Half Moon Bay farmworkers describe horror of mass shooting

The mass shooting in Half Moon Bay – San Mateo County's deadliest massacre – was so devastating that even President Joe Biden weighed in, praying for the families of the seven farmworkers killed in another "senseless act of gun violence." 

But the deaths of the five men and two women who toiled on two mushroom farms was most devastating to the loved ones whose family and friends were killed on Jan. 23 by 66-year-old Chunli Zhao, a disgruntled co-worker. 

Zhao has since been charged with seven counts of murder and one count of attempted murder. His arraignment was postponed until Feb. 16. 

These farmworkers have not spoken publicly until now. 

In an interview conducted in Spanish, one supervisor, a 47-year-old from Oaxaca, Mexico, who asked to remain anonymous, said he believes his life was spared because on the day of the shooting, he called in sick. 

He has only returned to work this week, which he said made him feel nervous and scared.

"It could happen again," he said. "I know that it won't, but there's not a guarantee." 

He came to Half Moon Bay for a better life and has worked here for nearly 30 years. Despite the harsh working and living conditions where he pays $2,800 a month for a 2-bedroom house, he said the farm he works at is flexible and helps get his children to school.

He's still shaken by the deadly attack, and he doesn't have an answer about what would make him feel at peace again.

"It's something I'll remember every day," he said. "My wife, also doesn't feel right.You have these feelings, and I can't find the way to explain or process what happened." 

This man's interview, along with two others, were all conducted in Spanish and done anonymously to protect the farmworkers' identities. 

The Spanish-language television station, Telemundo, interviewed the workers and then shared their stories with other news outlets.

The interviews were organized by Ayudando Latinos A Sonar, or ALAS, a Half Moon Bay nonprofit dedicated to helping farmworkers. 

There were several Chinese farmworkers who were also killed, but interviews with this community have not yet been organized. 

The names of those killed are: Jose Romero Perez, 38; Zhishen Liu, 73, of San Francisco; Marciano Martinez Jimenez, 50, of Moss Beach, California; Aixiang Zhang, 74, of San Francisco; Qizhong Cheng, 66, of Half Moon Bay; Jingzhi Lu, 64, of Half Moon Bay; and Yetao Bing, 43, whose hometown was unknown. Pedro Romero Perez is the eighth victim, the only one who survived the shooting.

For the most part, relations between the two ethnic groups were good. 

In another interview, a Mexican farmworker said that he and his colleagues made friends with an elderly Chinese couple. Even though there was a language barrier, the wife would regularly cook him food. They would also speak to each other using Google translate to communicate with each other.

"With the elders we felt very close," he said. "They were very good with us. And there was always a peaceful feeling, it felt very family-like." 

But that couple was killed. And he misses them. 

"It makes me feel sad, he said. "Because there are days where I feel it's not real, that they are all still here. We fantasize a lot. We start to shake. We don't know what to do."

This farmworker also discovered the body of Jiminez, his friend and supervisor, whom he found face down on the floor. He wonders why Zhao felt he had to kill so many people. 

"I feel like he knew," he said. "He had an idea of where the workers were. They say he worked here before, so he knew how the things were. In the moment, he shot Marciano and he just happened to find the couple and kill them, so I don't know why he killed all those people." 

Going back to work at Concord Farms this week was very difficult for him.

"There are days where I feel it's not real," he said. "[I imagine] that they are all still here.  We fantasize a lot. We start to shake. We don't know what to do." 

ALAS Executive Director Belinda Hernandez-Arriaga said since the shooting, her group has been meeting with families and workers in private as people are "distraught" and struggling with "emotional trauma." 

Many of the farmworkers, she said, "do not want to relive the tragic details of the situation" but despite their "pain, anger, fear, and confusion, they are hoping to rise again."

Hernandez-Arriaga said she also hopes that the mass shooting, which also exposed the "deplorable" living conditions of many of the farmworkers, will inspire "politicians, universities, religious groups, law enforcement, civic and philanthropic organizations, and others to respond on a higher level."

The farmworkers who toiled at California Terra Garden and Concord Farms, worked below the state's minimum wage and lived in cramped conditions, Gov. Gavin Newsom told reporters after a tour of the sites. 

Many lived in shipping containers, were paid $9 an hour and have no healthcare, Newsom said. 

The farmworkers said the work is back-breaking; they often have to carry 30-pound bags and work long hours for less than minimum wage. 

They didn't complain though. And those interviewed felt fortunate to have their jobs. 

San Mateo County Supervisor Ray Mueller, who surveyed one of the mushroom farms, shared photos of the living quarters, showing wooden shacks converted to one-room homes with no running water, no insulation and outdoor stoves to cook. 

Hernandez-Arriaga said she hopes that the images, the emotional  interviews and the renewed attention on farmworkers aren't all in vain.   

"The world is now getting an in-depth look at how a farmworker with low wages, lack of mental health support, and inhumane living conditions devolved to orchestrate a mass shooting," she said. "We hope that this newfound attention, especially from our elected officials, will bring about long-term equitable changes that farmworkers have always deserved."

IF YOU'RE INTERESTED: You can help the Half Moon Bay farmworkers by donating to HMB Strong Fund; Coastside Hope's Farmworker Fund and the Half Moon Bay Farmworker Shooting and Flood Victims Fund.