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Half Moon Bay massacre: A year later, struggle for better farmworker housing drags on

By KATE TALERICO | | Bay Area News Group, ETHAN VARIAN | | Bay Area News Group and RAY CHAVEZ | | Bay Area News Group

PUBLISHED: January 21, 2024 at 6:16 a.m. | UPDATED: January 22, 2024 at 6:12 a.m.

A year after four of his colleagues were killed in the largest mass shooting in San Mateo County history, Juan Flores Lopez still sorts through the mail for the man who shot them. The envelopes are posted to an address that no longer exists: a tarp-covered shack at the mushroom farm where Chunli Zhao lived before police say he went on a rampage that eventually killed seven a year ago this Tuesday.

Farm supervisor and mass shooting survivor, Juan Flores Lopez, stands where he used to live at California Terra Garden Farms in Half Moon Bay on a recent Saturday. His neighbor, Jose Perez, was killed and his brother Pedro severely injured by co-worker Chunli Zhao. The trailers and houses they lived in have since been demolished. (Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group) 

The dead were his neighbors as well as his co-workers, farmworkers who lived together with their families in flimsy trailers steps from the sheds where they harvested shiitake mushrooms by hand. The roofs leaked, and heat and running water were no guarantee. At another farm three miles south, where Zhao is suspected of killing three people, workers lived in mold-infested rooms inside mushroom-growing warehouses.

Usually hidden from public view, the massacre brought the squalid living conditions to light. A year later, the uninhabitable trailers, including Zhao’s, at California Terra Garden have been condemned by the county and demolished. The housing at Concord Farms was vacated. Workers at both were relocated to temporary housing.

Under pressure to ensure other farmworkers wouldn’t have to endure similar conditions, county officials created a task force in February to inspect all farmworker housing in the county. The inspections are voluntary.

Both state and county dollars are targeted for new housing, but none have been completed yet.

How much has really changed in Half Moon Bay?

While living conditions for the victims have markedly improved, advocates say farmworkers across the county and beyond are still living in overcrowded, substandard housing.

“People have been fighting for farmworker wage increases and better housing conditions forever,” said Belinda Hernandez Arriaga, executive director for ALAS, a Half Moon Bay-based nonprofit that provides counseling and other services to farmworkers. “What’s really sad, when I stop and think about it, is just how long these have been the same discussion points — how is this still continuing?”

A hidden housing crisis

Coastal Half Moon Bay is an idyllic town, attracting tourists to its pristine beaches and fall pumpkin festival. Away from the coast, on acres of agricultural land, some of the county’s poorest, most vulnerable residents live together in close quarters.

Isolation is a familiar feeling for many of the workers who migrated from small, rural communities in Mexico, Guatemala and China. But that isolation — from not only the surrounding community but also supportive services — combined with decrepit living conditions also breeds conflict.

Six months before Zhao allegedly shot his colleagues at California Terra Garden, another farmworker threatened to kill Flores Lopez over a workplace dispute and fired bullets into a different co-worker’s trailer. Flores Lopez suddenly found himself confronting violence he could not have imagined in Guatemala.

“Not even in my country has anything like this happened to me,” he said in an interview in Spanish.

Flores Lopez paid the farm $1,000 a month for the trailer he shared with his wife, their four children, his sister-in-law and her two children — nine people squeezed across two bedrooms and one bathroom. Rats and roaches scurried across the floor. The kitchen stove seldom worked, so they grilled outside, supplying their own gas tank. When it rained, they hung a tarp.

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