‘Gilroy Strong’: Hundreds gather to mourn victims of Gilroy Garlic Festival shooting

Family. It’s what makes Gilroy.

In a small town like Gilroy, “everybody knows everybody around here,” said Angel Reyes, 33, who’s spent his whole life there.

“That’s just kinda how it is ... everybody’s family,” added his wife, Jennifer Reyes, who grew up in the nearby town of Morgan Hill.

At Monday night’s vigil in the clearing behind Gilroy City Hall, this was a common sentiment. Over 400 people gathered to mourn the three lives lost in the mass shooting that occurred when a gunman with an assault rifle opened fire on the crowd at the annual Gilroy Garlic Festival on Sunday evening.

For the city of just under 60,000 with what seems to be the perpetual scent of garlic in the air, the Gilroy Garlic Festival is the “big event of the year,” Angel Reyes said. He said almost everyone is connected to the event in some way, whether it’s participating in the festivities, volunteering or knowing friends and family that attend.

The events of Sunday evening resulted in 12 injuries and the deaths of Stephen Romero, 6, of San Jose; Keyla Salazar, 13, of San Jose; and Trevor Irby, 25, of New York.

But Gilroy is grappling with the aftermath of the bloodshed that affected the whole town.

“Every one of us in this community is now a survivor,” said resident Kelly Ramirez. She described sheltering in a tent with frantic mothers, separated from their kids, hushed without understanding what was going on.

As the light turned golden and scattered through the trees, speakers spoke of the strength of the Gilroy community and the healing that must take place.

“I don’t believe this tragedy will define us, but I hope it will become a defining moment,” Ramirez said.

A call-and-response chant started between the crowd and the stage. “Gilroy!” “Strong!” “Gilroy!” “Strong!”

Mayor Roland Velasco and state Sen. Bill Monning, D-Carmel, were among some of the speakers. Representatives from various organizations such as the South Valley Islamic Community also spoke in support of the community.

“We cannot let the bastard that did this tear us down,” Velasco said. “To see all of you here tonight, I am just so proud to be your mayor.”

The event was organized by Daniel Almeida, 30, who said he planned the whole event in less than six hours.

“I woke up this morning, I had barely slept,” he said. The Facebook event he created for the vigil amassed interest from over 1,300 people.

Brittany Mendoza, 16, attended the vigil while still struggling to process her own harrowing experience Sunday.

It was Mendoza’s and her friend’s first times at the Gilroy Garlic Festival. It should have been a relaxing time with all things garlic.

Instead, it was spent hiding behind port-a-potties, getting separated from her friend in the chaos, and running as fast as she could away from the festival, her legs taking her all the way out to Santa Teresa Boulevard where her father was able to pick her up.

“I was lucky enough to get out of there alive,” Mendoza said. Even now, “waves of terror” still wash over her when she thinks about the shooter — only a couple hundred feet away from her — and the chaos at the garlic festival.

Former Marine Richard Ruiz spoke in front of the crowd near the end of the night about his love and pride for his hometown.

Ruiz, who returned to Gilroy after serving 21 years in the military, said his town was like “the Statue of Liberty but instead of holding a flame, we’re holding a garlic.”

As the clearing slowly began to trickle out, the crowd quietly sang along as the Christopher High School Choir performed “Amazing Grace.” The lyrics seemed apt as the city of Gilroy forged ahead, its head held up high despite the violence that had disrupted their lives.

“It’s all a big family,” said Julia Ariana, 20, who said she can’t ever imagine leaving Gilroy.

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Jaimie Ding, from Scripps College, is a local news reporter for The Sacramento Bee with an interest in politics and international relations. She grew up in Vancouver, Washington.