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A Music Class is Helping Farmworkers Heal in Half Moon Bay

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A group of people smile while sitting together indoors and holding bright red accordions.
(From left) Belinda Arriaga, Yesenia Garcia, Hilario Lopez, and Pedro Romero play accordion during a lesson with Hernan Hernandez at Cabrillo Farms in Half Moon Bay on Nov. 1, 2023. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

View the full episode transcript.

In January, a gunman killed 7 farmworkers at two mushroom farms in Half Moon Bay. Months later, one community group has been trying to use accordion classes as a way to help farmworkers heal from the trauma.


Episode Transcript

This is a computer-generated transcript. While our team has reviewed it, there may be errors.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: Hey, it’s Ericka. Quick little note. The bay is looking for an intern. This is a 16 hour a week paid opportunity to help us make this show. The internship runs from January through June of 2024. So if you’ve got love for local news, the Bay Area and podcasting. Let’s chat. The deadline to apply is November 17th. We’ll give you a link to the application in our show notes. All right. Here’s the show.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: I’m Ericka Cruz Guevarra and welcome to the bay. Local news to keep you rooted. Most Wednesday nights inside of a red barn in Half Moon Bay, you can hear the sound of farm workers learning how to play the accordion together. It’s a way to learn something new and spend time with people, but it’s also a form of therapy. Back in January, a gunman made his way through two farms, just like this one in Half Moon Bay, killing seven farm workers and completely rocking the community. And even though the camera crews are long gone, the pain of what happened here still lives on, which is why one community group has set up this small program to help these farmworkers heal.

Belinda Hernandez-Arriaga: You know, I think that music elevates a soul. It speaks to the soul. It brings in memories of harm, calls to the joy. Sadness, too. But it’s also like a central language, I think, of healing.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: Today, we take you inside the program in Half Moon Bay that’s offering healing through music. Stay with us.

Blanca Torres: So I went to Cabrillo Farms and Half Moon Bay.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: Blanca Torres is a producer and reporter for KQED.

Blanca Torres: It’s right off Highway one. I drive down this dirt road and it’s lined by fields on each side, and there’s all this beautiful produce growing out of the ground. I arrived at this barn, you know, it’s just a regular farm. So I went to real farms to observe a music class for farm workers that was sponsored by Atlas, which stands for Uganda Latinos as one year, which means helping Latinos dream. And the idea behind the class was to provide, you know, not just accordion lessons, but also music therapy.

Blanca Torres: One by one, the students started coming in for the lesson and they are carrying these big black, bulky backpacks. And inside is their accordions.

Blanca Torres: And it was immediately kind of a very convivial atmosphere. Like everyone was excited to see each other. But you could tell people were excited to be there for the music and to see each other and to to have these, you know, this experience together.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: So you went to Half Moon Bay to see about this program. How did it come about and what is the purpose of it?

Blanca Torres: You know, ALAS’ intention with it was to use music as therapy and to help students who normally wouldn’t have access to a music class.

Belinda Hernandez-Arriaga: ALAS was born from the cultural arts. We were born from political mariachi music celebration, Cultura.

Blanca Torres: And so Belinda Hernandez-Arriaga is the founder and executive director of Ayudando Latinos A Soñar.

Belinda Hernandez-Arriaga: And we really believe in the power of cultural good to like culture as healing. I’m a clinician, so I do mental health therapy, and we understand that mental health is a big part of our program, along with the cultural arts.

Blanca Torres: You know, she has made it very clear that the intention is to to use music, not just as this is a fun pastime.

Belinda Hernandez-Arriaga: The sensory part of it is so important. We know that in order to heal trauma there, they say that one of the best ways of healing trauma is through sensory integration, and they do a lot of sensory work for trauma survivors.

Blanca Torres: And after the mass shooting in January, Alaska is really trying to think of ways to address the community trauma and to actually bring a program into the fields directly and to connect their labor, you know, their daily existence with art and culture in a way that would promote healing.

Belinda Hernandez-Arriaga: They’re going out, working the fields, coming home, eating, getting dressed, and then practicing. And so just thinking about how that stimulating them, too, is really impressive. And for us in this work, we see how they’re moving their fingers or having to think in different ways from, you know, stretching out the accordion sound, the music, the scales. It’s a lot that happens.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: Well, tell me a little bit about some of the people in the class.

Blanca Torres: So the classes, six students, which they told me was on purpose so that it would be a sizable group, but enough that the instructor could focus on each student. And so some of the students in the class were. The youngest one I talked to is 22 years old. There was someone who was into his sixties.

Blanca Torres: I talked to Yesenia, who lives and works at Gabriel Farms and is a mom and was just really excited to learn to play music so that she could just play her accordion during family gatherings.

Blanca Torres: Most of the students I talked to had never even picked up an accordion or any instrument. One of those students who had had no musical experience was Pedro Romero Perez, who is a survivor of the mass shooting.

Pedro Romero Perez: *speaking in Spanish*

Blanca Torres: He’s recovering. He’s actually not working right now because of, you know, his healing process. And he did express a lot of appreciation for the program. And, you know, when I asked him, how do you feel about being here, he said he was excited and that it was this calm moment. You know, having these weekly classes was like an opportunity for him to not be at home, to be around other people, to kind of focus on something else besides what happened.

Pedro Romero Perez: *speaking in Spanish*

Blanca Torres: About a week before I visited, ALAS had coordinated a community altar for Delos Martos, and he had put up an altar for his brother who passed away during the shooting.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: This class is a direct result of the shooting that happened in January. I feel like I totally understand, like the role and idea of music being healing, but why the accordion specifically? Why accordion classes?

Blanca Torres: So the accordion is a very integral instrument in Mexican music in a lot of different genres. A lot of the students in the class are from Mexico, and these classes were specifically focusing on like norteno music, which is literally means like music from the north and is a specific genre of Mexican music.

Blanca Torres: But you hear accordion music and popular music and just different genres. So the accordion is a very familiar sound. So when Alan was designing this classic specifically, we’re thinking about how to make it feel comforting and make it reminiscent of home. And, you know, for the music to feel like something you would want to listen to or play when you’re just hanging out with your family on a Sunday afternoon or something like that.

Hernan Hernandez Jr: It’s that instrument that’s we can say very much that it’s our own. It’s our it’s our instrument, you know.

Blanca Torres: So the instructor is Hernan Hernandez Jr, and his father is one of the members of Lost Egress and Northway, which is a huge Nathaniel band in Mexico. They’ve sold over 36 million records.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: I mean, for for folks who aren’t familiar with his family’s background, you described it to me yesterday as being like having the son of Mick Jagger teaching you the accordion.

Blanca Torres: I know. The reason I compared him to sort of being a spy on a like a pretty major band, like The Rolling Stones. I mean, I think that’s, you know, that little sticky desert. They’re just so big in Mexico and they’ve been around for so many decades and had so many hits and and they’ve been around for something like 50 years.

Hernan Hernandez Jr: My dad and my uncles are kind of that that tortured that light for it for their people, you know. And so he they kind of always instilled that into us. You know, it doesn’t matter at the end of the day where you come from, we come into this world with nothing and we leave this world with nothing. We’re all born the same way. We all have the same type of blood. And what’s important is that we give back to our people. And so I think.

Blanca Torres: They actually did a fundraiser for us after the shooting, and that was one of his introductions to to the organization. And so our last thing came to him and said, you know, will you teach this class? And he had never taught music classes, but he was he jumped at it because he just thought it would be a really great opportunity to give back.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: I mean, what does Hernan say about what he’s seen as an instructor? And I guess like the role that he sees music playing for the students that he’s that he’s teaching in Half Moon Bay.

Blanca Torres: I think for Hernan you know, he talked about how, you know, just spending time with the students and getting to know them and getting to know their stories and just seeing their progress. Right. And it’s not like they’re all trying to be professional musicians or anything like that, but just to see them grow so much.

Hernan Hernandez Jr: You know, like I said, just anyone who lives here on the farm has two kids and and they’re in there with us learning accordion as well. And they’re listening and they’re watching. And and it’s cool to really just kind of see that, you know, like there’s something that like, like my father showed me pass it down to me, his uncles pass it down to him. And we’re kind of doing the same thing for this next generations, you know, even if they don’t decide to pursue.

Blanca Torres: The happiness, the satisfaction that you get from seeing that progress as a student and for him as a as an instructor, you know, he talked about how that was that was really special for him.

Hernan Hernandez Jr: And as Latinos, I think that’s kind of what our community is lacking opportunities. And so that to me is what I see here. You know, this is a great opportunity for them to be able to learn something new, open their minds to something new. And even if it’s not according, that’s going to do it, but or music, but it will guide them into something new and something positive. And at the end of the day, that’s really what we’re trying to do just create a positive environment for you.

Blanca Torres: So at one point they wanted to engage in a song and so and non started playing upward. The Nagra, which is a famous song. Everyone was singing along because everyone knows the song.

Blanca Torres: And it’s actually a song about a couple where the parents of the young woman in this couple are keeping her from her love. And the leopard going negative means the black door. In the black door is like a metaphor for the parents keeping her from her true love.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: What is your biggest takeaway from this story?

Blanca Torres: So I grew up in an agricultural community in eastern Washington, and I actually when I was a kid, my dad, who worked full time at a potato processing plant, sometimes when he would have summer vacation, he would take me and my siblings out to the cherry harvest, which was during the summer, just to kind of show us like this is what agricultural work is like. This is what it’s like to work with your hands.

Blanca Torres: We want our strawberries to cost $2 at the supermarket, but somebody had to pick that by hand. That’s honest, decent work that people are doing and should be well compensated for and should be treated as full people. Farm workers aren’t just here to get up at the break of dawn to pick our food, right? They also have interests and families and hobbies and trauma that they’re dealing with and deserve to to also, you know, not be forgotten once the headlines go away.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: Well, Blanca, thank you so much for sharing your reporting with us. I really appreciate it.

Blanca Torres: Thank you, Ericka. And the whole Bay team. This was really fun.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: That was Blanca Torres, a producer and reporter for KQED. This 28 minute conversation with Blanca was cut down and edited by senior editor Alan Montecillo. Maria Esquinca is our producer. She scored this episode and added all the tape. The Bay is a production of member supported KQED in San Francisco. And if you’re not already subscribed to our show on Apple Podcasts or wherever it is, you’re listening, so you never miss a beat. I’m Ericka Cruz Guevarra. Thanks so much for listening. Talk to you next time.



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