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Rosario Martinez Fiorillo’s Interview

Manhattan Project Locations:

Rosario Martinez Fiorillo grew up in northern New Mexico during the Manhattan Project. Her ancestors were Hispano homesteaders who built the Romero Cabin, an important pre-Manhattan Project structure at Los Alamos. In this interview, she reflects on her experiences living in the village of Guachupangue, and recalls an Army convoy passing by her house before the Trinity Test. She describes the history of the Romero Cabin and how her grandparents were evicted by the U.S. government for the Manhattan Project. Martinez Fiorillo explains why she decided not to work at Los Alamos, and concludes by talking about her life as a bilingual education teacher in California and New Mexico.

Date of Interview:
January 6, 2009
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, Rosario, where were your grandparents from?

Rosario Martinez Fiorillo: My grandparents were born in San Ildefonso. Not my father, but my mother was born in San Ildefonso and her siblings, Ernestina Gonzales, were born in San Ildefonso. But I found the baptismal certificate belonging to Victor Romero and Refugio Romero, and they baptized them and they were born in San Ildefonso.

Atencio: Okay. What were the circumstances that your family had a homestead in Los Alamos?

Fiorillo: Sometime in the late 1800s, I guess, my great-grandmother and my great-grandfather, David Romero and Francisquita Duran Romero sent an application for a homestead in Los Alamos. They finally acquired it into the 1900s. They received a grant, and they had a little ranch up at Los Alamos. As a matter of fact, it had 160 acres in Los Alamos. But, of course, they had to be out there for planting and all that. That’s what they were going to do. They were going to be farmers. They set up a log cabin in Los Alamos to hold the equipment that they took when they took their mules or whatever. They went up there to plow and prepare the ground for planting during the spring. 

My mother told me that they always made their way to Los Alamos in April through this road. Before that, my great-grandfather – both of my great-grandfathers, Victor David Romero and Antonio Sanchez – were involved in actually making the trail up to Los Alamos, making the road or building the road. They called it “El Camino de la Culebra,” which means the Snake Road, because it was like that [moves arm in shape of snake]. When they finally got through, my great-grandfather, Antonio Sanchez, a boulder crushed him to death.

They had to wait a while before they could even make a trek up there in the spring, when they had got the road all cleared out of rocks and stones and boulders. Their mule or the oxen, I don’t know what they had, would carry the wagon and carry their equipment and their seeds and everything when they went in April. That’s what she told me. He got killed in 1900, I guess, or a little before my mom was born.

Atencio: Now, do you have any paperwork on how your family acquired the homestead?

Fiorillo: We had the paperwork that came, that we saw. They gave them the 160 acres, I guess, is what it must have been.

Atencio: Was there anybody’s signature on that homestead paperwork?

Fiorillo: No.

Atencio: The president?

Fiorillo: He got a letter from President [Woodrow] Wilson – my grandfather, Victor Romero – congratulating him on his land grant or whatever, or his homesteading. To go ahead and live up there if they could. But, of course, they already lived in San Ildefonso, so they made their way up there to farm. That’s what it was, a little farm. Everybody had their farms there. No, they weren’t the only ones. Montoyas were there, too, and Gomez’s people, yes.

Atencio: Do you remember families other than the Montoyas and the Gomezes that lived up there?

Fiorillo: Garcias.

Atencio: Garcias.

Fiorillo: That’s why the Garcia Canyon is named after the Garcia people from Guachupangue. Teresa Garcia was the one who started and got everybody together.

Atencio: Did you ever live in Los Alamos—

Fiorillo: No, I didn’t.

Atencio:—in the homestead land?

Fiorillo: No. They would go up there. My mother said that they would make a trek in the summer. Sometimes, they would go look at the fields, but it would take a whole day. She said, “We had to pack a lunch, and we went with the wagon up there.” They would stop at this place where water was running, I guess, from the canyon. That’s where they would eat their lunch and then go up to the ranch, and work there and do the planting. Sometimes, not all the time. But then they would stay in this little—and they were building the little log cabin there. They could stay, put their equipment in there, so they wouldn’t have to haul everything every time that they went up there.

Atencio: Did any of your ancestors work for the Los Alamos Ranch School?

Fiorillo: Mr. Gonzales was my uncle through marriage. He was married to my Aunt Ernestina. Aunt Ernestina was my mother’s sister, older sister.

Atencio: What was Mr. Gonzales’ first name?

Fiorillo: Bences.

Atencio: Bences.

Fiorillo: Bences Gonzales. He ran the shop there, I think, or something. The post office, too. He was involved there with a lot of the—and the boys’ school. He met a lot of children or young people who came from back east, who were suffering from asthma or something like that, and they stayed there in that school. He was involved in, more supervising, I guess, the area there. 

But my Aunt Ernestina and her family lived up there. My cousins lived up there, and they used to come and visit my grandmother. I remember, because they had a 1934 car, I remember that. They would come, bring the family down to Guachupangue. Then we would go to my Grandma’s to see the family. You know Severo Gonzales, don’t you?

Atencio: Severo Gonzales.

Fiorillo: Yeah. He’s my cousin, yeah.

Atencio: Severo has a brother named Ray, right.

Fiorillo: Ray. 

Atencio: Now, the Army came in and took over the land.

Fiorillo: Yes.

Atencio: What was the reaction from your ancestors about the Army taking over the land?

Fiorillo: All I know from interviewing these other people, too. I found letters that said Éstos son los papeles de la tierra [These are the land papers]. They used to call my grandmother. My grandfather wrote, and their papeles de la tierra, where they had the papers that said “Area 160 acres. Today’s area, 55” or something like this. They came and they told him that they had to leave, because they were going to have the soldiers. They called them soldiers or policemen, because they saw them in uniform.

So, they just said, “Well, we have to get out.” My grandparents didn’t have to get out much, except maybe their equipment that they had, the farming equipment that they had up there. Which were hand things, you know, stoop labor stuff. They didn’t have to get out much, but they could not go and plant up there anymore. They told them that they would pay them, but they never did, I guess, they never did. As I recall, one time that they had offered them $7 an acre, see. But they never gave them any money, I guess. I don’t think so.

Anyway, they just didn’t go to plant anymore, and they just gave up their land. What else could they do? Because they were frightened by these people in uniform. They came with guns and whatnot, and all of a sudden they came to them and they told them, “Well, you can’t come and plant anymore over here. We’re going to take over. The government wants your land.”

One of the things that was very hard for them to understand is that everything – maybe they wrote letters to them in English, but there was nobody to translate these letters for them. There were all men, you know, and they did not understand most of the stuff. They just agreed, “Sí, sí, sí.” What could they do? The language problem there.

My great-grandparents didn’t have too much. They only brought their animals down. What could they do. And their equipment that they had to continue their farming in San Ildefonso. But that’s all I know about it. I knew that they weren’t compensated, that’s all I knew. Later on, when I was growing up, I understood it a little bit more.

Then when I was doing the research for the lawyers, then I found all these letters and the letter from President Wilson to my grandfather. Then also he went to court in Santa Fe for some property or something. Because his son, my uncle, David, was named David also. So maybe they got him confused with the older David, the grandfather, see, the father. 

Atencio: Now, after Los Alamos became a project, did any of your relatives work at Los Alamos?

Fiorillo: Well, only my sister, Rosanna went to work when she graduated from high school. She worked at—but there was an Army camp, see. We used to see them, the trucks going and the soldiers in the back of the trucks, and then they would wave at us when we were out there in the yard. Many of these people who worked, many of the scientists, I’m sure they stopped at our house. Because, we had lots of lilacs, lilacs all over. They would stop to buy flowers, and they would give us 25 cents and we would save that 25 cents to go to Santa Clara Day.

Atencio: This is in Guachupangue.

Fiorillo: In Guachupangue, yes.

Atencio: Can you tell us where Guachupangue is located?

Fiorillo: Guachupangue is located about – from Espanola, south, up the little hill, I would say three-quarters of a mile. Because we used to walk to school, and it was three times a day or four times a day. Then we’d go downtown, we called it La Plaza, down there, and up to Guachupangue.

Atencio: In other words, the road to Los Alamos went through the village of Guachupangue.

Fiorillo: All the time. It was not paved, even. It was paved later on when the government started the trucks, and the buses would go there and all this dust all over the place. They finally paved it. The county paved it. But it wasn’t paved, not while I was growing up, until then.

My sister used to go to Los Alamos in the bus. She got a job in the cafeteria selling tickets to the soldiers for the meals, I guess, in the cafeteria. She met a lot of people there that I knew. A lot of her classmates worked in the same situation, because they just graduated from high school and went to look for a job over there. They went, and they landed in the cafeteria. They needed all these people to work in the cafeteria.

Then one day, she went to be in the cafeteria, and she had met this person who used to go eat there. He says, “What are you doing here selling tickets? Why don’t you go work for Zia Company?” So, that’s when she went and applied and she got a job. That’s when the computers were starting to come in. She was in payroll division. She told me she was making the little holes in the little cards. But, first of all, they had to go to training to use those big machines, that’s what she said. That’s how I recall her. But she was working and she had money to bring home to the family, and she helped our parents.

Because my parents were farmers, too, like everybody else. Sometimes, my father worked in the highway department. Sometimes, not all the time. Jobs in Española weren’t available unless you worked in a store, a clerk or whatever. You worked in the highway department if you happened to know somebody who was a Democrat or a Republican [Laughter].

They could pass you through, and that’s what my father did. “You vote for me and I’ll give you a job. Go see this person.” [Inaudible] Bless his heart. Anyway, that’s the way they got the jobs here and there. Unless you worked for the school district as a janitor, whatever. 

Most of the people who went to work at Los Alamos had janitorial – they did the maintenance. My girlfriend’s father went. He had a little farm there when he went to work at Los Alamos, but he was a janitor. My Uncle Ernie, you know. Uncle Ernest—

Atencio: Romero? 

Fiorillo: Romero. He was my mother’s brother. He went over there after he retired from I don’t know what. He was working in a gas company, butane, something. He went to work over there and he was a messenger, too. I know my neighbor next door, she went in the bus. She worked, I guess, as a maid or something like that. She went in the early morning. In the summertime, it was early morning. It was still dark, I think, when they were going up and raising up all this dust all over. We lived next to a highway, a road, yeah. 

Atencio: Now, you mentioned that one night you saw many trucks coming from Los Alamos—

Fiorillo: Oh, yes, this—

Atencio: On their way to Socorro.

Fiorillo: I presume, we don’t know. I—

Atencio: Tell us the date.

Fiorillo: The date was July the seventh. I suppose it would the seventh, because when they came by there, my sister and I were just sleeping on the porch in this little bed and the dog was there and everything. It was too hot to stay in the house, and so we made a little bed there [inaudible]. What woke me up was the fact that I could see these lights coming down the road from the south to the north. The dog didn’t get disturbed or anything. He was under the bed there. I just watched and watched, and when they came, we were about 100 feet away from the road there. The fence was there, and the bushes were in the front.

They stopped right in front, because we had six cottonwood trees around the house that my Grandfather Martinez had put there, see. They were like sentries all the way around. This tree had a big branch across the road. The truck hesitated there, and that’s when I really looked out there. These people got up on the Army truck—it was an Army truck—and they pushed with a stick, or whatever they had, the branch so that the truck could move under.

Now, the other trucks were very slow, very slow, and they were coming, following this big truck. All of them had their parking lights on, so slowly. They were about two miles an hour. Then, when they reached that area, they would get down, push the thing up and go through. They were [going] so slowly. That’s why the dogs didn’t bark or anything, because they didn’t make any noise at all.

I remember that. Ten days later – I was thirteen or twelve years old, I guess — I heard about this explosion somewhere. I thought, “Oh, they’re going to Tennessee,” because I heard that they were going to Tennessee or something. That was about the 16th of July, I believe, that this happened in White Sands. But I wasn’t aware of it. It wasn’t important to me, because I didn’t know. But I remember I said, “Oh, I know where they’re going. They’re going to go over there to Tennessee to bring some more stuff.” That was in my pre-teen mind, you know. My sister didn’t pay attention, but I did.

I remember the dates, because then on the 6th of August, it was the big one [Hiroshima]. I said, “Wow, that must have been when they were taking that bomb right in front of Guachupangue, right in front of our house.” That was in my own mind. Of course, I didn’t tell nobody, I didn’t tell my father or my mother. They weren’t aware of it. I didn’t discuss anything like that, because they were going to ask me the question, “What were you doing up?”

So, no, they didn’t know. I didn’t blab or anything like that. But, in my mind, in my little mind that I had at the time – I wouldn’t study or anything like that – we weren’t aware, many people weren’t aware. They didn’t pay attention. They said, “Well, they’re doing something secret.”

In our play that was in theater, we had a play called Los Farolitos [Little Lanterns] de Christmas, or Navidad. I was in that play, and they mentioned this. “Everybody’s going to Los Alamos.” There was a line. The storekeeper.

So-and-so is going to the line. “Yeah, they’re building a bomb. What kind of a bomb is it?” You know, they discussed that in the play. Rodolfo Anaya, he wrote that line, and I remember that.

He says, “Yes, Maria is going to go work at Los Alamos. Everybody is working at Los Alamos from here. What are we going to do when everybody, all the boys are gone, and we don’t have anybody to make luminarias [bonfires]? We’re going to have to depend on the little children to do it.”

Of course, the grandfather said, “No, I’ll do it, I’ll go chop the wood for the luminarias.” Then they discovered how to make the farolitos, you see. That’s the whole play. It’s kind of a neat one. But I remember those lines that Anaya put in there.

He says, “Oh, no, everybody’s going to Los Alamos. The men are all in the service already. They’re at war, so we don’t have anybody to make luminarias.”

Of course, the grandfather said, “Well, I’ll make them all.” He was sick, so he couldn’t.

I have the tape. They taped the play. I ran it the other day. Look at me, there I am! I played the comadre [godmother] in the play. It was sort of a bilingual thing, you know.

Atencio: Do you remember what happened when the war ended? What did your parents and neighbors or anybody say about the war and the bomb being made—

Fiorillo: Well, I know my brother Erminio was drafted when he was a junior in high school. In 1946, when my sister graduated, there was only one boy out of a senior class of 12, and it was because he was 16 years old and he was a senior in high school. All the juniors had been drafted, and my brother was one of them. He landed in the South Pacific, and that’s where he was wounded. He had to go fight the Japanese. At the time, they called them “Japs,” you see, in the newsreel. When we went to the movies, we saw the newsreel and said, “Oh, the Japs are bombing this and bombing that and bombing all this stuff.”

But my brother came home. My mother had the telegram they sent from San Francisco hospital, where he had been wounded. He was in the hospital and he said, “I am fine. I will be home soon.” I remember when he came on the bus, on the Trailways bus, and my sister was at the Evans Drug Store and met him there. They walked up to Guachupangue and he was limping. He came and the war was over.

They took all these young people. He wasn’t the only one from Guachupangue. In fact, one of them from Guachupangue was a prisoner in the Philippines for three years. When he came back home, he just sat there in this tiny little place all the time, staring into space. Because they had put him in a cage, and he was in the [Bataan Death] March, too. He died about three years ago. Samuel Vigil.

Atencio: Sammy Vigil.

Fiorillo: He used to be the car salesman, too, yeah. He was one of the survivors.

Atencio: Do you remember what people said when the war ended?

Fiorillo: Well, yeah. Their prayers were answered, because everybody had somebody in the war. Everybody said, “Oh, now my son is going to come back, and oh, this war is awful.” We didn’t have television or radio. Very seldom, we would get a little bit of radio. As a matter of fact, that’s when they put the electricity over there, or telephones for that matter. So we didn’t know too well. The only thing we had, if we happened to go to the movies, young people, they would see the newsreel, and they were always terrible. We used to see the soldiers dying and being killed. Everybody had somebody in the service, you know, in the war.

Also, I remember during the war, we had the stamp book for buying things. We could not buy shoes or sugar or coffee. In fact, I still have the books, those stamps.  I still have some in my—I was going to take them to the museum—those stamp books that we had to have. They gave each member of the family a book of stamps. Then when you went to the store to buy sugar, they would take a coupon. So, if you had a big family, we were six, I guess, or seven. Well, there were seven. We could buy at least seven pounds of sugar or whatever it was, or shoes. We couldn’t buy leather shoes, you know, we had to have stamps for them. I still have those books there. I found them the other day in my files.

Teachers are clutterers, oh, gosh. Anyway, I said, “What in the world is this, look.” They had my name on it. They had the names of all of the members of the family. Everybody there in Guachupangue had the same thing. They were in the same boat. We couldn’t have any more.

But we planted a farm and we canned and we survived. This is what you call organic planting, that’s how I was raised. I’m 77 years old now. The doctor told me, he says, “You are very healthy. You had that organic food when you were young.” It’s true, true, and my mother did, too. My mother lived to 103. She didn’t have any diabetes, she didn’t have any diabetes. I don’t know whether she had cholesterol. They used to eat pork all the time. But, anyway, healthy, let’s put it that way. She wasn’t ill at all. It was because of the way that they lived, very simply. Ate their own food, they grew their own stuff. They didn’t put any stuff to kill bugs or anything like that. It was just natural, natural stuff. 

We ate cherries from the trees, we ate apples from—“Mom, have you ever went to get apples?” my daughter asked me. Are you kidding, we had apple trees! That’s one thing my great-grandfather – my grandfather from the Martinez side – his whole family was Martinez there in Guachupangue, and they all had orchards. Aron Martinez, Israel Martinez, they all had their property and they all had orchards. We never knew what it was to go buy things at the store. You bought them from the tree, got them on the tree. Natural things, no spraying, no nothing.

One of the saddest things that, when I came back from California – I spent 33 years in California – I came back and I said, “Where have all the cornfields, alfalfa fields, gone?” Because my father still planted alfalfa and corn and all that. Instead, I saw mobile homes.

I said, “When did this come about?” You know, mobile homes in the little farm. Where have all the little patitos [ducklings] gone from the river? The asparagus that we used to go pick up, and stuff like that? I know you probably are familiar with that. That’s what we used to do. By the river, true. All natural.

Atencio: You have seen a big change since Los Alamos came. There has been—

Fiorillo: Oh, well, yeah. Los Alamos came. Who was the one, Higgy, was that his name? The director?

Atencio: [J. Robert] Oppenheimer?

Fiorillo: Higgy? One of the directors there.

Atencio: At Los Alamos.

Fiorillo: Yeah, and I quote him, he said, “Los Alamos is the welfare of Espanola.” Because people from here, laborers, worked there and the economy was good, you know, here. I went in 1946, I went up there with my sister. She got me a pass and we went in this horrible bus. I was just 15 years old. I was afraid. I don’t know whether my friends were afraid, but I was afraid to go there. I went there. In fact, I have a picture of myself that my sister took, and I had this horrible feeling inside of me when I was up there. I said, “I don’t think I could stay here.”

I think it’s a little higher now, I’m breathing a little faster. I said, “Wow. I don’t like it. I don’t like it here.” Then all these people going up and down, and all these soldiers and stuff like that. I said, “I don’t like it here.” In my mind, in my own 15-year-old mind. She took a picture of me. I said, “I wonder why I didn’t go.” My friends went to work. “No,” I say, “I’m going to stay here, down here, locally, in Española.” I got a job at one of the department stores, and I worked there.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t go to school. There were no colleges, and I wanted to go, desperately. Then later on I met my husband, who was a teacher. But I wasn’t in school anymore. I remember telling my friend this – and this is true. “Oh, Tony, you mean to tell me you’re going to marry Tom?”

And I say, “Tom wants to marry me. But you don’t know him, he’s from New York.”

“What are you going to do?”

“Well, we’ll just have to find out.”

He said, “Well, this is way I see it, Tony. We can’t go to college, but I’ll marry a teacher. That way I’ll be able to get some education, see.”

I wanted to be educated, but unfortunately, they wouldn’t let the girls go to [New Mexico] Highlands [University]. There were no scholarships. I know I would have gotten a scholarship, because I was in the National Honor Society, and I was a straight-A student in Española. I skipped a grade. I said, “No, I would’ve gotten a scholarship to go,” but would my parents have let me go? They didn’t let the girls go by themselves. It wasn’t—

Atencio: And then you went to college in California.

Fiorillo: Yes. When my little one, my number seven daughter, was in kindergarten, I said, “I’m going to school. I got to go.”

I told my teacher – I promised him that I was going to go to college. I went and enrolled at the junior college in Ventura. Night school, 4:00 to 7:00. Oh, Lord. I used to go down the beach. I used to drive my little 1965 Mustang to college over there in Ventura at night. In Spanish, because I wanted to be in bilingual education. Because, bilingual was coming in, and I spoke Spanish. I remember they tested me over there, “Can you write a letter to the parents?” 

I used New Mexico Spanish when I used to write to my mom, of course. So I wrote it down and the principal calls me up and says, “You’re hired. Come back for training.” Okay. I went and I got a job at the district as an assistant, because the teachers that were coming from back east didn’t know any Spanish. We were going to have Mexican kids, you know, they were migrants. I worked with migrant education. They needed somebody to work with the children who didn’t know English, see.

I continued going to school, the night school, and finally, “Oh, gosh, no, don’t give me no night school, forget it.”

Atencio: Okay. Can you tell us about the Romero Cabin?

Fiorillo: Okay. The Romero Cabin, according to the book, but they made some errors there. They said that the son-in-law helped him build it. No, because my aunt married after my mother. My mother married in 1919, and my mother’s sister, Ernestine, married in 1925 or something like that. According to the book, they said that the Romero Cabin was built with the help of my grandfather’s son-in-law, Bences Gonzales. I said, “Well, that’s kind of strange, because he wasn’t even married to my Aunt Ernestine yet until ’25.” It was in 1913 that it says there.

Somehow, the people got together. A lot of Romeros from El Rancho; they were all related somehow. They worked up there and they had to have a building out there, so they built this with logs. That’s where they had their equipment, their farming equipment. When they got kicked out, they didn’t bring their cabin, of course, they brought all the stuff that they had there. That was it. But they left the cabin there.

Now the [Los Alamos] Historical Society decided to preserve it, and so they decided to move it someplace else, from where it was. My mother says, “There’s that cypress tree there, that was growing right in front of that little cabin.” It was still there, when she went up there, because she cut the ribbon. Well, she didn’t, Bences did. But I don’t know why Bences did it. Because it was my mother and my Uncle Ernie who were supposed to cut the ribbon when they moved log by log by log, and they refabricated it over there somewhere.

They had a ceremony. It was on television, it was on Channel 5, I believe. My mother, she was 85 then, because I remember I came. She was over there with her little high heels all over, and I said, “Wow.” They cut the ribbon, my Uncle Ernie, you know, they were there at the Romero Cabin. Then we went into the museum, and that’s how it was preserved.

Then they wrote this book. When I read it, I said, “Well, Bences wasn’t the one who helped. It was other Romero people and Gonzales people.” I suppose there was a Gonzales up there, too. They all helped one another. That’s one thing about the people from New Mexico here, Española, they helped one another. We’re all related, and they just say, “Well, do you need help? We’ll go help you kill the pig. We’ll go help you do this, go help you do that.” Right? I mean, that’s the way our culture is. They are always helping one another. When they went up there, that’s what they did. If they were building the road. It’s the same road, El Camino de la Culebra, that they use today.

Atencio: Do you visit the Romero Cabin?

Fiorillo: Yeah. I went to the Romero Cabin. Not now, but I went to the real cabin one time when my mother went up there, and that’s when she made the comment. She said, “There’s that cypress tree there.” The ditch was right there, the water went right through to where we were, where the cabin was when the men decided to stay up there so that they could go plow. After the freeze, they went up there and they took the plows and they plowed the field and they planted their corn, the beans. Because, we were the green bean people, the green beans, the pinto beans.

My grandfather had – there was a barter system, see. They charged things at Bond & Nohl and then they sold their beans to them, the way that people who were sheepherders sold their sheep and their wool to the Bond people, see. That’s the way my grandfather was [inaudible]. That’s what it was. He would bring the beans, the pinto beans and then they would sell them to Mr. Bond, see. During the year they charged their stuff at Bond & Nohl. Oh, yeah, Bond & Nohl was there forever.

My father told me that when the Bond brothers came in, their first store was tents along the river. Because my father was little. He lived in, what do you call it there, El Corral de Piedra? That’s where all the Martinezes are. Corral de Piedra, they lived there. He used to go the Bonds’ store, after they had the store right there in Espanola.

They would come down, all barefoot, and run down there so we could work in the barn. They had barns in the back for the sheep and all that. They would help. The little boys would clean the barns and stuff like that. That’s what he said he did. And before that, they would go to the river or near the river to clean up where the tents were. They had a tent before it was a store. Then they went with Mr. Kramer in San Juan, see. They combined with Mr. Kramer, because Mr. Kramer had a mercantile there. My father used to buy a lot of stuff from Mr. Kramer later on. He used to say they came and they, the Bond brothers, they set up their tents right there by the river.

Atencio: So you have seen that Los Alamos has really changed the valley.

Fiorillo: Oh, definitely. The economic situation raised. At the time, the people who were working had money, and they bought cars. I never saw people buying new cars until Los Alamos came in. And then not cars, but trucks. My daughter says, “What was your first car like?”

“Are you kidding,” I said, “We didn’t have a car. We didn’t go places. We had trucks.”

My father had a long-wheelbase truck. I remember that I used to help him go. Because my brother was in the service. So 6:00 in the morning, he’d say, “We have the alfalfa in piles, and we have to bring it into the barn,” and the hay that he had. I was young, but I would go. I used to pull the wire, and that was the starter for the truck. Then I would drive it down the field, and my father would get the thing and pile the alfalfa in the truck. Then he would drive it to the hayloft there and he would dump it in. But I used to help him. I used to go during the summer, see, to help him, because there were no boys there. My brother was gone. I remember that. That’s when I would go with that truck. It was fun. That was my first driving in the field.

Atencio: After Los Alamos came, people started getting trucks?

Fiorillo: Everybody had panel trucks, because they carried people up there. The buses were gone, and I know that most of the people who worked up at Los Alamos had little panel trucks. This is an experience I had: they would make wooden benches and they would put them on the side. It was enclosed, this little panel truck. It so happened that I went to the prom in one of them. I will never forget this, because my dress got caught in one of those rough boards, and it got ripped a little bit. Oh, gosh, I’ll never forget that.

It was Ben Maestas, Victor Maestas’s truck, because Ben Maestas used to drive the little truck over there. But, it so happened that this truck, I guess somebody borrowed it, because that was the only way we could get around. Somebody borrowed somebody else’s bike or truck. I remember sitting in this thing. How come they have all these boards, because they take people up to Los Alamos to work? They were transporting people, because the buses were gone after the Army left.

Atencio: You have seen lots of changes because of Los Alamos?

Fiorillo: Oh, yeah. Well, economically, yes. Definitely, definitely.

We hardly had any Anglo people here in school. The Pueblo children didn’t go to—well, once in a while, they would go to public school, but most of them went, when they went, to boarding school someplace. In my class, we only had the Willards, who were Anglo. They worked here, they were here. We didn’t have any Anglo kids, so we were all Spanish kids. I’ll never forget this, because I was in the fifth grade. They invited me to play jacks. Now, we had a couple of the Anglo children. I remember one of them lived in Guachupangue, as a matter of fact, and we were very thrilled, because they invited us to go play jacks, me anyway. Oh, now I can speak English, now I know that I’m in the loop.

But there was still friction between Los Alamos basketball players and the [Española Military Academy] Hornets. Now, one time when we were – it was a tournament, I guess, or something like that. I don’t know what it was. I didn’t see too much of this, and we ignored this stuff, this little friction. Some of these players who had come down from Los Alamos to play in our gym, at the little tournaments that we had, started throwing tortillas to the gym floor.

“What? Why are they doing that!” We said, “That’s awful for them to throw tortillas.” But we didn’t get the gist of it, let’s put it that way. We didn’t understand that they were referring to us. But that was that. And they picked them up and put them away, the janitors did. What could they do? But we always beat them up. We always beat Los Alamos. What would we call them? The Hilltoppers. They weren’t the Hilltoppers, they were the—

Atencio: Hilltoppers, yeah, I think they were—

Fiorillo: The Hilltoppers, that what they were, the Hilltoppers. Oh, boy.

David Schiferl: Probably Hilltoppers, yeah, but they might’ve been called something else.

Fiorillo: I think they were something else before. I remember they wore the green and white with the black and gold. Anyway, there was friction sometimes, but of course, there was friction with the Crusaders. I tell you, one time, the Crusaders lost to Española in the tournament. The boys went and got ink. You know, we didn’t have any ballpoints; we had to use ink or blue ink to write our stuff. They threw a lot of ink right on the wall, on the outside of the gym, right there. Mr. McDowell found out who they were and he got them in, and he made them go and start cleaning that mess that they had done. They threw the bottles of ink against the wall, because they had lost, Santa Cruz Crusaders. That was a rivalry there, yeah. We enjoyed the tournaments. It was good.

We got along with the Native Americans, yes, oh, yes. We got some kids from San Juan, and kids from Santa Clara. One of the things that I remember about the Native American, well, the Indian kids, was that they would not permit their picture to be taken.

I said, “Well, why?” I was the editor for the annual, for our—and they didn’t want to.

“We can’t take it, we can’t. It’s against our religion.”

Finally, one day they told us. One of them, I remember – I think it was Johnny Archuleta from San Juan. He said, “The reason we don’t do it is because it’s against our beliefs, that a picture will take a picture of our souls.” I think that’s what it was. Of course, I didn’t understand at the time. But I remember that. We have some in the ’49 annual, that did take. The ones from Santa Clara did, but the ones from San Juan didn’t. Well, the ones from San Juan are more Spanish than Native American, no? Yeah, yeah. They learned the customs of the Spaniards and all that here.

Atencio: Well, you told about the culture and the feelings and all that.

Fiorillo: Oh, yeah.

Atencio: The truth is the truth. 

Fiorillo: Yeah. We were very good kids, because our parents, and this is the truth. ¡No nos traigan vergüenzas! [Don’t bring us shame!] I don’t know whether they told you that. No vengan con verguenzas aquí. Don’t bring any shame to this family. We obeyed. “When your teachers are taking our place in school, you respect them, you understand. Don’t bring any shame, any quejas [complaints], anybody.” So, we never did. I never, never, never, never talked back. We had good teachers, very good teachers. I admired my English teachers, because I said, “Poetry, literature.”

One of my teachers, Mrs. Bernalillo Moore, wow. She says, “My name is Bernalillo Moore,” I remember that. “Rosario,” our name ends in “O,” but that doesn’t mean that we’re male. Just because that’s our language, because boys’ names end in “O.” Objects or nouns, you know, that end in “O” are supposed to be masculine.

That’s where I got the idea, “I want to be a teacher,” and I did. I saw Mr. [Ed] Leupold when had our 50th anniversary, and I said, “Mr. Leupold, do you remember what you wrote in my annual book?”

“No,” he says. He’s close to 80 now, somewhere. He said, “No, Rosario, I don’t remember.”

“What you told me prom night, because I was the queen, prom night. My junior class elected me prom queen. I was their classmate, but I moved up. He took the pictures, see.

I said, “Do you remember what you told me?”


I said, “I’ll tell you what you wrote in my book, and I didn’t forget it. Every teacher’s dream is to have a student like you.”

“I wrote that?”

I said, “Yes. And, then you told me something on prom night, remember?”

I remember when he was taking the pictures: “Rosario, you are college material. Go to college.” That’s what he told me. I never forgot it.

When I saw him, I told him.

 “I told you that?”

“Yes. But, Mr. Leupold, I didn’t get to go to school right away. 20 years later, I went. And do you think, I went to take the entrance exam. I aced that English test.”

“What?” Because I remembered him. Because they were so good. 

I think I was the only one. There was about 30 sailors, because I was by the Seabee base in Port Hueneme. I went to take the test and there were Filipino sailors, I remember. We all took the test—nouns, verbs, ta-da, ta-da and whatever. I gave it to him and then I got my little card, it says, “You passed your test. You go into English 101.” All right. After that, I went through school writing good papers. My English teacher told me, we were studying writing, writing essays and stuff like that, expository writing. And he said, “I want every one of you to write something over the weekend and bring it.” That was my instructor.

I wrote something, I remember. In my little typewriter, I wrote it. It was a picnic, a summer end. That was the picnic we went to Santa Clara canyon, the family, in this little 1929 car. It was my grandma and all that. An excursion, that’s what it was. I wrote about it, and then she was passing the papers out when we turned them in. I noticed she kept mine and didn’t return it. Bless her heart, she said, “I want you pay attention, people. This is expository writing.” She says, “Ms. Fiorillo, do you want to come and read it, or shall I read it?” I went down in my seat like this, and she read it. And said, “This is what I call expository writing.” Something that happens in your family. And she said, “We have to get the bugs out.” That’s how we have to do. She gave me an A.

Then I stayed afterwards. After I finished, I took a correspondence course in writing for children and teenagers through Rhode Island Institute of Children’s Writing. Then I published my books that I wrote, for bilingual education. I wrote La época de los dinosaurios, “The Time of the Dinosaurs.” I have them, and I published them, and the teachers used them for their classes, you know, they’re in Spanish and in English. It’s like a little book, and that’s what it is. But, it was nice to see, “By Rose Fiorillo.”

Atencio: When did you first start learning English? At home, you learned Spanish.

Fiorillo: At home, we spoke Spanish. I started learning English in first grade, because we didn’t have kinder—we just went to school in first grade. Six years old, we were. My teacher was Miss Nichols, and she used to talk to us in English, used to read us stories in English, and we had to learn. They never told us anything, not to speak Spanish. They just said this and this and this and this, and we would listen. We used to take this booklet, little green booklet, and we read about a lot of things. I learned how to read right away, and so did Tony. We were learning to read all the time. They inspired us.

We used to sit in a little circle, like this. That’s what I did when I was teaching elementary school. My kids and teaching them English, well, I did the same thing. We put them in a little circle. They said, “¿Maestra, por qué nos tiene allí?” [Teacher, why do you have us there?] Because I wanted to hear them read and we would all read it together. Then we would all go, each of them would read a little paragraph. That’s the way I taught bilingual ed.

But, no, the teacher talked to us in English. I was proud. I’m sure all of them: “Oh, we got to learn English, we’ll know.” We used to still talk to each other in English. “That’s not the way you say it, this is the way you say it.” Then, one of the things that, later on, when we got older, we got teased because of our accent.

Atencio: Well, thank you very much. You really gave a good presentation. You told us a lot about the culture if nothing else. You don’t get that out of a textbook.

Fiorillo: Oh, no, no. When I went to California, culture shock, culture shock. In Oxnard, where my husband got a job as an English teacher, there was a black section, a Mexican, a migrant section, and a Mexican-American section, and a business section, bankers and lawyers downtown, in the north part of town, see. One of the things that amazed me later on when I see a lot of black people. In school, we had black children and all that. But they had busing, because we had to bus the kids from the Colonia to the north part of town. So, they could mix, the kids, and that’s what busing was all about. They took the kids from the north end of town to Colonia to kindergarten, so that they could mix with the children over there and the Mexican migrant kids, you know. They were all together, and it worked.

Of course, the new ones that were coming in didn’t speak English, so they had to go into bilingual ed, so that’s what we had. That’s what I taught. I enjoyed 19 years. I did, I enjoyed teaching the children English as a second language. I did a lot of educational material for Apple Company in New York, I believe. They published my stuff and they didn’t pay. They only sent me $40 worth of materials. But, that was okay. That was an important thing for me. From then on, I just did my lessons in Spanish and in English.

The other day had these people come, call me up and say they were making a film here in New Mexico. “We need somebody to play the mother of a young man. But I need somebody who speaks Spanish.”

This friend of mine said, “Tell Rosario, go over, talk to her.”

So, he says, “Do you speak Spanish?”

“Yes. Well, give me the lines.”

He says, “We’re going to film this little scene at your house, if you want to.”

“Sure, I have a hallway. Just tell me the lines.”

He told me them in English, and says, “Do you know now to do in Spanish?”

“Yes. I’ll take them in English and they’ll come out in Spanish after.” You get so used to that, you’re doing both languages at once, you see. That’s a skill that very few people have, where they can do it just like that.

So, he gave me the lines. He said, “Do you know your lines?” when he came.

“Yes, I do.” It was just a little scene that they’re going to have in a movie from New Mexico. I say, “Well, I have a theater background. I mean, I was in the plays, seven plays I was.”

Would you believe it, we had, “You Can’t Take It With You,” with an all-Hispanic cast, except for the main man character. He was from Taos, I think it was. Oh, it was fun, because it was the first time there is a “You Can’t Take it With You,” with an Hispanic cast here. We got a lot of good actors here in the valley, very good, yeah. We did “Please, No Flowers.” That’s what I did. I played a Jewish woman, and then I played, what was it—there was another one. I played a Russian duchess. One of the things about having a Spanish accent, you can do a Russian accent real well. [Inaudible] our time is coming, right.

Atencio: Okay. That’s fun.

Fiorillo: Yeah. That’s why my books are called, a series is called, “It’s a Pleasure to Learn.” Es un placer de aprender. That’s how I named it, and so it’s nice. I enjoy writing in Spanish and in English. 

I had to take a whole Spanish class from this fellow who was a scholar. He had gone to Spain. He was from Santa Barbara, well, from Newport Beach, and he was a professor there. He told us, “Erase, erase that Southern California Spanish. Because you’re going to learn something different.” He was right.

Some of the ladies that were there with me said, “We’re not going to forget our Spanish. Of course not. You don’t forget home Spanish, you know.” But, you’re going to improve on what you—there’s where I went into Spanish literature.

That was fun. He said, “Why do you sit over there in the front?” Because, I want to learn. When he reads poetry to me in Spanish, I want to know exactly how he does it and understand it. Oh, “don’t pay attention to him.” Oh, no, no, no, that’s why I got an A and they didn’t!

Because I listened and that’s how I wrote when I started writing. I said, “No, my Spanish has to be well-done. I cannot use slang.” That’s what I do when I write my books. I write the Spanish correctly, because kids are going to be learning English. Well, they got to learn, read their own language correctly, you see.

Atencio: Well, that was very good. We’ve learned a lot from you.

Fiorillo: Okay. A teacher never forgets. I had about three years of teaching the elder hostel when they came, and they stayed at El Rito, and they needed teachers. Levi, you know? Levi Valdez?

Atencio: Levi Valdez? At the college.

Fiorillo: Yes. He said, “Rose, what are you doing?” after I came.

“Well, nothing really, I’m just retired, on Social Security.”

He said, “Would you like to teach?”

“Teach what?”

“Spanish,” he says. He explained to me the program.

I said, “Of course. What text are you using?”

He says, “Well, we don’t have one.”

“Well, can I use my own? I got material, you wouldn’t believe it.” Because, when I came from California, I brought my materials with me. And, basic Spanish, see, I wasn’t going to go college Spanish, of course. And, you know Sylvia Salazar, no?

Atencio: Yeah.

Fiorillo: Well, she taught the first group, and Sally Gonzales taught the other. I said, “Well, I’ll do the basic.” It’s a pleasure to learn, señores. We had 22 students that came from New Jersey, New York, whatever. And, they love New Mexico. Oh, the artist people, they went up to Abiquiu to paint during the noon hour. Then they would come back. 

Monday, we would start, and he divided seven, seven, seven, you know, students for each teacher. Well, by Wednesday, I had all 13 of them, because the wives and the husbands would divide, they would go to one class. Then the wife would come with me. They could stop and go with the other group if they wanted to.

Well, what happened was that I used my theater skills. I had plays, children’s plays in Spanish. I say, “You’re going to get on that stage and you’re going to do this play, Jack and the Beanstalk in Spanish.” Oh, boy. And, so I picked the Giant and this and that and [inaudible].

They enjoyed it, they loved it. In fact, I found a little card that they say, “The light of our trip to New Mexico, to El Rito, was you gave us training in plays in Spanish.” That’s what I enjoyed. I enjoyed those classes, because I had no discipline problem. “Don’t fall asleep on me,” I said. Because, in the afternoon, they were already, you know, seniors like myself. “Because if you do, I’ll sing an aria.”

 “Oh, you like opera.”

“Of course, I like opera. Of course, I do. I can sing something from Puccini if you want to, because I learned this from my daughter, Marie, who sings. She’s a mezzo soprano. If you start going to sleep, I’ll sing and I’ll holler, it’ll go down the hallway. I’ll hit the high C.” Yeah, I had so much fun.

The point is that it was fun. “When you go to the cafeteria to eat,” I said, “You go and try to use your Spanish, what you have learned about food and all that.”

So, when they would come back, I would say, “¿Y qué comieron?” [What did you eat?]

Comí lechuga [I ate lettuce], you know, all the stuff.” A salad, ensalada. Yes, yes. Enchiladas or whatever, burritos.

Now I want to roll those. “Not burritos, burrrrritos!” [Laughter]

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