By Alexandra Ulmer
HALF MOON BAY, Calif. (Reuters) - When friends of farm supervisor Marciano Martinez heard of the shooting at the Half Moon Bay mushroom plantations on Monday, they had a sinking feeling.
They knew he had to have been there: Martinez, a migrant from Mexico, worked every day except Saturdays. He rarely took time off for holidays like Thanksgiving. When an alarm went off at night, he'd rush on site. Even with friends in social situations, he'd lament when a crop didn't turn out well, blaming poor seeds, or he'd rave about a stellar harvest.
"He took so much pride in his job," close family friend Alicia Ortega said in an interview, looking at the ceiling as she tried to hold back tears.
"He used to send me pictures of mushrooms. 'Look how beautiful they grow,' he'd say. His phone was full of pictures of mushrooms."
Martinez, 50, was among seven people killed by Chunli Zhao, 66, a fellow immigrant mushroom farm worker who appeared in court on Wednesday after he was charged with murder.
Beyond his devotion to work, Martinez was praised as a fiercely loyal and good-hearted man. Unmarried and with no children, he gradually became a part of Ortega's family, she said.
On Christmas Day 2020, she and her family even managed to drag Martinez away from the farm to open presents — for just half an hour, before he went back to work.
When Ortega's husband, Reyes Vargas, was ill, Martinez would rush to the hospital after work. He helped them fix their car — even though, Ortega remembered with a laugh, he wasn't very handy.
As Ortega's husband took a turn for the worse, he asked Martinez to look after his wife, Ortega recounted. Martinez promised.
And after her husband passed away in 2020, a devastated Ortega said Martinez indeed became a rock of support.
"Even when I was sad or crying, he made sure that I smiled. He turned my life around," Ortega said during the interview in her living room, the warm California sun hitting her face.
Martinez loved romantic Mexican bands, and he played accordion at church and parties.
In turn, Ortega, a talented cook, would prepare Mexican chiles rellenos, tongue tacos or her coveted homemade tortillas.
On Monday, the day of the shooting, she had surprised him with one of his favorites for lunch: rib-eye steak, peppers and baked potato.
"A coworker told me he enjoyed his meal like never before," Ortega said. She took a deep breath. "I had no idea it was going to be his last."
(Reporting by Alexandra Ulmer; Editing by Mary Milliken and Sandra Maler)