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‘I only think about this tragedy’: Families shattered by Half Moon Bay mass shooting search for help

Jan 23, 2024

On the first anniversary of a mass shooting, ALAS founder Belinda Hernandez-Arriaga speaks during a roundtable discussion titled “Remembering and Advocating One Year Later” in Half Moon Bay on Tuesday.

Scott Strazzante/The Chronicle

HALF MOON BAY — One year after a gunman opened fire in Half Moon Bay, killing seven farmworkers, Pedro Romero told an assembly of local and state lawmakers on Tuesday about his brother, who was among the dead, and their shattered family. 

“I came to his country to help my family have a better life,” Romero said through a Spanish translator. “My father, my brothers, we didn’t have anything.” 

They once dreamed of building a house in their native Oaxaca, Romero said. He now lives in housing paid for by the county and local community groups as he faces a future without his brother, who left behind a wife and children in Mexico. 

“I need your help because now I only think about this tragedy,” he said. 

The assembly, hosted by Ayudando Latinos a Soñar, a local nonprofit known as ALAS, and the Latino Community Foundation, was attended by former Democratic presidential candidate and Obama administration official Julian Castro as well as Rep. Anna Eshoo, who has represented the area for three decades. Representatives from the Biden and Newsom administrations were also present. 

The anniversary arrived on the same day that suspected gunman Chunli Zhao, 66, appeared in San Mateo County Superior Court. Zhao, who pleaded not guilty to seven counts of murder and one count of attempted murder, could face the death penalty if convicted. 

Speakers said the shootings galvanized the community to address farmworkers’ poor living conditions, which they said were well-known locally but rarely acknowledged.   

“Farmworkers have been neglected for too many years,” said Victoria Sanchez De Alba, who identified herself as a former farmworker. 

The killings, carried out at two mushroom farms, cast light on the low wages and dismal living conditions of farm workers in rural San Mateo County, where the agriculture industry employs more than 5,000 people, many of them immigrants. Subsequent investigations revealed that workers often lived in squalid conditions, sometimes without running water or proper sanitation. 

Eshoo praised local Chinese and Latino community leaders for taking action “from day one.”

“Any other community would have been paralyzed,” the congresswoman said. “This community understood the shame that was under it and started to get rid of the shame.” 

In the year since the shooting, San Mateo County officials have worked to obtain funding for farmworker housing while providing those displaced with housing and basic needs. Three housing developments in Half Moon Bay are in the planning stages, but officials have said it could take up to four years until they are ready. 

Farmworker advocates have lamented the slow pace of progress reflecting the difficulty of accessing and assisting long-neglected communities. But on Tuesday, the mood at the assembly was optimistic, with some speakers expressing hope that the anniversary would spur greater investment in farmworker housing and health care. 

Castro, now the CEO of the Latino Community Foundation, called for “long overdue” improvements to farmworkers’ quality of life. 

“Today is a time to reflect on the tragedy and also to do something to improve the lives of farmworkers, to take people out of the shadows and into the light,” Castro said. 

Many, like ALAS board member Enrique Bazan, expressed hope that the anniversary would bring renewed attention to the ongoing needs of marginalized communities in San Mateo. 

“We cannot forget that we still have work to do,” Bazan said. 

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