Martinez family

Inspired by lights on the Hill

April 26, 2023

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As a little girl, Celine Martinez would look up in wonder at the lights in the mountains west of her family’s Chimayó ranch and contemplate the possibilities of the “mystery on the mountain,” as her father would often refer to the Laboratory’s distant nighttime glow.

“I’ll never forget when I was little, thinking, ‘why are those lights up there?’” Celine said. “There weren’t as many as there are today, but I used to say, ‘I wish I could live up there on the mountain where the lights are!’”

In 1978, she was married with two daughters and had moved to Northern California for work with a fellow Española Valley native: her husband, Rudy Martinez. 

City life was great, but when the urban rush of the San Francisco Bay Area started to get old, Rudy mailed in an application for a Los Alamos National Laboratory job, hoped for the best, and the Martinezes packed up and returned to Northern New Mexico. 

That’s when Celine’s childhood wish came true.

A career takes shape

For Rudy, an industrious 30-something with a growing passion for building and running technical machinery, the opportunity to fuel his budding professional curiosities near his family’s old stomping grounds was appealing.

“We grew up around cows, horses and apple orchards,” Rudy said. “If you’re born in the country, living in the city can be kind of tough.”

Taking a mail and records position to get in the door, Rudy worked hard, trained harder and eventually landed his dream job as a mechanical technician, assembling, calibrating and maintaining fascinating electronics and gadgets across the Laboratory. 

Rudy quickly earned a reputation as a competent technician who could do just about anything with a wide range of complicated equipment used in high-level experiments.

In 1985, Rudy worked with a team of renowned research scientists and physicists to complete the Low Energy Fusion Cross Sections experiment, which used a 120-kilovolt accelerator beam to create fusion reactions, managing every piece of equipment used in the procedure.

An important success in the realm of fusion physics, the team’s work received international recognition and a big write-up in the Los Alamos Newsbulletin that included a feature on Rudy’s personal contributions.

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“I’m very proud of my parents’ contributions to the Lab,” Jaki said.

Motivation to succeed

Watching Rudy develop his craft, Celine began to consider her own career. She was a devoted wife and mother who had spent the past two years at home with her kids, but the childhood dream of a Los Alamos life still lingered. Now settled in familiar territory with family support nearby, the time was right. 

Celine joined the Laboratory’s WX and M divisions in 1980 and rapidly developed a knack for facilitating the minutiae of chemical handling, using a microscope to load incredibly precise amounts of volatile materials into cartridges that would later be used in detonator production.

“I just really liked working with my hands,” she said. “Nobody bothered me. I’d go to my section and do my job. And it was interesting — you could never talk about it in a way that anyone outside the Lab would understand.”

Role models

Over the years, while her parents trailblazed across the canyon at the Lab, Jaki Martinez, Rudy and Celine’s eldest daughter, was watching intently. By the time she graduated from Los Alamos High School, she knew exactly what she wanted to do — be just like her mom and dad.

“I’m very proud of my parents’ contributions to the Lab,” Jaki said. “My mother’s work lent itself to successful tests and research, and my father’s contributions always sounded very Star Trek-like and allowed me to realize that our scientific advances in Los Alamos were impressive.” 

With encouragement from her parents and family friend Martha Zumbro, a nuclear physicist who had been renting part of a duplex the family owned, Jaki went to New Mexico State University. She earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in electrical engineering, working during the summers at the Laboratory. She came back in 2015 to work full-time in the Experimental Device Engineering and Assembly group (W-5).

“When Martha asked what I wanted to study after high school, I told her what my parents did,” Jaki said. “When I mentioned my interest in electrical engineering, but my concern about how difficult it would be, her reply was that I would never know if I could be an engineer if I didn’t try. My parents and Martha never doubted that I could do it.”

A new beginning

Tragedy struck in 2000 when the Martinez home in Los Alamos burned down in the Cerro Grande Fire. With Rudy retired and Celine approaching her retirement, they were left with nothing but memories and a charred piece of ground. The life they had built together, in the shadow of the Laboratory, seemed to have ended abruptly.

The town and the Laboratory were still there. In essence, as Celine remembers, their family foundations were intact, and they began to rebuild.

“We had been here 38 years and we decided to stay,” Celine said. “The Lab was home. We built a new house on top of the old one, and we’re still here.”

Today, the Martinez legacy races on up the Hill with yet another generation of family answering the call of the mysterious glimmer on the mountain.

“Even my grandchildren are applying to jobs at the Lab now,” Celine said. “I’m so proud of that.”