The Downfall of Gilroy Garlic Festival



Despite not having been to one of those events to this day, the Gilroy Garlic Festival was one of the most anticipated events for those who love garlic, with tens of thousands would spend a few days at the garlic capital of the world, if not the region, during the pre-pandemic period and enjoyed many of their offerings, including garlic ice cream and so forth. However, four years ago from this past Friday (July 28, 2019) – eight months before life-altering event that had since disrupted the world on all walks of life, a 19-year-old gunman by the name of Santino William Legan, brought a semi-automatic rifle and committed domestic terrorism on unsuspecting paptrons that shocked the world and shattered many lives, including those of the event organizers. Since the shooting and the subsequent Covid-19 led to the eventual cancellation in 2022. In order to understand the nature of the food festival, the 2019 mass shooting and its immediate aftermath due to COVID-19 pandemic that led to the decision to indefinitely cancel the event.

Prior to COVID-19 pandemic, the Gilroy Garlic festival was an annual three-day event at the primary source of garlic not only in the region, but also the world in a small town 30 miles southeast of the city of San Jose, California. The town tied to another village call San Ysidro that grew out the population of Rancho San Ysidro. Originally granted to a Californio (Hispanic Californian) ranchero Ygnacio Ortega in 1809, Clara Ortega, daughter of Ygnacio, and husband John Gilroy, a Scottish-born immigrant to California in 1814 and was naturalized as a Mexican citizen, before adopted the Spanish language as his own, converted to Catholicism and took the name of Juan Bautista Gilroy, inherited the largest portion of the rancho, and began developing the settlement, which was renamed in Gilroy’s honor in 1868. While the town’s economy was initially relied on cattle ranching and timber operation from nearly Santa Cruz Mountains, agriculture, specifically garlic, became the greatest source of income, as a Japanese-American Kiyoshi HIrasaki began growing garlic commercially in the local area, he continued farming it into the 1950s (note: whether he was one of the interns during the Second World War against Imperial Japanese Empire is unknown, perhaps he might already have adopted into local population beforehand), and was referred to as the “Garlic King” by that point. As for the festival itself, a man named Rudolph J. Malone, then-President of Gavilan College in town, was inspired by a similar sized annual festival on garlic in a small town in France, launched Gilroy’s variant in 1979, and it drew hundreds of thousands of paying visitors during the 40-year span, and had generated more than $12 millions to local charity causes.

During the first two decades, the Gilroy Garlic Festival had a positive impact on local economy and generatied profit annually, yet, by the early 2010s such momentum somewhat diminished as a result of many issues related to transportation of visitors, increased expenses, and the lack of public spaces due to housing crisis. However, on their third and final day for 41st edition of the festival on July 28, 2019, the usual pageantry and charm of the festival was crushed shortly before the scheduled closing at 6:0-0 pm, a disturbed 19-year-old named Santino William Legan managed to evade security screening, enter the festival ground at Christmas Hill Park via cutting through the fence with a bolt cutter, and snacked in a Romanian variant of the famous. AK-47 known as WASR-10 sensitive-automatic rifle, a 75-round drum magazine, worn a bulletproof vest, and carried five 40-round extra magazines. He soon proceeded to open fire on unsuspecting festival goers near an inflatable slide and the food area, and responded to a question from the lead singer of the local band TinMan, Jack van Breen, by saying, “because I’m really angry.” By the time the local police who were at the scene, three were killed (a 6-year-old Stephen Romero; a 13-year-old Keyla Salazar; and a 25-year-old Trevor Deon Irby), and 17 others were injured, they immediately engaged with the shooter with a minute of the first shots being fired, and eventually took 18 rounds of firing to hit the gunman several times; however, the final blow to the perpetrator was a self-inflicted shot to Legan’s head as he refused to be captured alive by the officers. The motive, to this day, could not be determined although the shooter had explored the violent aspects of ideologies from white supremacy and Islamic extremism of both sides of political spectrums, which prompted the official declared such attack as a domestic terrorism. Despite of bipartisan condemnation, the discussion of firearm regulations and safety remained at an impasse as neither side of the debate budged to reach either a consensus or a compromise. In the immediately aftermath of this incident, San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo proposed requiring gun owners in the city to carry insurance to prevent straw purchases of firearms, however the proposal was postponed until after 2021 mass shooting against Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority employee at its rail yard. What was the reason for the postponement and subsequent revival of such legislation? COVID-19 pandemic, of course.

As much as everyone hates to be reminded about the pandemic with all of its conspiracies, one cannot be overstated by the negative impact on the world economy over the past three years, let alone the ongoing political discourse that still exists today by today’s Republicans under the blind loyalty to Donald Trump. But for the context of the Gilroy Garlic Festival, the pandemic and the “prohibitive insurance requirements by the host city was too much for the organizers to bear, in spite of holding smaller events spread throughout 2021 and 2022. As of this writing, since its first case on January 27, 2020, 10,265 deaths in 9 counties among over 1.8 million confirmed cases with almost 57,000 recovered (myself included) in the San Francisco Bay Area, 2,814 deaths among almost 488,000 cases belonged in Santa Clara County alone. Food and retail service suffered the most, and without any visitors to show up at the festival in 2020, social distancing ordinance in-place since the pandemic began, the feasibility of holding a large event such as garlic festival in a town like Gilroy was nearly impossible, even without the insurance problem. As a result, the festival organizer, Gilroy Garlic Festival Association, initially announced the indefinite suspension of the traditional large-format festival and opted for hosting smaller individual events in April 2022 before outright cancellation in the following month. Although the City of Stockton soon announced its hosting of the inaugural event later in the same year, the Association distanced themselves from its involvement.

In summary, as cliche as it may sound, but the old saying “one spoiled egg spoiled the soup,” and the once proud annual event was spoiled by not once but twice by events that led to its cancellation, but never once imagined that someone was psychotic enough to commit such vicious acts against unsuspecting people, and the result was two of the three victims were less than 15 years old; nor could anyone foresee being blindsided by a bloody pandemic. At the end, we only have those happier moments watched on YouTube, and this bucket list item was erased by the evils who brought us into tragedy. Although I hope that I’ll be able to attend one of those in the near future, the way that the current global crisis is going, I may never be able to afford going into one without having constant fears of losing my life, as well as everyone else, because some cowards opt for mass murder instead.

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