HALF MOON BAY, Calif. (AP) — Barely a week after their colleagues were fatally shot, workers were back picking mushrooms at a farm in northern California. They say they have practical and emotional reasons for such a quick return — they need to earn a living and find strength being with people who have experienced the same trauma.
“We all feel like we need each other; we feel like the people at the farm are the ones who really understand you right now,” said one worker at the farm in Half Moon Bay who asked that her name not be used.
She and two other workers spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because they are traumatized and do not want the attention that would come if their names are publicized.
The woman recently started working at Concord Farms, one of two farms where seven people were fatally shot on Jan. 23 by a man officials said was a disgruntled worker. The woman recalled how she had nicknamed two of her older Chinese coworkers abuela and abuelo — Spanish for grandmother and grandfather — and developed a kinship with them despite language barriers.
The couple, Aixiang Zhang, 74, and Zhishen Liu, 73, were two of the three people killed at Concord Farms along with the farm’s manager, Marciano Martinez Jimenez. The couple lived on the farm, the workers said.
The young woman wondered why the two were engaged in such hard labor at their age. Though they struggled to communicate through language, with the woman speaking Spanish and the couple speaking Mandarin, they got to know each other by pointing, signing and laughing and felt like a big family, she said. She credited them with helping her learn the ropes of harvesting mushrooms through gestures and a translation app on her phone.
The woman was away from the farm’s greenhouses when the shooting occurred but returned shortly after to find their bodies on the ground.
Prosecutors say the suspect in the case, Chunli Zhao, began the shooting rampage at California Terra Garden, located 2 miles from Concord Farms, after his supervisor there demanded he pay a $100 repair bill for his forklift after he was involved in a crash with a co-worker’s bulldozer.
They say Zhao caught up with his supervisor talking to the co-worker who had operated the bulldozer and shot and killed them both. They say he then fatally shot the supervisor’s wife and shot and killed another co-worker and shot and wounded that co-worker’s brother.
Those killed were Qizhong Cheng, Yetao Bing, Jingzhi Lu and Jose Romero Perez.
Authorities say Zhao then drove to Concord Farms, where he worked until 2015, and began shooting there.
Zhao, 66, has been charged with seven counts of murder and one of attempted murder. He is set to be arraigned on Feb. 16. Eric Hove, Zhao’s attorney, did not immediately return an email Friday seeking comment.
Half Moon Bay is a small coastal community in San Mateo County, about 30 miles south of San Francisco, made up of rolling hills dotted with farms and beaches that attract troves of weekend visitors. Most of the farmworkers in the area are Latino and the two mushrooms farms are among the few that employ Chinese workers, advocates have said.
The workers at Concord Farms said Zhao worked there for about four years until he was fired eight years ago. Aaron Tung, the farm’s owner, did not immediately respond to an email Friday seeking comment.
The young woman said that the slain Chinese couple would often give her eggs, chickens or vegetables to take home.
“Grandma, and also grandpa, were so patient with me; they would teach me,” the young woman said, tears filling her eyes. “They always helped me and were very good to me.”
She said that before tragedy struck at the small farm that employs about 15 workers, the work atmosphere was so collegial that it felt like a family. The workers said they like working there because the owner gives them the flexibility to leave during the workday if they have to.
“It was a really joyous place,” she said.
The workers who spoke to AP said they have been working two or three hours a day since Tuesday harvesting mushrooms, cleaning them, weighing them and packaging them because they need money to pay rent. They said they have received a bit of financial help and offers of psychological support from local farmworker advocacy organizations.
Another farmworker who spoke to AP had called out sick the day of the shooting and did not witness it. But he recalled previously working with Zhao and said he remains fearful that he could be released from jail and return to the farm.
“I try to forget what happened, but it’s like I’m always carrying this fear in me,” he said.
The killings came shortly after San Mateo County was pummeled by heavy rains that put farmworkers out of work for days, exacerbating the hard lives of many who live in crowded conditions and make only enough to pay bills and rent.
The third farmworker who spoke to AP said he and his wife have been trying to get therapy to process witnessing the shooting.
“Being there is not easy,” he said of the farm. “My wife doesn’t feel well. We have mixed feelings. I don’t know how to explain it, how to process what happened.”
The man has worked on farms in Half Moon Bay for the past decade and described the struggle that he and others face doing grueling work with pay that barely covers their living expenses.
He said he makes $16 an hour and pays $1,300 for a room for himself, his wife and two children in a four-bedroom home they share with eight other people.
“We do the work so others can eat when there are times that we don’t eat and we have to struggle to complete the work,” he said.
Last week, San Mateo County Supervisor Ray Mueller visited the housing at California Terra Garden, where some of its workers lived along with their families, and described it as “deplorable” and “heartbreaking.” Muller, who represents Half Moon Bay and other agricultural towns, posted photos on Twitter showing a shipping container and sheds used as homes.
David Oates, a spokesperson for California Terra Garden, said Friday the employees there returned to work on Monday and have been given access to grief counseling.
“They will have that access as long as need be,” he said, adding that they will also receive payment for last week when the farm was not in operation.
The farm owners have agreed to build new permanent homes on a separate area of the farm for its employees and their families and provide them affordable housing during the year it will take to construct them, Oates said.
Officials have not said anything about whether the housing at Concord Farms was up to code.
Belinda Hernandez, founder and executive director of the farmworker advocacy group ALAS, said she hopes this time officials take the plight of farmworkers seriously and make a change.
“We have been talking to a lot of people for a long time about this. It shouldn’t take a tragedy for people to stand up and listen,” she said.
Associated Press writer Janie Har contributed from San Francisco.