Lahiri-Gupta: Los Alamos Is Not Diverse; Stop Pretending It Is

By SOUMYO LAHIRI-GUPTA
Los Alamos

It was November of 2014. Gary King was running against Susana Martinez in the gubernatorial election for New Mexico. Polling stations remained busy throughout all of Los Alamos. People of all ages and backgrounds were out campaigning for the candidate they believed in. 

One of my friends had an extra Gary King sign that he wasn’t using. I grabbed ahold of this sign and held it on a Central sidewalk right next to Ashley Pond, just as I had in 2008 and 2012 for Barack Obama. The difference in 2014 was that a police officer drove by. I saw him coming and I honestly did not think anything of it; I figured he would see me and either honk in support or just drive by. None of that happened.

Instead, he pulled over, rolled down his passenger side window, and asked me where I got the Gary King sign. Me, being me, told him the truth that I got it from a friend and I wanted to campaign for Gary King because he was the gubernatorial candidate I believed in.

He responded by saying “Put that back where you found it”. 

I was very confused because I got this sign from a friend under the premise that I would use it to help campaign for Gary King; I had no idea why the officer had thought that I had stolen the sign. I explained this exact sentiment to him. He still didn’t believe me. He kept on telling me to put the sign “back where I found it,” despite my numerous attempts to explain that I am a politically engaged teenager.

At a certain point after around ten minutes, I gave up; I just told the officer what he wanted to hear, that I would put the sign back from “where I found it”. He said “good!” and then drove off. After that encounter, I stopped holding up the sign and just gave it back to my friend because it was “where I found it”. 

At first, I thought this encounter was because I was a teenager; police officers are typically less trusting of teenagers. But then I remembered that, just one block away, was someone my age (who was white) campaigning with the exact same sign; the officer drove past him without a second glance.

Los Alamos, as a whole, likes to boast that the county is diverse. The Lab brings in “scientists from all around the world”, they say. But as I walk or drive around the town, I very rarely see anyone who even resembles me. The town is predominantly white and, growing up here, it felt like we tried to ignore that fact. 

We boast that we teach diversity in our schools while at the same time trying to restrict the school district from anyone outside of the Mesas. We boast that we care about everyone while holding a less than positive view about the rest of the state. It is no coincidence to me that the rest of New Mexico state has a Hispanic majority, except for Los Alamos county.

Here’s a fun fact: if you talk to anyone who lives outside of Los Alamos county, they think that Los Alamos county is full of people who are stuck up and think they are better than everyone else. 

With the civil unrest going on in this country, I fully believe it’s time for Los Alamos to confront their uncomfortable truths. The county lives in a bubble and rarely concerns itself with others. In high school, I saw multiple examples of this going on; the most egregious example occurred during my senior year.

I was prominent in Student Council while at Los Alamos High School. New Mexico’s Student Councils have annual three-day conferences and in 2014, the conference was hosted by Española Valley High School. Typically, student councils book hotel rooms in the hosting school’s city. Los Alamos High School’s Student Council booked rooms at the Holiday Inn Express in Los Alamos in 2014. The rationale of this decision was because Española was “dangerous”. 

Here’s a question: Is Española “dangerous” because it is or because of preconceived notions and biases.

As I said, Los Alamos likes to keep itself in a bubble; we distance ourselves of racial issues in other places because we assume there is no racial injustice in Los Alamos. This simply isn’t true; I have heard multiple stories from my minority friends and their families of Los Alamos residents mocking and questioning their accents, not taking them seriously, and demonstrating implicit bias against them. But, Los Alamos thinks itself differently from cities like Ferguson, Baltimore, Minneapolis, etc., and never thinks that it needs to grow. But it does. 

There just aren’t enough minorities in the county to have a voice that’s loud enough to be heard.

I love my hometown but I want it to be better; please be better.

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