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Survivors of Half Moon Bay Mass Shooting Struggle to Rebuild 1 Year Later

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An aerial view of a number of trailers on a farm site.
An aerial view of some trailers that house farmworkers and their families at California Terra Garden in Half Moon Bay, as seen on Thursday, Jan. 26, 2023. The suspect in the mass killing is believed to have lived with his wife in one of the trailers.  (Paul Kuroda/Washington Post, via Getty Images)

The five Chinese farmworkers sitting together in Half Moon Bay Library on a foggy afternoon last month were there to receive information about their permanent homes.

It had been almost a year since they were displaced by the mass shooting at two produce farms in the small city on California’s coast. They lost more than their homes. They also lost their sense of community and safety.

The deadliest shooting recorded in San Mateo County was the third in a week of gun violence that rocked California in 2023.

On Jan. 16, six people, including a teenage mother and her infant son, were massacred in a house in Goshen, an unincorporated community in the Central Valley.

On Jan. 21, a gunman opened fire in a Monterey Park dance studio, killing 11 people celebrating the Lunar New Year.

Then, on Jan. 23, seven people were killed across two mushroom farms about three miles apart in Half Moon Bay. Five of the victims were Chinese, and two were Latino. Almost 30 people who lived on the farms in sheds, shipping containers and converted trailers were left unhoused.

A candlelit vigil for the victims of the Half Moon Bay mass shooting.
A sign at a memorial for victims of a mass shooting in Half Moon Bay says, ‘We Stand With You’ after a vigil in their honor at Mac Dutra Park in Half Moon Bay on Jan. 27, 2023. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

The mass shooting brought renewed attention to the living and working conditions of California’s farmworkers. Farmworkers, many of whom are undocumented immigrants and fear deportation, are less likely to report safety violations and wage theft. In the state where the national movement to organize farmworkers began more than five decades ago, agricultural laborers still face employer retaliation for unionizing.

Many who toil in fields for long hours and low wages struggle to afford housing and find themselves sleeping in unsafe structures on farms. But experts, community advocates and survivors interviewed by KQED for this story said the gun violence in Half Moon Bay exposed the emergent vulnerability of Chinese farmworkers, who are almost invisible because they represent a sliver of migrant farmworkers.

Yvonne Lee, a member of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Equity Commission, said AAPI farmworkers are vulnerable because of isolation. The closest Chinatown to Half Moon Bay is in San Francisco, about an hour’s drive.

“If you are in a farming industry — No. 1, it’s more fragmented — and farming, you tend to be in a rural area outside of the traditional Asian enclaves that you would find support,” Lee said. “Yes, Half Moon Bay is not that far, but if you’re talking about an immigrant who doesn’t own a car — even if they own a car, they have limited resources.

“They don’t think, ‘Hey, what I’m experiencing, it may not be fair.’ So they keep it on themselves.”

Lee said very few Americans know of the legacy of AAPI farmworkers in the agricultural industry. In the 1850s, Chinese workers began migrating to America to work in California’s gold mines. Chinese immigrants were also instrumental in building the transcontinental railroad from 1863–69.

Chinese migrants also took agricultural jobs and introduced new farming techniques, including shifting California’s agricultural business from grain to vegetables and fruits.

Concord Farms can be seen in the distance in Half Moon Bay on Jan. 3, 2024. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

“Very few people will know that back in the late 1880s, Asian farmers and workers contributed to almost 70% of California’s produce output,” Lee said.

Anti-Chinese racism festered among white laborers, particularly among unemployed European immigrants who refused to work in fields. The resentment culminated in the Chinese Exclusion Act, the xenophobic 1882 law that prohibited the immigration of Chinese laborers. The law was repealed in 1943.

The agricultural jobs vacated by the Chinese were filled by Japanese workers until the incarceration of people of Japanese descent, many of whom were American citizens, disrupted California’s vegetable industry. Japanese farmers grew most of the state’s peppers, celery, tomatoes and strawberries.

Today, about 96% of farmworkers in California identify as Hispanic, with 75% undocumented, according to the Center for Farmworker Families. In 2017, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s census (PDF), which is conducted every five years, found that Asian producers accounted for 0.7% of the country’s 3.4 million producers.

At roughly 7,000, California had the highest number of Asian farmworkers.

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‘It’s a forever memory’

Chunli Zhao opened fire at California Terra Garden, where he lived and worked as a forklift driver, killing four people and wounding Pedro Romero Pérez.

Zhao then drove to Concord Farms, a farm he was reportedly fired from in 2015, and fatally shot three people. Zhao, 67, was arrested. He has pleaded not guilty.

In an interview three days after the shooting, Zhao told NBC Bay Area that he had endured years of bullying and long hours working at the two farms. According to Steve Wagstaffe, the San Mateo County district attorney, Zhao told investigators that he was angry at the time of the shootings because California Terra Garden demanded $100 to repair a damaged forklift.

The seven victims were Jose Romero Pérez, 38; Zhishen Liu, 73; Marciano Martinez Jimenez, 50; Aixiang Zhang, 74; Qizhong Cheng, 66; Jingzhi Lu, 64; and Yetao Bing, 43.

A large vigil with many bouquets of flowers, candles and handwritten signs in memory of those who were victims of the mass shooting in Half Moon Bay.
A mourner lights a candle after a vigil in Half Moon Bay for victims of the Half Moon Bay mass shooting earlier in the week, which left 7 dead and 1 wounded, on Jan. 27, 2023. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Pedro Romero Pérez, the younger brother of José Romero Pérez, is learning to play accordion in a music therapy class at another farm in Half Moon Bay, KQED reported in November.

The workers were forced to move off the farms as the police and FBI conducted investigations. They’ve moved between hotels and short-term rentals. The rent will be paid by San Mateo County through March or April, according to a Half Moon Bay city official. The city will need to raise money for temporary housing, officials told KQED.

On a December afternoon the week before Christmas, KQED interviewed a middle-aged Chinese couple through an interpreter at the Half Moon Bay Library. Before the mass shooting, they lived in a shed on Concord Farms without a kitchen or bathroom.

Inside the library’s community room, an elderly Chinese couple never left each other’s side. The man walked with a hunch, and his wife clutched the handle of her cane with one hand and rested the other on his walker.

A man joined the couple. In bits of English and Cantonese, he talked with a KQED reporter whose mother immigrated from China about how both of their families have roots in Guangdong, a coastal province in China.

To speak with KQED, the younger of the two couples requested anonymity to maintain their privacy while discussing the massacre and their housing situation. Their case manager, Sao Leng U, translated from Mandarin to English.

The woman made intense eye contact with Leng U during the interview. Her husband, a truck driver who was on his daily route when his coworkers and friends were fatally shot, kept his eyes glued to a handout printed in Mandarin.

“I was at the farm, but the farm is quite loud and noisy,” the woman told KQED. “I didn’t know anything had happened until we went outside and saw [the farmworkers who had been shot] and called the police.”

In the last year, they’ve been burdened with lingering trauma, the fear of losing pay, and the uncertainty of where they’ll live.

“After the shooting happened, we are kind of moving from place to place, and we’re feeling insecure,” the woman said. “We, of course, want stable housing. In the past, we were living at the farm, and after the shooting, we cannot. So we just want to know, ‘What’s my future? What does it look like?’”

When asked about returning to work a week after the shooting, the man looked up and spoke for the first time.

“I think we might have a little bit of PTSD,” he said through the interpreter. “It’s not like a sickness or something, but every time we go back, we’re thinking of the incident. It’s no longer like before. Because before, even though we were working really hard, we were happy.”

The couple said they are unsure if they will ever truly move on.

“It’s a forever memory,” the woman said. “Especially now, we’re still working at the farm. Because all the farmworkers are living together, we have different sheds, but we have lots of memories. Especially because I am a witness, it’s really difficult to move on, and it’s not easy.”

A community overlooked

Just a turn off Highway 92 is Spanish Town Shops, where a metal T. rex sculpture, intricate water fountains and handcrafted pottery greet visitors. Nestled between the shops is a narrow, rutted road and a creek bridge that leads to California Terra Garden, formerly known as Mountain Mushroom Farm.

There is a greenhouse to the right, and on a recent visit, there were about a dozen cars in the parking lot.

Multiple signs tell lurkers to “Keep Out” and to not take photos.

The entrance to Concord Farms in Half Moon Bay on Jan. 3, 2024. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Concord Farms is down Highway 1, a 10-minute drive with ocean views. After a stretch of unpaved road, the farm appears with tractors on one side and rolling hills in the distance. Trucks drive in and out.

Half Moon Bay’s reputation as a picturesque oceanside getaway known for its quaint pumpkin festival and big wave surfing was jolted by the shooting. A year ago, the farmworker community was overlooked.

According to 2023 U.S. Census data, Half Moon Bay, with a population of roughly 11,000, is 65.8% white, 24.5% Hispanic or Latino and 5.1% Asian. The median household income is $149,000, and only 6.8% live below the poverty line.

“[The farms are] driven by frequently. Lots of people drive on Highway 92,” said Karen Decker, Half Moon Bay’s economic and city vitality manager. “You pass these landmarks, but just past those recognizable landmarks, there are really insular communities, and you have isolation within isolation.”

Decker was at the community center that was converted to a reunification site on Jan. 23, 2023. She recalled a large crowd of Spanish-speaking farmworkers on one side and, on another, a group of six to eight Chinese farmworkers huddled together, speaking Mandarin.

“Sometimes, you would hear like an eruption of crying, and you didn’t know if a family had just received a death notification or if they already knew,” Decker said.

She recalled asking one Chinese woman about her biggest need, expecting to hear water or food. Instead, Decker said the woman conveyed a “great anxiety about missing work” the next day.

“They’re so frantic that they’re going to lose their housing if they can’t work,” Decker said. “They’re terrified about missing, like, an hour of wages.”

When Decker and other volunteers went to pick up the farmworkers from their hotels on Jan. 24, 2023, no one was eating the continental breakfast. They didn’t know it was included, Decker said.

“It became clear to us that the people we work with who were displaced hadn’t stayed in a hotel before,” Decker said.

Leng U, the director of social services at Self-Help for the Elderly, a San Francisco Chinatown nonprofit that provides case management to Chinese farmworkers, said many Chinese immigrants rely on family to house them after arriving in the U.S. That’s not the case for the Half Moon Bay farmworkers, she said.

The entrance to California Terra Garden farm in Half Moon Bay on Jan. 3, 2024. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

She said most of the affected Chinese farmworkers did not have family support. Advertisements for farms in publications like Sing Tao, a Bay Area Chinese newspaper, offer on-site housing. That’s what drew the workers to Half Moon Bay, she said.

“Most of the time, they are stationed at the farm. They live at the farm. They eat at the farm,” Leng U added. “They get along with each other like family because most of them have very limited social interaction with the people outside. There is no agency that specifically works with the Chinese population. They don’t have any community connection.”

Leng U visited both farms after the shooting. The sheds used as homes had plastic sheets for insulation and just enough room for a mattress and personal belongings. There were makeshift outdoor kitchens. During the winter months, cold temperatures caused the farmworkers to lose sleep, according to Leng U.

“Some of you should see where these folks are living — the conditions they’re in,” Gov. Gavin Newsom said in a Jan. 24, 2023, press conference in Half Moon Bay. “Living in shipping containers. Folks getting $9 an hour. No health care, no support, no services.”

According to a Jan. 28, 2023, story in the San Francisco Chronicle, San Mateo County officials did not find records of housing permits or inspection records for either farm. In June 2023, Cal/OSHA cited both farms for failure to secure labor camp permits for onsite worker housing, among other violations.

Newsom announced $16 million to increase homeownership for California farmworkers, $5 million of which would be allocated to Half Moon Bay to purchase 28 housing units, in June 2023. The city has set aside $1 million to plan a development slated to be completed in 2025.

Wei-ting Chen, the executive director of community engagement at the Stanford School of Medicine, volunteered to translate for the Chinese farmworkers in the immediate aftermath. She routinely goes to Half Moon Bay to deliver supplies and texts the farmworkers using WeChat, a Chinese messaging app.

According to Chen, the farmworkers feel that the temporary housing, while comfortable, doesn’t feel like their homes. They will sleep there, but they still cook on the farm because the smoke from their woks fills the apartments.

“They still do most of their living on the farm,” she said.

According to Chen, most of the employees work six days a week. Their one day off is used to run errands. One older couple decided to retire, but the rest of the Chinese workers returned to work almost immediately.

“They were eager to go back to work because if they didn’t work, they didn’t get paid,” she said.

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