MONTEREY PARK, California — In the foothills of the snowcapped San Gabriel mountains lies this city of 65,000, home to one of the biggest Asian diasporas in the United States.
It is a community now enveloped in grief after losing 11 of its elderly residents to gun violence this week.
The Year of the Rabbit was supposed to usher in a period of luck. Instead, five men and six women, enjoying their twilight years, were felled by a deranged gunman who denied irrevocably their wish to welcome the Lunar New Year.
Meanwhile, relatives and friends are mourning the death of 68-year-old hotel worker Valentino Marcos Alvero, the lone Filipino fatality in the massacre at Star Ballroom Dance Studio here on Jan. 21, the eve of the Chinese New Year.
The alleged shooter, Vietnamese immigrant Huu Can Tran, had shot himself dead when police found his white van the next morning in the city of Torrance, about 45 kilometers southwest of Monterey Park.
Just two days after the tragedy, another mass shooting was reported this time in the city of Half Moon Bay in San Mateo county, where a Chinese immigrant opened fire at two mushroom farms, killing seven, including five Chinese—four of them in their senior years.
Last week’s killings in California is being traced by a group of Asian-American historians to a murderous race riot in 1930 that targeted Filipinos. They held an online forum on Thursday night (Friday morning in Manila) to mark the 93rd anniversary of the murder of Filipino farm worker Fermin Tobera, who was 22 when he was shot dead by white rioters.
The participants presented for discussion historical parallels and contradictions between that chapter in history and the two mass shootings last week.
About 536 km to the north of Monterey Park lies the city of Watsonville, the scene of the so-called anti-Filipino race riots of 1930 when an angry white mob attacked Filipinos for almost a whole week from Jan. 19 to Jan. 23.
The outcry over Tobera’s murder on Jan. 22 that year pressured the United States to consider independence for its only colony in Asia, eventually granting it in 1946.
“The similarities are there, and they are not so hidden,” historian Oscar Peñaranda of San Francisco State University said about the past and recent events.
Acclaimed author Karen Tei Yamashita said: “Historically, the dance halls were the only form of entertainment for single, young and lonely Filipino men.”
Affirming that point, poet Shirley Ancheta read a poem by her late husband Jeff Tagami that was inspired by Tobera’s death and that contained the line: “Yes, a man gets lonely, but he has to do something to stop from going crazy.”
According to Ancheta, her husband, who died in 2012, was also referring to the “manongs,” the first wave of Filipino migrant workers who toiled in California’s agricultural fields by day and looked forward to a night of fun at the dance halls, often flirting with the white women.
Jealosy triggered the white mob’s orgy of violence, beating up Filipinos they encountered in Watsonville to as far as San Francisco.
As for the Monterey Park shooting, investigators hint at a more personal jealousy in the case of the alleged gunman: The 72-year-old Tran, in despair after his wife had left him, was driven into a murderous spree in the same dance hall where he enjoyed happier times.
“Then, a white mob was going after Filipinos. Now, it was a single Asian going after his own kind,” Peñaranda observed.
“The Filipinos could not own guns then, only white people could. How would the riots [in 1930] look like if the Filipinos had access to guns?” he added.
Tran allegedly used a MAC-10 submachine gun to mow down his victims. Some of the 42 bullets that burst out of its lethal barrel struck Alvero dead.
Edwin Estrada, a co-worker of Alvero for 35 years, said he was “going to miss his kindness and ability to listen, to teach and to help.”
An elderly Filipina described the slain hotel worker as “a good friend of mine and a fantastic dancing partner.”
On Wednesday night, she placed a single red rose below a huge photograph of Alvero in front of Star Ballroom Dance Studio, which has been closed for now because of the tragedy.
Leo Sendejas, a dance instructor in that ballroom, observed that “most ballroom enthusiasts in America right now are not Americans, they are Asians and Europeans, mostly retirees.”
“The dance hall then was for young folks involved in physical riots. The dance hall now is for the mature and the retirees,” Peñaranda noted.
“It is here where we socialize and exercise. It is here where we feel young again,” said Becky Opina Strealy, 72, a retired civil engineer from Simi Valley and another Star Studio regular.
On Tuesday night, a sea of candles shone outside the dance hall as more than a thousand residents gathered to pay tribute to the fallen.
“They were having the time of their lives after working so hard, building a future for themselves and their families. It is just heartbreaking,” said Amy Lee, city treasurer of Monterey Park.
Several friendships were forged and strengthened in this ballroom on 122 Garvey Avenue.
But the human desire to belong, the need to be part of a larger community was once again repelled by gunfire and terror.