600s and the early 1900s, a lot of that was lost.

For one thing, colcha probably started in the 1600s because of a need that our ancestors had in order to create some warmth for their bedding. They had nothing, but they had the churro sheep that they had brought. There was always the question with the curators and with everybody as to why was it that they used just one stitch? Why didn’t they use various stitches?

I believe that the reason that they did was because when they use a couching stitch, which eventually became known as colcha, which actually means a bedspread or some kind of a spread, they create three widths of wool because they made their sabanilla [woolen cloth] from the wool of the churro sheep.

With that they would weave it. Then, they would take some of the same yarn, which was wool, and they would dye it with natural pigment. They would embroider on it in order to not only embellish the spread, but also to give it more wool. In colcha, you overlay another length of wool and you come down through the sabanilla and you go up and anchor it, causing three widths of wool, which naturally would give you the warmth they were so badly in need of.

This is something that had never been written. When I went to Traditions to do this workshop, I found that nobody knew what I was doing. So colcha was a dying art. It was in our home forever, as far as I was concerned, and I thought it was just a household word, something that everybody did. When I did this display, and found that there was no one that knew what was going on, I decided the next year when I went that I would have an inventory to show more people. The second year came around and I had some colcha done with some tin work, and people would stop and admire it but they still did not know what it was.

There was one couple, and they were not even Spanish. They stopped and the gentleman said to me, “Oh, you are doing colcha.”

I looked at him and I said, “How do you know?” because I had not experienced any recognition prior to that. 

He said, “Oh, my wife and I are docents at [El Rancho de] Las Golondrinas,” which naturally explained the whole situation.

Atencio: You not only knew the colcha stitch, but you went on to write two books about colcha.

Vigil: Right. Well, when I found out, I was bound and determined that I was going to try to not only teach, but write a book of what I knew, because I had grown up with it. I know that once that I am gone, my children will not be able to do that because they were all born in the city. They don’t know. They have not experienced the beauty of what I have seen.

I went to a neighbor of mine who had written an article on the colcha for my mother. She was a freelance writer, and she had sold it to the Denver Post. This was in 1980. I went to her and I said, “We need to write a book in regard to colcha.” I said, “I believe that I know things from experience.”

Because I remember getting up when I was little. We had pot belly stoves and my dad would put in coal and wood in there. In the morning those floors were freezing. They had linoleum. They were not dirt floors, which I imagine our ancestors had. I know that that was a need that they had for colcha and it did die. After, there was no need when the commercial train came and people through St. Louis went all the way to Chihuahua with the commerce. There was a lot of trade and everything. The cotton.

I imagine that it slowly was dying because there were things available to the people, for those who had money, that were buying instead of going through the old ritual. I believe that is one of the reasons. It is even hard now to find wool, because it is supply and demand and there is no demand out there. People are not doing it. Nobody wants to do this.

There is approximately forty to fifty stitches in a square inch that I have, and in this book you can see some of my work. Some of it is done with tin work around it. There is also a Sagrada Familia, which is part of our tradition from Santa Cruz because of Father—

Atencio: Salvador.

Vigil: Yes. He was the one that married my mother and father in 1920. He also married Joe and me in 1954. That was a long history that he had. When my mother passed away, she was buried here in Santa Cruz. I was so amazed to see all the Holy Families that were on the altar, because I can remember as a child that the Holy Family used to come to our home on the fifth of every month.

I do not know if your family belongs to that or not, but the moment that it entered the home, there was a candle lit and that stayed on for the rest of the day. Prayers were said in the evening, the doors were closed, and on it went to the next family. These are part of traditions and the beauty of what I was able to experience as a child. I felt that all this knowledge was something that I had to put into a book.

When we started writing this book, I did my research and Willie had a lot to do with helping us retrieve pictures from the altar. I had done the altarpiece. My mother was supposed to have done it, but it took them about two years to appropriate the money when they renovated Santa Cruz, and by that time her eyesight was not very good. This was in 1981 or so, so I ended up doing the whole altarpiece.

Atencio: Altarpiece for the church of Santa Cruz.

Vigil: Right. I signed it and Father gave it back, asked Mary Louise if he knew the individual who had done that piece. I have it and I am thinking of donating it to the Smithsonian, because I think that Santa Cruz has a tremendous history in itself with our ancestors.

Atencio: You have been exposed to different cultures, different ways of living. People from the Valley, people from the south and now moving to a big city.

Vigil: The beauty of all that.

Atencio: You can appreciate the beauty of it all.

Vigil: Yes. This is something that I have instilled in my children. We have four children, and I have always let them know. Sometimes they would say, “There goes Mom again with her stories about how she had to walk to Santa Cruz and cross that river.” There are stories in that book regarding my childhood. There is a chapter on my mother and a chapter on myself and, as I say, the beauty of it. Midway towards this book, Nancy said to me, “You know the instructions for colcha are going to get lost.”

I went on my own and constructed a book on colcha. I have the other book there. All the mechanics and everything are in regard to that. I printed five hundred thinking, “I do not even know if I can sell a hundred.” Because nobody knew what I was doing. They did not know what colcha was.

It took me about two years and I sold all the five hundred: the museums and Las Golondrinas. The lady there that is in charge, Mrs. Martin, said to me, “Esther, this was a book that was long in need.” She said, “It will be here long after you are gone.” So that made me feel really good. My only regret is I wish my mother had been here when I had accomplished all of this, because that was their goal, to preserve the culture and do all of this. You see, I have been very fortunate to be able to touch more than one world.

Atencio: Do you have any questions?

David Schiferl: I have one. You mentioned working in Supply and Property. Does the term “witch hazel” have any special significance in Los Alamos?

Vigil: Witch hazel.

Schiferl: Witch hazel.

Vigil: I cannot say that I did come across that. Trinity, I remember Trinity.

Schiferl: What I was fishing for was plutonium. It is a really nasty metal, metallurgically, and so they alloy it with gallium. But they did not want to give away the game. So, for a long time if you wanted to order gallium, you ordered witch hazel. But I have no idea what you had to order if you really wanted witch hazel. Gallium was called witch hazel as a kind of a code. 

Vigil: No, I cannot say that I ever did. By the time that we got our files in regard to any of the supplies of anything, we were more of keepers than an inventory type of thing. Of course, there were the higher ups who were responsible to see that whatever it was that was in need, but I do not think I ever delved into looking up whatever the supplies were in regard to that. We were in a secure area and everything, we had a guard. We had to have passes in order to get through there. Even with all of this, I think the impact of the war and what we were into was not something that we necessarily dwelled into. I do not know for you, but you know.

Atencio: We had a job. We were lucky to have a job. We took care of it, and they took care of us. Our ancestors went through a lot. They were impressed by the Depression.

Vigil: A lot.

Atencio: We had a job.

Vigil: There was a—

Atencio: You took care of your job.

Vigil: Exactly. There was a gentleman by the name of—he lived in San Pedro and I remember he worked in our department. I cannot think of his name now, but he got a lot of jobs for a lot of the people in the Valley up in Supply and Property. The greater percentage of all the people spoke no English and they had no training in any of the items that they had.

Atencio: Is the fellow you are talking about from supply Clyde Reed?

Vigil: There you go. Clyde Reed it was! Clyde Reed. He lived in the lower part of Valley over there by the San Pedro area near the Chapel. 

It has been a very fascinating life for me. I am very thankful that I was born later in life to my mother, because my sister was eleven years older and so was my brother, nine years older. All my first cousins were all older than I was, but I was lucky to experience Los Alamos, which is something that my older brother and sister were not able to.

Schiferl: Is there anything that was particularly funny that you might want to share with us, either with the family, with Los Alamos, with the area?           

Vigil: I do not know. I guess I was pretty independent and pretty serious since I was little. One of the things that comes to my mind in regard to home, not necessarily at Los Alamos. When I was little, I guess I was very close to my father since my mother was working. I remember during harvest of chile he would go down to the orchard, down to where the chile was, and he would say, “Okay, I am going to check and see if the chile is ready or not. Now the first one that cries means that the chile is ready because it is hot.”

What was so funny—and I never thought about it before—but he would cut off the tip of it, which basically has no veins, and he would let me eat that part. I think to myself that was his way of just introducing me to part of our culture and kind of a testing.

But like I say, I was very independent since I was very little. I wanted to help, to even drive the tractor from here to there when they were pitching the hay, or doing the irrigating.

Something that was not so funny I remember: one time my brother and I went down to where all the watermelons were. My brother decided that he was going to cut into the watermelon and see if it was ripe or not. Then he would plug them right back and turn them upside down. Needless to say, we really got in trouble. But I do not know.

Another thing you wonder, if maybe childhood you think of things so much greater. I can remember that we would go out and clear six inches of snow, and we still had enough in order to be able to make ice cream. Now whether it was the fact that I was small, but it seemed like there was a lot more snow in those days than there ever was now. I guess I knew the severity of the need of water, because my dad was a farmer. Many things that happened were basically more serious and I think made me more independent, especially since my mother was at work. I would try to fill in for her at home even as a child.

This was not funny, but I remember one time trying to can for her and I got to the point where I sterilized all the jars and everything. I went to put them in that pressure cooker and I was afraid that thing was going to explode on me. I do not know how old I was. I must have been young, but I was terrified. I just got that far and I thought, “Well, my mother will have to put them in the pressure cooker,” because I knew it was going to explode if I had done it.

Atencio: We all grew up on small farms here. That was just the way of life.

Vigil: We had so much, something that I often say. I have to laugh now with the recession as it is. I was born in 1933 and of course the Depression was in 1930. In all the years I was born, and I know it from my sisters and brothers, we felt rich because we had meat, we had fruit, we had vegetables, we had everything. We had no money in the stock brokers so we did not care if it went kaput, because we had no money. But we never suffered any of this because of the fact that my dad was a very good farmer and provided us with everything – milk, eggs, pork, beef. And as I said, fruit and vegetables. I would love to go out early in the spring with my salt shaker and eat little green apples and radishes. These are joys that my children would never ever experience.

We were pretty mature in comparison. I tell my grandchildren, “Now you are spoiled.” My kids used to fight about who had to do dishes and that meant putting them in the dishwasher. Whereas Joseph and I had to go down two ditches.

Atencio: To get the water.

Vigil: To the pump to draw the water and bring it back up to the house. You see, times have changed tremendously, but the children are spoiled now.

Atencio: You appreciate the good times.

Vigil: I appreciate that very much. But believe me, when the bucket was running empty, or it was time to take a bath or it was time to wash, everybody was disappearing because they did not want to go down to carry all those buckets of water. That was because my Dad had tried putting a well in the upper section.

See, we lived in a hill area. The property was all down below and we lived in a hill area. When he was drilling for water, they charge him according to the foot, and since you were in the hill area, he had to go quite deep in order to get any water, I understand. I was elated when I saw water coming out, but they said that was not drinkable water, they had to go further down. So our first well was down in the lower part of the ditch, the second ditch, the irrigation ditches. 

As I said, I feel very fortunate. Having lived in both worlds, I think I appreciate a lot more, what we have and what we do, because of the fact I did see. Even if it was a small portion of that, it had a lot to do with my upbringing.

Copyright 2017 Willie Atencio and David Schiferl. Rights granted to Atomic Heritage Foundation.