Nagi Mohsin Daifullah and the Forgotten Yemeni Farmworkers of California
By: Omar Mansour/Arab America Contributing Writer
For years, Filipino and later Mexican workers had organized against the low pay and harsh working conditions in the fields of large California growers. In 1965, workers from the two largest farmworker groups at the time came together to organize a strike against the biggest growers in California’s central valley. Together, they formed the United Farm Workers and created massive campaigns of action including marches, strikes, pickets, and hunger strikes, and a national boycott of table grapes and lettuce – two of the main products of growers in the area. It is at this time that Cesar Chavez emerged as a leader of farmworkers in California. By 1970 workers, under the banner of the United Farm Workers, had signed historic contracts with large employers in California that raised wages, introduced health plans for workers, and brought in new safety measures in the fields.
However, by 1973, just three years after the United Farm Workers had negotiated those historic contracts with their employers, and just before they were set to expire, the head of another union, the Teamsters, came to the growers with a proposal that they work together against the United Farm Workers. Contracts were signed with the Teamsters that were brought in to try to keep the UFW out of the fields. Chavez and the United Farm Workers then decided to go on strike again, scoring a large legislative and legal victory in 1975, though not without major hardship and sacrifice.
The name Cesar Chavez is well known in the United States, and particularly in California. However, in a movement largely populated by Mexican and Filipino workers, largely ignored is the role that Yemeni and other Arab immigrants played in the UFW. Among those Nagi Mohsin Daifullah, a young farm worker from Yemen who moved to California and went on to become one of the organizers of the infamous 1973 grape strike in California. Tragically, Nagi was martyred at the young age of 24. However, Nagi’s story – his life and his death, helped ignite one of the largest labor actions in US history and leaves a massive legacy inspiring Arabs and workers to this day.
Nagi was born in the village of Kahlan in North Yemen, but at age ten was sent by his parents to what was then British-occupied South Yemen for education. Like other Yemenis, Nagi was inspired by the political shifts happening in Yemen, like the rise of Arab Nationalism in the Arab world at the time. As an early act of resistance, while attending school in Aden, Nagi was arrested after he pulled down both a British flag and a North Yemen flag that was hanging on the campus. After he finished high school he moved to Ta’izz and interned with an anti-imperialist publication there. But his dream was to study medicine in the US, so on August 5, 1967, when he was just under 20 years old, he moved to America in hopes of continuing his education. This period, the mid-1960s to early 1970s marks a significant period of Yemeni labor migration to the US.
There were multiple reasons for this flow of Yemini migration at this time to the US, and particularly to California. One reason was the 1965 Immigration Act, which abolished the racist national quota system, allowing for more global immigration to the US. The passage of this act became one of the largest factors for this migration due to the political situation in Yemen at the time.
The 1960s and 1970s were a time of tumultuous political changes in former North and South Yemen. With the spread of Arab nationalism inspired by Arab leaders, such as Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, as well as anti-colonial movements throughout the world, North and South Yemenis were inspired to challenge systems of power. In 1963, the National Liberation Front was established in South Yemen in order to decolonize the British Protectorate of Aden. In North Yemen, military rebels fought to overthrow the ruling monarchy at the time and establish a republic. In 1967, after over 100 years of British imperial and colonial presence, the decolonization of Aden in South Yemen was successful and became a Marxist nation known as the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen. A year later in 1968, North Yemen overthrew the monarchy and established the Republic of Yemen. The wars in South and North Yemen as well as the end of British colonization in Aden led to a deterioration of Yemen’s economy. With many families facing poverty, Yemen’s largest economic export became its labor force, consisting primarily of men.
By the 1970s, many of the Yemenis arriving in the United States worked in automobile factories in Detroit, Michigan, steel plants in Buffalo, New York, and agricultural farms across California. Less prominent in numbers, yet growing each year, was the community of Yemenis in California. Why, then, choose to go to California as farmworkers, why join the UFW?
One reason is that they were sought out by employers. Growers were facing increasing resistance and union organizing amongst Mexican and Filipino workers, and they were eager to employ Yemenis, whom they believed to be more docile and susceptible to control. Not anticipated by the growers was the fact that not only would Yemenis organize alongside the UFW, but they were also equipped with radical politics inspired by events in Yemen as well as their Muslim and Arab identities, differentiating them from their Mexican and Filipino counterparts. Alongside increased employment by growers, there are several reasons why Yemenis came to California. Many came to the U.S. with agricultural experience in Yemen already, as families usually owned a few acres in which they grew and harvested their own food. Following the wars in Yemen, however, a decline in national resources and limited economic opportunities pushed most families to rely on foreign imports. Many families turned to send relatives abroad to work and send money back home. In the mid-twentieth century, the booming California agricultural industry offered immediate employment opportunities to many young Yemeni men who came to the U.S. with some agricultural experience.
Yemeni farmworkers faced many obstacles–from low wages to language barriers, to limited access to health care and social services. Similar to other farmworkers, the conditions for Yemenis were inextricably linked to the exploitive system established by the growers. Faced with the issue of being a low-wage laborer and immigrant, it was no surprise, then, that the UFW appealed to Yemenis. For Yemenis who grew up in the context of decolonization and revolution in Yemen, the UFW’s emphasis on social justice was both identifiable and appealing.
Summer of 1973:
As we know now, in 1973, growers and the Teamsters joined up and attempted to phase out the UFW, and tensions would come to a boiling point that summer. That summer was filled with contentious stand-offs between United Farm Workers, police, growers, and the Teamsters union. And, while Nagi had already been working with the United Farm Workers and was hired as an organizer at this point, it was during this tense summer that he took on a greater role as a picket captain. As a translator, he was a very key individual in the farmworker movement, helping the various ethnicities communicate with each other during strikes. He was a bridge for the Yemeni community, the Mexican American community, and the Filipino community.
Some specifics, regarding Nagi’s death, are hazy, with even his Wikipedia page barren. On either August 13th or August 15th at around 1:15 in the morning, Nagi and a group of 15 other farmworkers were hanging out outside Smokehouse Café in Lamont, California when a group of three Kern County sheriffs arrived. Among them Gilbert Cooper, a big husky 200-pound deputy. He began to harass the group, tensions rose, and eventually, Deputy Cooper attempted to arrest Frank Quintana, a UFW picket captain. The group was outraged and argued with the officers outside the cafe. Cooper singled out the 5 foot, 100 pound Nagi, who attempted to flee. Cooper chased after Nagi and forcefully struck him on the head with a big metal flashlight, severing Nagi’s spinal cord from the base of his skull. Nagi fell to his knees, then crumpled face forward on the sidewalk, unconscious and bleeding profusely from his head. Two Sheriff’s Deputies then turned Nagi on his back, seized him by the wrists, and dragged him, head dangling and bouncing on the pavement, for sixty feet, leaving a massive blood trail, and left his body lying in the gutter near the rear door of the police car.
The police did not call an ambulance and prevented people’s attempts to reach Nagi, arresting three workers who attempted to help their comrade. He was eventually taken to the hospital, where thousands showed up outside while Nagi fought for his life, but it wasn’t long before he succumbed to his injuries. Little information was released by police about the death and Deputy Cooper was never charged with a crime. Authorities attempted to smear Nagi’s name (Sep 21st, 1973, No.18) and his memory in the aftermath of his murder. In that same week, Kern District Attorney Al Leddy announced that Nagi was actually a spy for the rival Teamsters Union, although the UFW provided evidence against this and the Teamsters themselves denied it Nagi became the first UFW martyr. That same week, on August 16th, Juan De La Cruz was shot and murdered on the picket line.
Details on Nagi’s funeral procession are not consistent. El Malcriado, “The official voice of the United Farmworkers “Sep 21st, 1973 Volume 1, No. 18 states that there were 10,000 at his funeral, making the four-mile journey from Delano Park to Forty Acres, including 300 Arab workers, “all chanting a Moslem funeral dirge”. However, Ray Cordova, who was there at the time states that it was an 11-mile trek with 7,000 people, from La Paz to the nearest airport in Bakersfield to deliver his body back to Yemen, and that “the entire march, not a word was spoken, not one word. People were not talking to each other. They weren’t whispering. All you could hear was a shuffle of the feet on the pavement”. Nagi’s funeral also gives us insights into the unique ideological and political additions brought to the UFW by Yemenis at the time, however, not without controversy. During Nagi’s funeral march in August of 1973, Yemenis decided to carry a portrait of the late Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, a leader of anti-colonial Arab nationalism, an ideology brought by Yemenis to the California fields. While these ideologies had origins in the context of political changes in Yemen and the Middle East, they were not mutually exclusive from the issues Yemeni farmworkers faced in the Central Valley. Yemenis invoked these political identities as a way to assert themselves as immigrants in California, as well as, define their involvement in the farmworker movement
These politics and global connections show themselves before Nagi. One example of this was a funeral march for Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser that was organized by Yemeni farmworkers in Porterville. On October 1, 1970, after Gamal Abdel Nasser died of a heart attack, local Yemenis planned a funeral march in his honor. Nearly one thousand Yemeni farmworkers in Porterville attended a funeral march to mourn the death of Gamal Abdel Nasser. Led by a drummer, marchers carried an American flag alongside the United Arab Republic flag and a portrait of the late President Nasser covered in a black veil. In an article of the union’s newsletter, El Malcriado, documenting the event, Yemeni UFW organizer Saeed Mohammed Al-Alas stated (Nov 1, 1970, No.9), “Nasser has been a father to us. He was the only great leader we had. He brought all the Arabs together, began economic programs, and threw the British out of Egypt. He was really interested in the people.” Mohammed Al-Alas’ statement on Nasser discussed three political projects: Arab unity, economic justice, and anti-colonialism. All of these things contextualized Mohammed Al-Alas’s involvement in fighting for farmworker justice in California. When asked why he remains in the Central Valley he replied, “Where else could I do as much for my countrymen? Evident in Mohammed Al-Alas’s statement, and for many other Yemenis, politics rooted in Arab nationalism and decolonization were not separate from their identities as UFW supporters and immigrants in the Central Valley. The inclusion of Gamal Abdel Nasser’s portrait during Nagi’s funeral march represented this understanding that politics in the Central Valley were inseparable from global politics, like Arab nationalism. Yemenis invoked these political identities as a way to assert themselves as immigrants in California, as well as, define their involvement in the farmworker movement
Nagi himself also represented these politics, as seen in the letters he wrote to his father in Yemen, detailing his experiences working in the fields and being involved with the UFW. Even before arriving in the US, Nagi already had a keen understanding of how power and exploitation were operating within the agricultural business. In a letter to his father, Nagi wrote:
Dearest father, you will be amazed at this which I am writing to you in this letter about the prisons for workers in American, and (when I) tell you how much an agriculture worker suffers and endures in terms of severe ill-will from the landlords of ranches. These workers live in encampments that resemble military barracks, surrounded by barbed wire and a massive barrier of governmental agents, who forbid anyone from contacting the workers or even conversing with their friends, except by signals, or when they are completely outside the camp, where they are far from the police. The landowners do not permit the workers to work in agriculture, except under laws the ranch-owners impose on them, with less than legal wages and insufficient safety precautions for the workers.https://kerningcultures.com/viva-brother-nagi/
He paints a vivid picture of the life of farmworkers, comparing the labor camps to prisons and war camps. He discusses grower exploitation of workers by means of controlling their wages, limiting access to services and communication, and purposely putting them in unsafe conditions. Nagi, like other Yemeni workers, also understood his oppression in both local and global ways, comparing his experiences in the Central Valley to those living under an oppressive regime in Yemen.
According to Neama Alamri, Nagi’s funeral may also provide an explanation for why Yemenis have been overlooked in this larger story. Nasser’s image at Nagi’s funeral march proved controversial and Chavez came under intense pressure. Chavez received several letters from supporters who were extremely disappointed to see Nasser. These letters demonstrated that the portrait of Nasser, a leader of Arab nationalism and Palestinian liberation threatened the UFW’s relationship with the AFL-CIO, an organization that boosted the union’s platform nationally. The decision to include Nasser spoke politically to the connections Yemeni workers made between social injustices abroad with the injustices they faced as farmworkers in the U.S. However, it put Chavez and the UFW in a very tough situation and threatened the union’s support from pro-Israeli organizations as well as Jewish American religious leaders. Based on a social justice platform rooted in American civil rights discourse, the UFW was not prepared to take on the global politics of Arab nationalism nor the question of Palestine. Again, we ask why Yemenis have been marginalized within this history. Part of the answer is that numerically speaking, there simply were not as many Yemeni farm workers during that time compared to the majority of Mexican and Filipino laborers. However, Alamri argues the other reason why Yemenis have been overlooked has to do with how their engagement with Arab nationalism and Palestine did not wholly mesh with the UFW’s mission.
Nagi’s Impact and Legacy:
Nagi’s death had a big impact on the United Farm Worker movement and within the Yemeni community both in the US and back in Yemen. Days after Nagi’s murder, Juan De La Cruz, another United Farm Workers member was killed on the picket line. He was fired on during a protest, by a worker subverting the picket line driving past in a pick-up truck. Their martyrdom propelled the movement. As the harvest came to an end and the growers prepared to shift their grapes to the market, workers gathered by the hundreds in Delano, Lamont, Fresno, and the other agricultural towns in order to resume the boycott. Hundreds of grape strikers and their families were assigned and went off to cities across the US and then into Canada and eventually into Western Europe to organize a second grape boycott and taking their cause to the people. The boycott took off. There was a national poll in 1975, two years later that showed 17 million American adults were boycotting grapes in support of the UFW.
Two years later in 1975 after countless arrests and two murders, California passed the agricultural labor relations act of 1975. This is the first law in the country that granted farmworkers the right to peaceably assemble, to vote in a secret ballot, the state conducted elections, to bring the union in. And then to bargain with their employers as equals across the bargaining table. That year, Yemeni workers were among those voting in the first elections, and their activism was dedicated in the name of Nagi Daifullah. Nagi’s sacrifice really did produce genuine progress for farmworkers that continues to this day. Farmworkers still use that law to organize, bring the union in and materially improve their wages, hours, working conditions, and secure a variety of other benefits, which were unimaginable back in 1973.
For many Yemeni Americans, Nagi’s death also became a symbol of the fight for Arab recognition in America. Nagi’s death was shocking to Yemenis both here in the US and in Yemen. It exposed the myth of the American dream and the idea that America was full of endless opportunities. Alongside that, his murder also politicized Yemenis in the US and elsewhere in the diaspora. Nagi’s story had an impact on Arab organizers who had never known or met him. His death helped to ignite protests and organizing efforts in Dearborn, Michigan, an area that is now well known for its organizing institutions created by and for Arab Americans. After hearing of Nagi’s death, Yemeni auto workers in Dearborn organized a rally to demand a proper investigation of his murder and it was at this rally that folks started to have a dialogue around the challenges that Yemeni and other Arab auto workers were facing in the factories, challenges that were similar to what farmworkers were facing in California
This attack on Arabs and the rejection of their causes in the US showed itself soon again. By 1982, there were no Yemeni UFW organizers. In that same year, Ahmed Shaibi, who had formerly organized with the UFW, established the Delano chapter of the American Anti-Arab Discrimination Committee (ADC). Shaibi saw a dire need for an organization that focused on the specific needs of the Yemeni community. Arabs inhabited the vast majority of the labor camps in Delano, but there was nowhere they could go for social services. However, the promise that the ADC had for Yemenis in the Central Valley never reached its full potential. In 1985 Palestinian American Alex Odeh, the West Coast regional director of the ADC was assassinated by Zionists from the JDL. They placed a bomb in his Santa Ana office. That same year the ADC in Delano was defunct. The closing of the Delano ADC was most likely a direct reaction to Odeh’s murder, as many Yemeni and Arab American activists feared the consequences of political activism. Arab nationalism, then, and a sense of Arab cultural solidarity and community loyalty are on display even when not alongside the UFW. This solidarity and sense of loyalty were developed by their time with the union and the movement.
And even up until today, young Yemenis and Yemeni Americans are inspired by Nagi’s story. When janitors in San Francisco were organizing for better contracts in 2012 they invoked the legacy of Nagi. In 2017, there was the Yemeni bodega strike in New York to protest against Trump’s executive order barring people from seven Muslim majority nations, including Yemen. More than 1,000 bodegas and Yemeni-owned businesses participated. Debbie Almotaser, co-founder of the Yemeni American Merchants association in New York and cites Daifullah as an inspiration for her and the Yemeni community, ” What really has motivated me and inspired me to come back and organize in my community and also utilize as a tool to excite and ignite activism in my community is really the story of Nagi Daifallah…So we always love to tell that story, especially when we’re working with Yemeni youth, to let them know and understand that there have been people in their community that have worked, you know, decades ago and that they are standing on the shoulders of giants and that giant is Nagi Daifullah”
Nagi gave his life for the worker cause, his community, and his politics, and in doing so inspired generations of Yemenis and Arabs to follow in these ideals. His story and the story and experiences of Yemenis in the UFW is an important chapter in the history of the Central Valley’s Yemeni community, US labor history, and for Arabs all across the United States, underscoring how the local is deeply intertwined with global politics such as Arab nationalism. Nagi’s experience, his life, and his ultimate sacrifice are a testament to this, and we must continue to tell his story and keep his spirit alive.
Check out Arab America’s blog here!