Thirty miles from USF, a group of mourners gathered to honor the lives of seven farmworkers who were killed in a shooting earlier this month in Half Moon Bay. The Foghorn joined the vigil on Jan. 27 to speak to community leaders and to understand the conditions that local farm workers face.
Employees of California Terra Gardens, Qizhong Cheng, Ye Tao Bing, Jing Zhi Lu, and Jose Romero Perez, were remembered alongside Concord Farms workers Marciano Martinez Jimenez, Zhisen Liu, and Aixiang Lu. They were allegedly shot and killed by a fellow farmworker who was reportedly upset about a $100 repair bill for a forklift on the job the day of the shooting. The gun used in the attack was legally registered to the suspect, as are 70% of firearms used in shootings in the last 40 years.
Pastor Sue Holland of Coastside Lutheran Church addressed a crowd of huddled mourners. “The horrific shootings that took place in our town on Monday shattered lives and sent shock waves through our community,” she said. “This incident has also shined a harsh light on the deplorable living conditions and the inadequate income of our neighbors who work in the agricultural industry. We need to change the narrative that says it is acceptable for any of God’s children to live without dignity in substandard housing or to go hungry.”
The agribusiness that makes up much of Half Moon Bay’s economy is largely supported by undocumented farmworkers, who often experience grim living and working conditions. In an interview with the Foghorn, USF alum Luis Enrique Bazán said that many farmworkers make as little as $25,000 per year, but are slow to take higher-paying jobs because an increase in income would make them ineligible for benefits such as Medicare. Bazán serves on the board of non-profit organization Ayudando Latinos a Soñar (Helping Latinos Dream), or ALAS.
ALAS was founded in 2011 and has been serving the Latine community in Half Moon Bay with education, cultural preservation, and political activism ever since.
“There is tension between those who attempt to silence efforts for liberation and those who are uplifting them,” said Winsor Kinkade, a social worker on staff at ALAS. “In moments when it’s quiet, ALAS is a political voice. Right now, and as always, it is a political voice.”
Belinda Hernandez-Arriaga, the director and founder of the nonprofit, and an assistant professor of marriage and family therapy at USF, represented ALAS at the State of the Union address on Tuesday in Washington D.C., in light of the string of recent tragedies in the Bay Area and California at large.
Leaders representing nine different religious and civic organizations spoke at the vigil, warning against anger and pleading for peace. They touched on economic and social barriers in the lives of the Half Moon Bay community, with some calling for political change and many urging the community members to support one another.
“Many workers fled from political or social oppression and violence seeking safety and protection… This recent event has created a sense of fear and anxiety. Workers are left to feel — even in your place of work, with a colleague and neighbor — that you may be in danger,” said Kinkade. “Now, if we combine all these layers of abuse with the threat of being killed at work due to gun violence, it becomes nearly incomprehensible.”
The living and working conditions on the farms have been credited as a likely source for the mental distress that led the alleged shooter to violence. Ray Mueller, a supervisor for San Mateo County, tweeted several photos of the worker’s housing where the shooting took place. The photos show nearly unlivable housing and structures that barely protect against the elements. Large gaps in the walls without glass panes allow wind, rain, and cold inside the house. “The living conditions might drive people crazy,” Bazán said.
During the pandemic, ALAS focused its efforts on providing services such as clean water and clothes to many of the workers on farms since they lost access to essential goods at the loss of income. ALAS gave similar aid to the farms after the recent flooding which caused significant damage to the area. Though ALAS is well-known in the area, they’ve faced plenty of barriers to helping people due to the hyper-politicization of both farmworkers rights and immigration. “We couldn’t make too much noise because to work with the farmworkers, we had to go on private property, and the owners had to allow us,” Bazán said.
The shooting, on the other hand, has turned public attention to the living and working conditions of farmworkers in California. As a result, California Terra Gardens said that it will build new worker housing and provide affordable, temporary housing for the families of the victims in the meantime. But waves of trauma continue to roll through the community.
While political movements rise and fall, the needs of farmworkers remain unmet until their human rights are respected. The human toll in this incident cannot be understood simply by lives lost on Jan. 23, but as a part of a larger tragedy.
“Last week, with teary eyes and a broken heart, my coworker Norma Zavala stood in front of Governor Newsom during his visit to ALAS and explained the conditions workers are living in and demanded change. She told the story of a farmworker from China who jumped for joy because she had been given a raise to $9 an hour. This happened just days before she was killed.” said Kinkade.
“As always, something drastic, traumatic, and tragic had to happen to shake people awake and create headlines about the layers of abuse people have been enduring for years.”