In the summer of 2014, director Diego Luna released Cesar Chavez, a feature-length retelling of the story of the 1973 grape pickers’ strike in California that inspired an international grape boycott and made Cesar Chavez a household name. In the film, the first person killed on a farm worker picket line was a Mexican bracero named Juan de la Cruz. In fact, de la Cruz was the third of five “United Farm Worker martyrs” to die violent deaths struggling for social justice in the vast fields of American agribusiness. The first was Nan Freeman, a young Jewish student helping a sugarcane strike in Florida, and the second was a Yemeni migrant called Nagi Daifallah.
In the wee hours of August 15, 1973, Daifallah was with fellow UFW members at a café when a sheriff’s deputy named Gilbert Cooper moved to arrest a picket captain, Frank Quintana, on trumped-up charges of disturbing the peace. When the other workers protested, Cooper began harassing Daifallah and the young Yemeni ran away. At six feet and 200 pounds a full foot taller and 100 pounds heavier than Daifallah, the burly deputy caught up with his quarry and swung a long metal flashlight at his head. The blow struck the Yemeni in the back of the neck, severing his spinal cord from the base of the skull and killing him. He was 24. Thousands of UFW workers and supporters followed the casket at his funeral in Delano, the heart of grape country in California’s San Joaquin Valley. Afterward, his body was flown to Yemen.
According to official UFW papers, Nagi Daifallah “was known as a leader of the Arab workers” in California. He had learned English and served as an interpreter for UFW organizers. Yet there is little knowledge of the role that Daifallah and his fellow Yemenis played in the farm workers’ struggle.
Often mistaken for Latinos, as Arabs in America still sometimes are today, hundreds and perhaps thousands of Yemenis labored in the fields of rural California alongside Latino and other migrants. Since there are no official records, and since the workers shuttled back and forth between the United States and Yemen, there is no accurate count of how many were there at any given time. A high estimate is close to 2,000. Yemeni farm workers often came to the United States expecting to stay no more than five years but many ended up returning to California for work. In his 1988 book Sojourners and Settlers, Jonathan Friedlander explains, “Some Yemenis have spent 20 to 30 years in the farmlands of California and still cannot speak a word of English. For many, the bleak, isolated labor camps located miles out of town in the middle of endless grape or asparagus fields are preferable to a typical American town’s intensely bewildering socioeconomic pressures to acculturate and, hence, spend money.”
In total, according to 2011 data from the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, there are some 35,000 persons of Yemeni birth or ancestry in the United States. The migration began in the 1920s. Yemenis worked in the automotive, steel and related industries, placing them in significant numbers in Detroit and environs, especially Dearborn, as well as in Buffalo. In the 1950s their presence in farm work in the San Joaquin Valley increased. Many live in Delano, and also Oakland and San Francisco. There are also many Yemeni small business owners in New York. A smaller community lives in Chicago. Some work in steel-related industries; some own liquor stores. Initially, it was primarily men who migrated and today, a majority are men, with families living in Yemen. Men tend to come and go for 3-6 months at a time.
Some of the Yemeni farm workers in rural California later moved to the Bay Area to become grocery store owners or service workers. Ahmad Yahya Mushrih, a grape picker and UFW member at the time of the 1973 strike who now works as a janitor, remembered Daifallah to the San Francisco Chronicle in 2002: “He was one of the leaders with Cesar Chavez and very well recognized,” he said. “He was very courageous, encouraging us and telling us, ‘This is democracy, and if you want your rights, this is how you do it. You fight for your rights. This is the United States.’”
Yemenis in San Francisco played a significant role in the local Justice for Janitors campaign, run by the Service Employees International Union, which peaked in California at the turn of the twenty-first century. Yemenis make up 20 percent of the 3,400 members of SEIU Local 87. In 2002, they celebrated Daifallah’s legacy as they mobilized for their contract talks the following year.