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

Naomi Vanderlip

Jan 22

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.

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.

‘They don’t think, ‘Hey, what I’m experiencing, it may not be fair.’ So they keep it on themselves.’Yvonne Lee, member, US Department of Agriculture’s Equity Commission

“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.

‘Very few people will know that back in the late 1880s, Asian farmers and workers contributed to almost 70% of California’s produce output.’Yvonne Lee, member, US Department of Agriculture’s Equity Commission

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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