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On January 17th of 1966, a B-52 bomber carrying four potent hydrogen explosives collided with a KC-135 tanker plane off the coast of Almería, Spain. One dropped in the waters just off the coast near the village of Palomares. The rest hit land and two leaked plutonium all over Palomares, and the downwind village of Villaricos.
The recovery process took months, during which the State and Defense Departments did their very best to avoid giving details about the crash to the American or Spanish public.
With the catastrophe’s 50th anniversary upon us, it is important to examine the process of erasure—on the part of both the military and the media—that has been both thorough and belittling. This is especially important because it has obscured the realities of living in the region, particularly the sex trade that arose as a result of the agricultural collapse in the wake of the disaster.
Engaging in a deflective game of “look over there, everybody!” with journalists demanding answers, the incident quickly came to a close after the Spanish Information and Tourism Minister, Manuel Fraga Iribarne, joined U.S. Spanish Ambassador, Angier Duke, for a swim in the waters that held one of the bombs. The theatrics assured onlookers that the waters were safe; everything was fine and could be forgotten.
Forgotten it was, given that most Americans have not heard of the events that transpired.
Some refuse to let it be erased. Professor John Howard is a scholar of American Studies at King’s College in London specializing in the intersections of gender, sexuality, race, and class. He focuses his work and travel on the ways the Western narrative of the disaster have obscured the realities of life in and around Palomares.
He studies Palomares because he “was ashamed, angry, and determined” upon learning the story. He tells BTRtoday that he grew angrier upon discovering the intentional cultural omission by the American government. He felt it critical that he help reveal the intricacies of the concealment and nuances of life in the region today.
The lack of cultural understanding about the event comes from the rhetoric used by American officials and the media.
The narrative is rife with euphemisms that Howard is quick to remind us about. It was and is referred to as an “incident, not [a] disaster.” The contaminated Palomares is reduced to a “remote uninhabited area,” and not the reality of a town populated by 2,000.
When it gets a name, Howard tells BTRtoday, Palomares “is euphemized as zone five [after the four numbered bomb-sites],” while the similarly poisoned nearby Almagrera foothills become zone six. Villaricos, meanwhile, is a town downwind of Palomares that was also damaged by the radioactive debris that, according to Howard, is rarely mentioned.
If the narrative were accurate, Howard tells us, it would read: “American recklessness and Westerly winds insured that the West Palomares bomb contaminated Palomares and that the East Palomares bomb contaminated Villaricos.” Needless to say, that is not the story.
Howard often finds he has more questions than answers, particularly with regards to language. “Why,” he asks, “is the vibrant farming town of Palomares derided as ‘Palo-Moros’?” Such Orientalist imagery appears often in the intersectional realms he studies and inevitably accompanies racist narratives meant to obscure the realities of calamities like this one.
One important and underreported reality is the fallout from the contamination—radioactive debris destroyed the local agricultural economy. Something had to take its place and the sex industry that sprang up next was decidedly different. Howard amusingly tells us that when Ambassador Duke and Minister Iribarne pointed to tourism as an “economic life-line for the region (one reason for their flamboyant swim)… they didn’t envision this variety of tourism.”
Harvesting, Near Palomares. Photo courtesy of John Howard.
Howard describes the scene, both then and now, as “varied, not always aggressively commercial, [and] at its best, communitarian.”
He describes the nudist campgrounds in Las Rozas, north of Palomares, that have attracted tens of thousands over the decades. In the photo-book, “White Sepulchres,” he depicts the nudist residential communities, gay bars, drag clubs, and sex clubs of Vera Playa, south of Palomares, as well as flyers for sex work casually draped on lampposts.
“For small-town and rural LGBT Spaniards, as well as other sexual non-conformists, Vera Playa is a regional oasis,” Howard summarizes. “Obviously, however, this space’s distinctive history makes it very different from, say, Marbella, further down the coastline, where the Obamas vacationed.”
This aspect of the disaster does not make it into the already sparse mainstream story. Sexual nonconformity often arises when the establishment leaves a region unchecked and free of oppression.
The problem is that the region should not have been neglected. Howard is impressed with the vibrancy of the sexual counter-culture but even he admits that some areas, like the Las Rozas campgrounds, have recently gone into decline. Perhaps this is the fate of all tourist-reliant industries. Perhaps it is inevitable for a subculture that gets little help from the outside world. It’s probably some of both, but either way it’s certain that the region has been underserved for decades.
Vanitas, Vera Playa. Photo courtesy of John Howard.
Dangerously high levels of plutonium decay products in the earth were still present in 2003. To this day, the U.S. and Spanish governments are cagey about plans to rehabilitate the region’s environment. Though plans were recently announced to finally clean up Palomares, Secretary of State Kerry refuses to specify when it will be beyond “soon,” nor have any further details been given.
In an ideal world, sexual vibrancy would flourish alongside structural equality and infrastructural stability. We don’t live in that world and Palomares certainly doesn’t.