Experiencing the Gilroy Garlic Festival Mass Shooting

When the dark cloud that nobody wants to talk about, comes to your hometown

This is one of the hardest posts for me to write so far. Not just because the tone is much different from my previous ones but also I feel a sense of responsibility to characterize my feelings in a way that represents and respects my fellow community of Gilroy who experienced this with me, albeit in many uniquely different ways.

Gilroy

I was born and raised through the formidable years of my life in small town Gilroy, California. A quaint little town that was mostly known for the cities around it, or the few attractions that we have to boast. As a child, I would get excited just to see them show Gilroy on the news during the weather segment.

When I would meet random people in the world and those people say, “Where are you from?” I’d say, “Gilroy.” **silence** And I’d chime in, “It’s like 30 minutes south of San Jose.” And they would reply, “Oh ok, I think I’ve driven through there once.”

On rare occasions that they were aware of Gilroy they would say,

  • “Oh the place with the outlets!”
  • “Oh the place with the Sonic!”

But mostly, “OHHH Garlic!!” Which would inevitably lead to me going on about how we are the (self-proclaimed) Garlic Capital of the WORLD.

For us Gilroyans, we may groan about its mundaneness and lack of activities but I feel a subtle hint of fondness when I complain about that very same aspect. There is something endearing about being from the middle of nowhere and sharing that with the people within it.

Now, things are a little different.

When people ask where I’m from and I respond, I try to keep the conversation as normal as I would. “Do you know where that is?” I ask. And they say “Yeah, I do.” Then, I can see the uncomfortable, polite smile creep across their face, as they’re unsure whether or not to bring up the grisly elephant in the room.

A common reply is, “that’s so crazy about what happened. The Garlic Festival and everything.” It is crazy. But at the same time, it isn’t at all. It’s very normal and very common. As I started writing this, a school shooting took place in Santa Clarita, November 14th.

You often hear the cliche’ about how “you never think it will happen in your town.” Hell, it’s even cliche’ now to mention that it’s cliche’. But the reality is, I never realized that I was a part of the world and all its complexities until it was thrust upon me. In my own naivete, I thought my sacrosanct bubble of home, was immune to the darkness of our world. I had such a pristine and innocent childhood that I didn’t think that could ever be taken away from me.

On June 28, 2019, 5:40 PM, a mass shooting occurred on Sunday, the final day of the Gilroy Garlic Festival, injuring 17 and killing 3.

That day I feel that the innocence was taken away from my community. A community that was once known for its quirkiness and odd choice of festival themes, is now known for tragedy. It hurts me when I see its name become another talking point in our country’s mass shooting epidemic and relentless gun control debate.

I mean, this is fucking Gilroy. There is something so pure about a town that celebrates Garlic, that blinds you from the possibility of anything bad happening here other than terrible breath. It’s even been referenced on TV shows for how random of a place it is.

From “Parenthood” S1 E14. Amber runs away from home to get as far away as she can think, Gilroy.

My Story

That Sunday afternoon, I was ready to conclude yet another fun and friendship filled GFest. I normally stay until the very end with my family (6pm), but this year my friends, girlfriend and I decided to call it quits about 30 minutes before the end of the festival and retire to my grandmother’s pool, a block away from the festival on Chesapeake place, my favorite past-time.

I was dipping my feet in the pool with my best friends around me when we heard the sirens. Initially dismissed as another drunken fight, they persisted. For 15 minutes the sirens went on, alarming us that this was something serious. Moments later, my Grandfather came out and delivered the words that sank like a rock in my stomach. “There’s an active shooter at the festival.”

Praying to God, that it was just a drunk dude that pulled out a gun in a riotous brawl, I soon realized that this was really happening. From that moment on, a dreadful spiral of events occured that I remember vividly and always will.

A few things sickened me from that day, more than just the event that took place, that highlighted not just the issue of shootings in America but many issues that run through the veins of our society.

Rumors

In a whirl of confusion, despair and hysteria a bevy of rumors circled around that only fanned the flames. The first, came from my Grandfather, who told me that 40 PEOPLE had been shot. When I heard this, I broke down into tears and did not stop crying for the at least 20 minutes. When the real details came out, I had to comprehend the fact that it was nowhere near “as bad” as I thought it was, however the reality was no consolation, that multiple people had been shot and the shooter was on the loose. Coming down from the initial shock and into the real one was a surreal experience to say the least.

I then heard that there were multiple shooters, that they were knocking on people’s doors and shooting whoever answered. I read tweets of, “gunshots heard on X street, shooter is firing at homes.

I understand that in times of crisis and chaos it’s easy to get carried away in assumptions and cling to whatever information may be being passed around. But these were undeniably heinous. I saw firsthand what chaos can do to people and how our reactions are not always helpful or rational. What I learned is that our reactions during these moments are an important part of how the event plays out. When we respond impulsively and give in to hysteria, we create an even more unstable and dangerous environment for everyone.

Blame

Another disappointing symptom of tragedy is finding someone to blame. The knee jerk reaction of news anchors, social media and my own family was to blame the security for not doing their job. I SERIOUSLY doubt that someone that wants to shoot up a festival would enter through the turnstile. In this imagined scenario, that a “good” security guard would have checked his bag, found his rifle and turned him away,

“Sorry, machine guns aren’t allowed here.”

is pure nonsense. The security did their job for what they signed up for. Additionally, there were heavily armed guards patrolling the festival already for the entirety of the weekend. The attack was planned and premeditated and he snuck in with prior knowledge of the park, as he was a Gilroy native. The terrifying aspect of these attacks is that they are very random and unpredictable.

Not to be confused as support for the “good guy with a gun” argument, I must acknowledge the officers that took the shooter down within the minute, preventing the situation from going farther.

Hate

I get why people are angry. I understand why some want revenge for what he did and to reciprocate the pain that he placed on our community. But he’s gone and he took his pain and hatred with him. It does not serve us to keep that hatred alive in us.

At a vigil I heard the MAYOR yelling, “send that bastard to HELL!” Met with a raucous response of cheering and clapping. The angry mob sent a shiver down my spine. I heard his acts being described as “inhumane” and that he is not a human but he is a monster.

We cannot pick and choose who we count as one of us. He was a human, his acts were monstrous but he was not a monster, he was a boy and we must claim him. It may be hard to hear this, but I understand the pain and anger, I felt it too. I felt pure despise when I saw that boy’s face on the news. This boy does not deserve our sympathy but he does deserve our understanding. But do not confuse understanding, with condoning. We can listen to this person’s pain and learn how he was capable of this horrendous act, meaning WE are also capable of this horrendous act. Distancing ourselves from people we don’t understand doesn’t help us in any way.

This boy has a family, that has to listen to the things being spewed about him. Don’t you think they would have tried to stop him if they knew how? That they feel regret for letting him become who he was, and are just as confused as to how he could possibly do this? His family lost their son twice that day, the son that was physically present in their lives and the son that they thought they knew.

The way I see it, most of these mass shootings are elaborate suicides. They have the intention of killing themselves but are too cowardly to do it on their own. So they get the police to do it for them and cause as much harm to others as possible along the way, to show everyone the pain they were feeling and to finally get the attention they craved but never received.

The Takeaway

If you made it this far, I commend you. I’m sorry if it has been rather doom and gloom but I think it has been appropriate considering the topic. However, what I have gained from this experience I find extremely valuable and profound. I am not trying in any way to put a “silver lining” on this event but I do believe that we can move forward from this, as changed people, and use this knowledge to be better and more empathetic individuals.

If you were impacted by the shooting that day, I want to stress that your trauma is valid.

I brought friends with me from out of town to the festival that day. They might not have been a part of Gilroy but they felt the impact that this had on everyone and are forever linked to Gilroy now.

If you were out of town that day, you might have felt regret that you were not there to support your friends and family in their time of need. Or felt helpless, knowing that there was nothing you could do to help as you watched your town suffer. But remember that there is nothing that any of us could do except be there for one another and your empathy and care is the greatest thing we have to give after a situation like this. The burden is not yours to carry.

~~~~~

The fear of not knowing where your loved ones are in a moment of crisis, is a traumatic experience on its own. The first thing I worried about was where are all my family members. Every single person I cared about at that moment was in danger and possibly dead. The amount of texts I sent and received saying “Where are you? Are you ok?” was utterly bittersweet. I talked to people I hadn’t talked to in years, and told people that I loved them, whom I might have never expressed that to them otherwise. Are you ok and I love you are sometimes one in the same.

I actually had a “friend” accuse me of wanting attention because I was grieving about the event on Facebook, even though I wasn’t there. It was really hard to deal with honestly, and I did a lot of soul searching and second guessed myself on whether or not I was truly allowed to feel sad. Attending the vigils and feeling the support of the community helped me put those insecurities to rest.

**** And to my brave friends and family, who actually WERE there, one who was shot in the leg, and my young cousins who saw their friends bleeding out, I am grateful for you and I admire your strength and persistence as it did not hinder your kind and warm spirit. *****

COMMUNITY

My GF Gaby and our friend Rosie

In the aftermath of the shooting, I attended multiple vigils with my family and girlfriend. I have never felt more of a sense of community and pride to be from Gilroy than I did that day. I felt extremely grateful for every one of my friends and family members of Gilroy, and I feel a strong bond knowing that we experienced this thing together.

My strapping roommate Ori

The Garlic Festival is a beautiful thing. Where people get together and reunite, sometimes for the only time the whole year that we see our old friends again, to celebrate our town. It’s a weekend of pure happiness and that is exactly what I felt before the events took place. All of my friends and family that I have spoken with are 100% going to attend the festival next year. Never have I felt more solidarity with my community.

Where’s Michael going?

If I’ve learned one thing from this, it’s that the heart of GILAS cannot be taken away by one person or event. And that GILROY STRONG is not just a slogan, but an action that takes place in front of me every time I come home and I see my friends and the Gilroyans that I love, again.

My favorite picture. Gaby and my friend Cameron

To the families of the victims, children, who were gone far too soon. I am deeply sorry for your loss and we will forever honor them and cherish their memory.

Trevor Irby, 25
Keyla Salazar, 13
Stephen Romero, 6

6 Comments

  1. Wow…powerful and awesome words…i felt everything you do and did. Brought tears to my eyes reading it. I know your family…a great family…they raised you well. Awesome job! Keep up the great work!

    1. Hi Brian, thank you from the bottom of my heart for reading and for your comments. It honestly brought tears to my eyes while writing it haha. It means a lot that it resonated with you because I mostly concerned with how the locals would feel and relate to it. I didn’t know you knew my family I’ll tell them what you said! Thanks again for taking time to read what I have to say.

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