Introduction and Interviews by
In the aftermath of the July 28, 2019 shooting at the Gilroy Garlic Festival, in partnership with the Gilroy Historical Society and the Gilroy Museum, Reed Magazine at San José State University will be organizing a community outreach project called “Gilroy Strong: A Community Speaks.”
This community outreach project is a collection of oral histories and personal accounts of the shooting at the Gilroy Garlic Festival and testimonies about community grief and recovery after a violent tragedy. Through first person narratives, with opportunities for complementary multimedia such as photography and/or video, “Gilroy Strong: A Community Speaks” will create a patchwork quilt of testimonies, each bearing witness to the tragedy, grief, and/or recovery from their unique perspectives. To preserve the voice of the interview subject, interviews will be transcribed and edited only for succinctness and narrative flow.
Selections from the project are published in Reed: Issue 153.
After one year, all interviews, oral histories, and full transcriptions will be permanently archived at the Gilroy Museum.
Sarah Dalton is the Managing Editor for Reed 153 where she coordinated an oral history project about the aftermath of a mass shooting called “Gilroy Strong: A Community Speaks.” She is a member of the Macondo Writers’ Workshop. Her nonfiction has appeared on River Teeth’s blog and The Sun’s “Readers Write.”
On Sunday, July 28, 2019, at 5:30 p.m., it was supposed to be the last half hour of festival delights at the 41st annual Gilroy Garlic Festival. The three-day community fundraising event had once again lived up to its reputation as one of the quirkiest, craziest, tastiest, and best local festivals in California and the San Francisco Bay Area. Kids were taking their last zips down the giant inflatable slide. Alcohol vendors had served last calls and were cleaning up or counting cash. Festivalgoers were purchasing their last mementos—garlic-infused pasta sauce, garlic olive oil, garlic braids. Henna artists were putting finishing touches on their designs, working through the last of their customers for the weekend. With the majority of afternoon crowds cleared out, it was the last chance to finger-feast on shrimp scampi, garlic calamari, garlic-topped fries, garlic kettle corn or get a free sample of garlic-flavored ice cream. It was the last chance to purchase a whipped cream–topped funnel cake. It was supposed to be the last half hour before cleaning up, driving home, and, come Monday, returning to normal life. But a nineteen-year-old young man cut his way through the chain-link perimeter fence. He wore a bulletproof vest and carried an AK-47-style assault rifle and several high-capacity magazines. Just before driving to the festival, he had shared social media posts which suggested a white supremacist ideology. At 5:41 p.m., he opened fire at festival attendees.
In less than a minute, there were twenty victims, nine men, seven women, and four children. Two of those children were killed: Keyla Salazar, who would have turned fourteen less than a week after the shooting, and Stephen Romero, who had just turned six. One young man, Trevor Irby, twenty-five, was also killed. Three Gilroy police, Officers Robert Basuino and Hugo Del Moral and Detective Eric Cryar, ran towards the rifle fire sounds, arriving shortly after the shooting began. The suspect then began firing at the officers, who took cover behind a barrel or near some vendor tents. According to an interview with Gilroy Police Chief Scot Smithee, these three officers, positioned a long distance from the suspect (“125 feet or so”), with handguns (“which are not designed for long distance”), fired eighteen rounds within about twenty seconds, hitting the suspect seven times (“It was incredible . . . truly miraculous.”). Within seconds, the young man, Gilroy resident Santino Legan, used his gun and took his own life.
Though the definition of a mass shooting varies, depending on who you talk to, I felt angry and heartbroken hearing about what many, myself included, considered a mass shooting occurring at a festival I grew up attending, a festival less than 30 miles from San José State University, where I work as managing editor for Reed Magazine.
The idea for this project came from feelings of helplessness, anger, and pain. In August 2019, I was writing in my journal about how Keyla was the age of many of the students I teach at a local, public high school. Stephen was the same age as my oldest son. Trevor was close in age to my youngest cousins. I saw major media outlets descend like funnel clouds, then disappear in a voracious, incessant news cycle. I wanted to do something besides donate money, and since I was working on Reed, I felt our literary magazine could amplify voices from the Garlic Festival community.
Inspired by the testimonio-style literature of Svetlana Alexievitch and Elena Poniatowska, I informally met first responders and nurses who helped victims, and more formally interviewed city workers and leaders, county workers, victims’ families, vendors, local press, and festival goers. I wanted to create a mosaic of voices to show the complexity and aftermath of a mass shooting, the day-to-day process of recovery that takes place after the media storm has moved on to the next story.
The last seven months working on this project have had me taking an honest account of how gun violence has permeated my life on so many different levels. It has been almost twenty years since my cousin, then in his early twenties, was shot and almost died. He recovered and was permanently disabled after the incident. Within a week of the Gilroy shooting, two more mass shootings occurred in the US. On Aug. 3, 2019, the El Paso, Texas shooting at a Walmart store was the deadliest attack targeting the Latinx community in modern US history. Less than thirteen hours later, there was another shooting in Dayton, Ohio. Bringing this national tragedy much closer to home, in early October, there was a school shooting graffiti hoax at the high school where I teach. I remember trying to assuage the very real fears of my students as the days led up to the threatened attack. That Thursday, I spoke to classes only half-full of young people, as many parents opted to keep their children at home. On Sept. 19, 2019, as I left a nonfiction workshop class at San José State, a shelter-in-place notification pinged on my phone, alerting the campus community that there was an active shooter at our MLK Library, and shots had been fired. On Oct. 31, 2019, five people were shot to death at a house party in Orinda, California, most victims in their early twenties. On Nov. 23, 2019, two boys, ages eleven and fourteen, were killed in the city where I live and teach. I returned from Thanksgiving break and talked with students whose homes were down the street, who attended the vigil, who were shaken by these latest murders. It felt impossible to keep track of so many incidents.
It is impossible to keep track of so many incidents, and there seems to be no end in sight. Violence of this magnitude forces us to question who we are as individuals and communities. And it makes us question our country and its willingness to permit this constant barrage of gun violence in our communities which invades even the most innocent pastimes—going to a festival, a trip to the grocery store, a night out with friends.
Some of these stories offer hope. When I interviewed Kasey Halcón, Director of Victim Services in the Santa Clara County District Attorney’s Office, she reminded me that for every one person driven by hate or fear or violence, there are a hundred people who want to help, who are helping. This was apparent when I interviewed Monica Sendejas, a Recreation Manager with the city of Gilroy, who, along with every other Gilroy city employee, worked in the Emergency Operations Center set up within hours of the shooting. Donna Pray, Executive Director of The Gilroy Foundation, shared the creative ways that people fundraised in the aftermath: kids’ lemonade stands, car shows, selling blown-glass garlic art pieces, cook-offs, and GoFundMe donations from around the world. In partnership with the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, The Gilroy Foundation has collected and distributed over $1.3 million directly to victims and their families, and given about $300,000 in other hardship funds.
The most powerful voices in the gun-violence epidemic are not the politicians or journalists, but the victims, their families, the people in the moment helping, the community itself. After the major media outlets have gone, after the donations have slowed to a trickle or a stop, after the shock has eased, perhaps the most powerful thing we can do is listen. In this regard, oral history seemed the best format.
It’s not easy to hear stories of grief, anger, depression, and trauma. These experiences and feelings are shunned in our society, pressured to keep private, or worse, mocked or judged as not being the “right way” or the “right timeline.” Healing is a long, circuitous emotional journey that can change daily, even hourly. I hope the voices and stories in “Gilroy Strong: A Community Speaks” reveal the connection between vulnerability and resiliency and how one community begins to heal after being traumatized by gun violence.
A note on methods: The challenge in imposing a linear narrative when people share traumatic memories is that there is no linearity. In an interview, a story takes many associative leaps or goes into tangents. I’ve opted not to use ellipses to show gaps in a quote or sentence, but only to show pauses from the interviewees themselves. I also did not use brackets to show words or phrases I’ve inserted or changed to clarify a person’s story. I’ve done my best to remain true to the intent of the speaker and follow oral history best practices from the Oral History Association. Names changed are noted in the text.