Musa (“Moses”) Saleh laughs now at his expectations as a new immigrant to the United States. “We were fooled,” he says, reflecting on the first morning when he prepared for his new job as an apricot picker in California. “We didn’t know what kind of work our Yemeni friends had been doing here…. I dressed up in a suit and necktie and a nice pair of shoes and walked in and everyone started laughing. Well, I saw their clothes. I didn’t have to see anything else. Regular clothes, apricot juice all over them…. They asked me if I was going to work in the White House.” Quickly redressed in borrowed makeshift work clothes (“six pairs of socks to fit me in the shoes”), Moses spent his first workday in America, tired and humiliated, wanting to return immediately to Yemen.

Although he quit the apricot job before the afternoon was over, Moses had no recourse but to stay and work until he had saved up enough to pay off his debts. Twenty-two years later, Moses has yet to return. Eventually he landed a good-paying, full-time job in a Modesto cannery, married an Anglo woman (who has since converted to Islam), took a few courses in a junior college, and played an active role in the Teamsters Union. His version of the successfully assimilating immigrant seems to have come full circle, however. After seven years of employment, Moses’ work place has now shut down, leaving him permanently laid off.

 

Some Yemenis have spent 20 or 30 years here and still cannot speak a word of English. For many, the bleak, isolated labor camps miles out of town in the middle of endless grape or asparagus fields is preferable to a typical American town’s intensely bewildering socioeconomic pressures. Most travel in groups, carpooling across the state, preferring to work under the few Yemeni foremen permanently employed or seasonally contracted by corporate growers, typically tending grapes (in the Delano area) and asparagus (near Stockton). In the early 1960s a few Yemenis—a tiny subgroup within other much larger farmworker minorities—penetrated the Filipino labor dominance in the Delano-area fields to prove themselves to local companies as exceptional and relatively troubleless workers. Some eventually became foremen, and newly immigrating Yemenis routinely made their way to the Delano/Stockton areas for jobs.

 

In 1983, a typical field laborer was paid $4.70 an hour. During peak grape harvest, the men work in teams of three or four—one man wrapping and packing the grapes, the others picking. A good worker—laboring six days a week—can take home up to $350 after taxes. Although some Yemenis claim that a few men had earned $18,000 in a good year, in helping a half-dozen men with IRS problems I found yearly incomes ranging from $8-11,000.

Most Yemenis prefer companies that pay on a “contract” basis, where workers are paid not by the hour but by quantity. Contract work can backfire, however, if the weather is bad and the available harvest a poor one.

 

The Yemeni labor camps throughout California vary considerably. Most are extremely spartan; few have pay telephones; only one has a washer and dryer; gang showers and row toilets are universal, both varying in upkeep and cleanliness. In some camps, two or three men share a small room. In other “barracks” camps, a dozen or more share a larger area. Usually there is a dining area somewhere in the camp with long wooden tables and benches, but in one camp there was only a stove and card table at the end of two rows of beds.

 

The employer generally takes deductions from the workers’ paychecks to cover food, water, electricity, and camp maintenance. Usually one or two Yemenis are hired as full-time cooks. Dinner is normally lamb, chicken, or beef and vegetable stew, green onions, and white bread or tortillas. Soda pop is the preferred drink, always and everywhere. Lunch, carried in a large pot by the cook to the fields, is usually another stew spread over curried rice and loaves of inexpensive white bread. Breakfasts are typically coffee and hard-boiled eggs. In most camps, food routines never vary.

 

Yemenis in the labor camp are very wary of outsiders and suspicious of their intentions. Some have minor legal infractions to hide and are worried about the possibilities (real or imagined) of being deported to Yemen. Some, too, are from South Yemen, and one needn’t be in the US too long to recognize what being stigmatized as “communist” means. At various times I was suspected of being an agent for the Immigration Service, for Israel, for the company, for the United Farm Workers, or for North or South Yemen. For most, my ulterior motives in living among them were incomprehensible. The rhetoric of secular humanism, anthropology, universities, and museums made no sense. And the fact that I was making no profit on the work I was doing seemed, to men who traveled across the world for money, like the words of a fool or a lunatic. Or a liar.

The Yemeni community is a very tight network; news and gossip travel fast and to all quarters. No one risks being shamed. Most Yemenis are continually on guard against bringing disgrace upon not only themselves but on their entire families and, by extension, on Yemenis as a people. At least in dealings with outsiders, Yemenis are prone to act by consensus. Only the most radically Americanized individuals deviate from this and act in a blatantly individualist manner.

Relatively few Yemenis allow themselves to be photographed at hard labor and few allow themselves to be portrayed in a camp life environment. Most are not proud of the way they must live in the farm labor camps and emphatically resist any rendering of themselves in such a negative environment. Likewise, no one wanted to be photographed eating, sweaty and dirty, hovering over a camp slop bucket of stew in the field. After all, many have never explained to their dependent families in Yemen exactly what they do in America for money. One middle-aged man admitted that he never told his 17-year old son what his life in America was really like. Only when his son recently arrived in California to work beside his father in the fields did the young man, totally shocked, find out.

Sensitive to their collective image as Arabs in an alien—sometimes hostile—world, many Yemenis prefer to hide distinctive homeland habits from public view. Most Yemeni men, for example, wear futas—long skirts—in relaxation around the camps. Traditional and comfortable, the futa has long been ridiculed by Mexicans and others as “a woman’s outfit.” And to an Arab culture with its own high standards of machismo, this can be a source of severe embarrassment.

 

Like most jobs in the field, the grape harvest can be a particularly difficult, even hazardous venture. All day long the men meticulously inspect, pick, and lay clusters of grapes in a large, cardboard container. When a box is full—weighing from 30 to 50 pounds—a worker must balance it on his head or hoist it to his shoulder and
carry it to the end of the vineyard row to the packer. This precarious haul of anywhere from a few feet to 50 yards is increasingly treacherous as the season wears on and discarded grapes are strewn about the trails. High grasses camouflage the endless network of eroded irrigation holes, dirt clods, and canals irregularly gouged earlier in the season by tractors. Footwork is extremely precarious and back injuries are common.

The worker is torn between the race to accumulate as many pounds of grapes as possible and the employer’s insistence on picking only those that are tasty and mature. Hence Yemeni foremen spend most of the day inspecting the workers’ gatherings for clusters of immature grapes. For the first offense, he issues the worker a “pink slip”—a company warning and suspension for the rest of the day without pay. The offender has no way to return the many miles to the camp until his driver has finished, so he must wait out the rest of the day in the narrow shade of the grape leaves. A third such offense is grounds for being fired—a devastating blow to someone who may have gone into debt to sojourn here from across the world expressly to work. Conversely, those individuals too hurried in their selections can just as well be suspended for overlooking a ripe bunch of grapes.

The most obvious health irritant in the vineyards is the so-called “silver” (sulfur, commonly called “medicine” by the Yemenis) regularly sprayed throughout the vineyards to retard mildew and keep away insects. Conspicuous as an omnipresent white residue on the green leaves, its odious, pungent smell lingers everywhere. Even to the passing motorist, it smells as if it had been spilled in the back seat. As the grapes mature, workers spend entire weeks sloshing through the muddy vineyards, stripping leaves and grape buds off selected shoots, causing a flurry of white “medicine” dust to whirl in the air. Most workers react with sneezing, watery eyes, and relentless itching. Vineyard workers always wear long sleeves on even the hottest days to protect partially against the spray dust.

Another common ailment is back problems directly related to asparagus picking, where workers spend hour upon hour, day upon day, week upon week, walking mile after mile in desert-like weather, hunched over in a stooping position, severing asparagus shoots.

 

When asked where they plan to be in the next few months, most Yemenis shrug their shoulders and profess a faith in Allah to guide them. There is a wide range of variables beyond their control—the weather, harvest projections, rumors, the potential foreman’s reputation, expected wages, transportation, and what other work options arise.

One prevalent migration pattern is to work in the Delano/Porterville area harvesting grapes from July to November, pruning grape vines in Delano, Shatter or Arvin from January to February, picking asparagus in Tracy (Stockton) from February to May, and picking cherries in downtown Sunnyvale in June. Alternatives include stone fruit work (pruning and harvesting) at various times of the year in Shatter and early grape work in the Indio area, two or three months on the cannery lines in Modesto/Lodi and spring carrot picking in Holtville (near the Mexican border).

 

Ahmad shakes his head, disgusted, unbelieving. These Americans—he cannot understand them. Just last week he visited the little town of nearby Delano, bringing an entire 25-pound box of freshly picked grapes as a gift to the owner of a fast-food shop—a box of grapes that he had meticulously scrutinized himself for quality (“number one grapes!”), picked, and carried beneath the merciless summer sun. In town, the shop owner was pleased with her gift, gratefully accepted the grapes, thanked him, and set her cache away. Ahmad, still thirsty after 10 hours in the sun, asked the owner if he might have a cup of Coca-Cola. The owner obliged, filled a cup with soda, and set it before him. “That’ll be 50 cents,” she said.

Within the long Arab tradition of open hospitality, it is problematic how Yemenis adapt to the stringent, self-centered economic rigors of the “free” marketplace. For the new immigrant, his expectations about hospitality might very quickly change when confronted with the $2 per day transportation fee to and from work charged by enterprising car-owning Yemenis who pack their autos with as many riders as possible, or the Filipino gentleman who will gladly drive out to the labor camp and ferry him the five miles to Delano, $5 each way.

 

In terms of worldview, the Yemeni fieldworkers fall into three groups. The first, consisting primarily of men over 35, seclude themselves as much as possible from the taint of Western ways. In the isolated camps, they can adhere to strict Muslim law, faithfully pray, avoid alcohol and women, and speak little or no English. Wary and suspicious of outsiders, most have little conception of the workings of American society and are resolved not to investigate it. For some, their perceptions of America are tempered by their narrow first-hand experiences, often involving the most nefarious elements: transient con-artists, opportunists, drug addicts, and prostitutes who aggressively solicit California’s multi-ethnic farmworker communities.

The second Yemeni group is more resigned to personal change while living in America. Commonly describing themselves as “lazy” in matters of the Quran, they rarely pray in the camp mosque, actively court women, frequent bars, but still claim devotion to Islamic teachings. Some indulge in American vices more discreetly, wary of conservative relatives in the camp eager to police and chastise them for sinful misbehavior. Lacking any understanding of or tolerance for Arab Muslim culture, mainstream rural America offers few social opportunities for inquisitive Yemeni farmworkers. The most prevalent point of assimilative interaction remains the local barroom society that requires no preconditions for participation other than a healthy wallet.

A small third group is typically the most notorious of the camp, the ones the conservative Yemenis refer to as “crazy.” These men blatantly deviate from the teachings of the Quran and actively engage in a range of American vices. Most outrageously, as far as fellow Yemenis are concerned, some of these men no longer send remittances back to their families.

Most camps are located a few miles away from the nearest town. This room is typically carpeted but unfurnished, a Quran and a few Islamic books piled in a corner, a tattered, well-traveled religious poster taped on the wall, and somewhere in the room a small heater.

Most Yemeni workers spend their idle hours in camp playing cards, sleeping, or—for those that have it—watching television. Many smoke large quantities of cigarettes (“three packs a day since I was 12 years old,” said Muhammad Saleh), and some chew snuff. On extended days off, a few take the Greyhound bus to visit friends and relatives in more hospitable living environments, usually grocery store owners.

Most men go to bed at 9 or 10 o’clock and many awake at 4 a.m. to pray in the mosque. In one camp, at certain times during the week many of the inhabitants gathered at a radio rigged to a high antenna to listen to an Arabic news broadcast on a BBC channel. Most Yemenis are highly distrustful of the American news media, particularly on the subject of pan-Arab affairs. In another camp, a Yemeni foreman who owns a videotape machine sometimes treats his crew to Egyptian movies.

For a Western visitor, it is a bit jarring to discover that there is no habit of knocking on doors in the camps. Unannounced, any door is simply pushed open. Most labor camps the Yemenis live in are exclusively Arab. Both North and South Yemenis typically reside together with no political problems, although at least one foreman from North Yemen (who had lost relatives in recent border wars) expressed a reluctance to hire those from the south. Most typically, northerners and southerners express a “same people” solidarity and a hope for national unity. On occasion, non-Yemeni Arabs reside in the camps.

One camp I stayed in during peak grape picking seasons held approximately 80 Yemenis and 60 Mexicans. Yemenis and Mexicans generally got along well enough together although, for most, there is not a great deal of fraternizing. Many Yemeni farmworkers, however, speak rudimentary Spanish better than English. In fact, Yemenis are so little known in California, even in the rural areas they reside in, they are often mistaken for Mexicans. Knowing that few Americans or Mexicans have even heard of their homeland, most refer to themselves broadly as “Arabian.”

 

Most Yemeni farmworkers claim they could be making much better wages if, like most sojourners from Yemen, they were working in Saudi Arabia. Why have so many Yemenis chosen to come here? Many cited America’s widespread “fame” and said they came to this country with grossly inflated expectations of easy jobs and money. Once arrived, and often deeply in debt, they had no choice but to be “stuck here.” No self-respecting Yemeni would dare to return home without something economically significant to show for his sojourn, let alone return home further in debt. After all, there is already an established tradition of other local villagers returning from abroad laden with money.

A few Yemenis cite their liking for “freedom.” (Some unsympathetic co-workers interpret this to be easy access to beer and women.) Others came here because of deep resentment against the Saudis, where many Yemenis claim they are treated as considerably less than second-class citizens.

 

Whatever their inclinations toward American culture, Yemeni farmworkers are inevitably forced to deal with the host society in a least three areas: the Internal Revenue Service, the Immigration Service, and the local unemployment office.

Virtually no Yemeni farmworker can handle such a formidable task as a US tax form, and must go instead to Delano where many pay a favored Filipino accountant to figure out their income taxes. Apparently, the IRS keeps close tabs on the Yemenis as aliens and periodically harasses them en masse over past tax returns. Dozens of Yemenis have gotten unpleasant surprises in the mail. Likewise, for most Yemenis there is constant imploring, through hired accountants and letter writers, with the INS over friends and relatives struggling to get to the States.

During slack working seasons most Yemeni farmworkers end up standing in line to confront again the befuddling demands of the local unemployment office. No one at Unemployment, IRS, or INS speaks Arabic, and the Yemenis who do speak passable English very rarely can read and write it. For us native Americans who struggle daily with such bureaucratic entanglements, one can only begin to imagine the terror and bewilderment that these villagers must feel when confronted with such nightmarish scenarios.

In late 1982, the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) hired an educated South Yemeni, an ex-farmworker and former UFW organizer, to begin a tiny, one-man operation in Delano. Reaction to the new ADC office in the Yemeni community has been mixed. A few North Yemenis were wary of his southern origins, and a few more took umbrage at his coming to the fields in a suit and tie. But for the most part he is well-respected and serves at least partially to fill a void in helping the Yemeni farmworker community claim their rights in the surrounding non-Arab environment. (Although Yemeni farm workers have played a role in the United Farm Workers strikes of the 1960s and 1970s—one Nagi Daifullah was killed by a county sheriff in Lamont—by 1982 there were no Arab UFW organizers.)

 

Most Yemeni farmworkers live in the labor camps, but a small number manage to live in nearby towns, usually as higher-paid foremen and/or as men married to or living with American or Mexican townswomen. A larger group of Yemenis living in towns, however, are farmworkers who toiled years in the fields, saved their money, and pooled their resources to purchase small grocery markets throughout California. There are reportedly 13 markets owned by members of one clan in Stanislaus County, estimates of dozens of Yemeni-owned stores in Bakersfield and a couple of hundred scattered throughout the San Joaquin Valley. Typically, two brothers work in the fields for a number of years, save, and borrow thousands of dollars interest-free from friends and relatives. Then they buy a small grocery store, usually in a poorer part of some town, in a predominantly black or Hispanic neighborhood, where Yemeni friends or relatives are hired at $900-$1000 a month for 12-14 hour days, seven-day weeks. Because of the total dedication and long hours invested in the business, these stores usually become profitable. There are even a few Yemeni multiple-store owners who have fulfilled the rags-to-riches American dream to become wealthy by almost anyone’s standards.

One consequence of residing in the poorer, more dangerous neighborhoods is Yemeni familiarity with crime and racial tensions in the US. This is in marked contrast to the moral climate (or, at least, the Yemenis’ collective concept of it) in Yemen. One perplexing sidelight to the story of Yemeni store owners is that marketing alcohol is the economic lifeblood of any small grocery store and is, for many, an absolute necessity to stay profitably in business. A few Yemenis even own liquor stores. This compromising of traditional Islamic values (and I never met a Yemeni who didn’t emphatically proclaim himself a Muslim) within the American moral matrix of success certainly must produce psychological dilemmas. Few families in Yemen know the lengths their men have gone to (morally and spiritually, as well as physically) to provide for them materially.

 

Some of those who establish themselves in grocery stores feel secure enough to bring their wives and children over. Many, however, cannot (or will not) profess with certainty an intention to live here permanently. Some Yemeni wives are cloistered in the husband’s house, leaving home only for doctor’s appointments. One foreman told me that just family members and close friends were allowed to see his wife, and the only other Yemeni women she was able to communicate with, by telephone, were two wives of storekeepers in a neighboring town. Sometimes the woman’s adaptation to her new environment is dramatic if, to save labor costs, she shares in cash register work at the store—public interaction unheard of in her native culture. A few Yemenis have both Yemeni and American wives, each living in her respective country.

 

In November 1982, 50-year old Ahmad Muhammad (not his real name) and another Yemeni were in a car that failed to yield for a stop sign near Delano, California. Ahmad had recently migrated to the California farm fields after being laid off in Detroit. Like most Yemenis, he believed that someday he would return to his homeland to reap the benefits of his many hard years in America. In a chilly November drizzle, Ahmad’s brother from New York City and 200 immigrant countrymen gathered in a bleak Delano cemetary to pay their last respects. Ahmad’s burial in foreign foil with only a brother present magnified the excruciating loneliness, isolation, and fragmentation of the immigrant experience in the farm fields of California, surrounded by a culture naive and sometimes hostile to Islamic customs. “It’s a sad thing—a very sad thing—to die out of your village,” lamented Gamail Hassan, visibly disturbed, as he watched the coffin sink into its American grave.

 

Stripped from his family and familiar surroundings, the Yemeni farmworker experience in America is one of stress and, for some, disintegration. One 19-year-old, in the US for seven years and educated here, uncertain whether he was American or Yemeni, confided simply to me that he was always “nervous.” For many in the camps of California, their lives float in a kind of cultural limbo. One recent summer a group of North Yemeni entertainers from San Francisco came down to Delano to rouse the farmworkers in a celebration of the 1962 North Yemen revolution with an evening of Yemeni music and song in the Delano High School auditorium. Less than 20 viewers showed up. As one foreman who lives in town told me, “I’d rather watch the boxing match on TV.”

Field work regimen severely disrupts the Islamic prayer cycle. Back home, the men tell me, work habits are casual and structured within the tenets of Islam. I never saw a Yemeni pray at work in a California farm field. While a Muslim is required to pray five times a day, he is also required to be clean to do it. And rare is the farmworker who fasts for even a day during the holy month of Ramadan. Few of even the most religious workers could physically endure the torments of such a fast while working regular hours in 100 degree-plus weather.

How to cite this article:

Ron Kelley "The Yemenis of the San Joaquin," Middle East Report 139 ( ).
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