Nagi Daifallah was a young farm worker from Yemen who moved to California in the early 1970s, when he was just 20 years old. He went on to become one of the organisers of the infamous 1973 grape strike in California, led by Cesar Chavez.
But one night in 1973, after a day of striking he was beaten to death by a local county sheriff outside a restaurant in Lamont, California.
Although the sheriff who killed him never faced justice, Nagi’s story – and the movement he helped organise – went on to make real change to farm workers’ rights in America, and continues to inspire Yemeni American activists today.
This episode was produced by Suzanne Gaber and Will Thomson, and edited by Dana Ballout. Additional support on this episode from Alex Atack, Nadeen Shaker, Zeina Dowidar, Shraddha Joshi and Abde Amr. Sound design by Alex Atack and Mohamad Khreizat.
Support this podcast on patreon.com/kerningcultures for as little as $1 a month.
DANA: Quick warning before we start, this episode contains descriptions of violence from the very beginning.
RAYMOND: The night was on August 15th, 1973. It was around one o’clock in the morning. And they were outside of a restaurant – Naji and some of his striking colleagues. And the Bakersfield sheriffs, and they had it in for the farm workers.
DANA: This is Ray Cordova. He’s a union organiser in Orange County California who was part of these tumultuous strikes happening in 1973.
RAY: So they started harassing several of the strikers and Nagi to try to tell them, hey, you know, we’re not harming anyone, we were just leaving the restaurant and all of a sudden the strikers, they dispersed. And they start running away, Naji ran and this one sheriff left, he caught up to Nagi, they had a five cell flashlight to see if you remember the old D batteries?
DANA: Those flashlights were one of those big metal ones, the bulky ones, not the plastic ones you see today.
RAY: It was probably about a foot and a half in length. And as the sheriff caught up to Naji, he hit him on the back of a head and he severed his spine. And he was still alive, but he and his partner dragged him 60 feet across the pavement. His head was just bouncing. It was bleeding all over the place, and his colleagues came back and they’re telling her sheriffs ‘call the ambulance, call the ambulance’ and they never did. And Naji died at the back end of that Sheriff’s vehicle. Well, Nagi was the first martyr with the United Farm Workers.
DANA: Our story starts in 1973 in Delano California, a few years after what was called the Delano Grape Strike.
ARCHIVE: If the growers sell the grapes, make sure the grapes are sold for less money than it costs them to pick them.
DANA: It was a big moment for agriculture in America, a moment where people were standing up for their rights and got punished for it. One of those people was this one man, a young farmworker from Yemen, whose name was Nagi Daifallah. Today, a story not told enough: the story of Nagi, who’s life and death helped ignite one of the largest labor actions in US history.
ARCHIVE: They did everything they could to try to break our union. But we held on, with non-violence. Because we believed that it was necessary to fight with justice.
DANA: I’m Dana Ballout, and this is Kerning Cultures. Stories from the Middle East and North Africa, and the spaces in between.
Here’s producer Suzanne Gaber with the story.
SUZANNE: Many of us may not have heard Nagi’s name before, but we should have. His story is eerily familiar to the police deaths that we heard so much about in the news in 2020, and years of anti-Muslim and anti-Arab rhetoric under the Trump administration. But Nagi wasn’t around for any of that. He was born in the village of Kahlan in North Yemen, but when he was ten, his parents sent him to what was then British controlled South Yemen for a better education.
NAEMA: Based on letters left behind by Nagi and his father, we know that Nagi was very politically involved in Yemen as a young man, prior to migrating to the US.
SUZANNE: This is Neama Alamri, she’s doing post doctoral research at Princeton and working on her first book; Long Live the Arab Worker: A Transnational History of Labor and Empire in the Yemeni Diaspora.
NAEMA: 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. And so for example, 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.
SUZANNE: 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 Aug 5th 1967, when he was just under 20 years old, he moved to America in hopes of continuing his education. While he was in America, he got into the habit of writing letters to his father.
NAGI’S LETTERS (VOICE OVER): Dearest father I arrived in America to continue my studies as I had dreamed. But because living conditions are hard and because study in America is very difficult, I feel rather that I owe you some financial assistance.
NAEMA: So the mid 1960s to early 1970s, the time that Nagi came and worked in the US, marks a significant period of Yemeni labor migration to the US.
SUZANNE: There were many reasons for this flow of Yemeni migration to the US around this time.
ARCHIVE: This bill, which we will sign today, is not a revolutionary bill…
SUZANNE: One, was the 1965 Immigration Act, which abolished the racist national quota system, allowing for more migration from all over the world.
ARCHIVE: It does repair a very deep and painful flaw in fabric of American justice. It corrects a cruel and enduring wrong in the conduct of the American nation.
SUZANNE: Like other Arab immigrants at the time, many Yemenis coming to the US started working in auto factories in Detroit, Michigan or steel plants in Buffalo, New York.
NAEMA: And of and of course agricultural farms in California. But also political changes that were happening in Yemen at the time also increased labor migration. So in 1967…
ARCHIVE: In Aden, the British announced that after 48 years they were pulling out.
NAEMA: South Yemen successfully led a decolonization movement that ended over a hundred years of British colonial presence in the region, and they became the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen.
SUZANNE: Nagi joined thousands of Yemeni agricultural workers in the Central Valley of California, and while exact numbers are conflicting, we know that roughly 100,000 Yemeni workers came to California in the 60s and 70s. But Yemeni workers coming into California were coming into a long system of exploitation.
NAGI’S LETTERS (VOICE OVER): I am now working in agriculture with our Arab and Spanish and Indian and Filipino brethren. Working in the grape fields is tougher than coal-mining, because the work is for longer hours, and the workers are exposed to maltreatment by the greedy capitalist land owners. And agricultural workers here have no collective representation to protect them and to undertake demands for their rights and sufficient assurances for them, like those for the workers in factories and other sectors.
MARC: If you look at the history of California farm labor, you’ll see that California agriculture was built upon the backs of succeeding waves of mostly dark skinned immigrants imported to work in the fields.
SUZANNE: This is Marc Grossman.
MARC: And I was Cesar Chavez’s, long time, press secretary, speech writer, personal aid, I knew him the last 24 years of his life.
SUZANNE: And while back home in Yemen politics were shifting towards more independence and justice, on California’s agricultural fields, Nagi saw some parallels. I want to pause here to give you some context.
ARCHIVE: There’s hardly an area in the world that compares to it. And no one knows this better than those of us who live here.
SUZANNE: You see, California, where Nagi was working, was and still is, America’s food basket. Over a third of the country’s vegetables and two-thirds of the country’s fruits and nuts are grown in the state. And this billion dollar industry depends on farm workers – the people in the fields working for long hours picking the produce that gets sold in supermarkets and that ends up on our plates. And in the 1960s and 70s, the working conditions were bad.
ARCHIVE: We have problems dealing with wages because we don’t get paid enough.
SUZANNE: Many of the workers were paid around $2 a day, and had to work long, grueling hours in the heat, breathing in the pesticides that were sprayed on crops.
ARCHIVE: We have the labour camps which are miserable shacks, we get killed sometimes on the roads. People read about it but nothing happens.
NAGI’S LETTERS (VOICE OVER): Dearest father, you will be amazed at this which I am writing to you in this letter about the prisons for workers in American, when I tell you how much an agricultural worker suffers in terms of severe ill-will from the landlords of the 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. Indeed, landowners and government officials look upon farmworkers with contempt and hatred.
SUZANNE: For years, Filipino and later Mexican workers had organized against the low pay and harsh conditions of working in fields of large California growers.
ARCHIVE: If the strikers could win union recognition against the table grape owners, the lives of farm workers throughout America could be transformed.
SUZANNE: In 1965, workers from the two largest farm worker groups at the time came together to organize a strike against the biggest growers in California’s central valley.
ARCHIVE: The picketts keep up their efforts to stop the harvesting throughout the terrible heat of the day.
SUZANNE: Together, they formed the United Farm Workers and created massive campaigns of nonviolent 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.
ARCHIVE: You got a lot of grapes? You got a grape problem? Can we help you solve the problem? You sign the contract and we solve the problem!
SUZANNE: It’s around this time a figure by the name of Cesar Chavez emerged as a leader of farm workers in California.
ARCHIVE: We’ll be boycotting everywhere, grapes and lettuce and asking the public first of all not to eat lettuce. Literally let them know that there is literally blood on those grapes.
SUZANNE: The campaign got a lot of attention, and in 1970 workers, under the banner of the United Farm Workers, 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.
Employers assumed that these Yemeni workers, who were new to the country, would be more compliant, and less likely to stir trouble for them. But they were wrong.
SUZANNE: Just three years after the United Farm Workers had negotiated those historic contracts with their employers, right 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. Here’s Marc Grossman again.
MARC: Instead of renegotiating those contracts with the United Farm Workers, most of those growers signed what we call sweetheart contracts with another union, the Teamsters union, that they brought in to try to keep the UFW out of the fields.
SUZANNE: Chavez and the United Farm Workers, which he led, decided enough is enough and decided to go strike again.
MARC: In what up to then had been the biggest form labor strike in state history. At one time there were, oh, maybe 10,000 farm workers out on strike.
SUZANNE: And then, in the summer of 1973, all of these tensions that had been bubbling away for years came to a head.
ARCHIVE: The summer of 1973 was one of the roughest we’ve had.
SUZANNE: This is from the 1975 documentary, Fighting for Our Lives about the difficult and bloody struggle the United Farm Workers faced during the 1973 strike.
ARCHIVE: Two of our strikers were killed. Dozens of our people were beaten. Thousands were arrested and thrown in jail. And all because we dared to stand up to the growers when they made one more desperate attempt to crush our union.
MARC: 3,500 strikers were arrested for engaging in non-violent civil disobedience, disobeying court injunctions that prohibited them from assembling and striking and picketing. The jails were filled from the very Southern end of the, of the San Joaquin Valley up to North of Fresno. Hundreds of strikers were brutally beaten.
SUZANNE: 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 pickett captain. Here’s Ray Cordova again.
RAY: And it’s the duty of a pickett captain to make certain that all the gates are covered, and you got, you got to make certain that your strikers, they’re all fed, et cetera. You know, you, you know, you’re kind of like a father figure to them, But you have authority as well, too.
NAGI LETTER: Dearest father, I am writing this letter to you from Delano, CA. You will note the enclosure of a check for $1000. I am now working harvesting grapes, and I have organized for representation for the workers. I and my Arab brethren, under the leadership of the Spanish leader, Cesar Chavez. He is leading the worker’s revolution with his free companions, members of the union, who continue their activities, bravely and boldly, day and night, for the revolution shall continue until victory.
SUZANNE: This is Neama Alamri again.
NAEMA: Yeah. I mean, as an organizer, he was a translator. So he was a very key individual in the farmworker movement.
MARC: And in addition to being a leader for the Yemeni workers at the company where he worked, he also became indispensable in terms of helping the various ethnicities communicate with each other during the strike.
NAEMA: He was that bridge for the Yemeni community, to the Mexican American community and Filipino community. And so to do that, you have to have that strong presence, right? To, to be an organizer.
MARC: You know, it was a very stressful, intense time in the Southern Central Valley then. So that’s kind of the, that’s kind of where things laid in August of 1973.
SUZANNE: At around 1:15 in morning on August 15th, Nagi and a group of 15 other farm workers were hanging out outside a local restaurant in Lamont, California. That’s when a car from the Kern County Sheriff’s Department pulled up. Shortly afterwards, Nagi was killed. According to witnesses and United Farm Worker spokespeople, officers got out of the car…
MARC: Kern County Sheriff’s deputy. His name was Gilbert Cooper, big husky 200 pound deputy.
SUZANNE: And started harassing the group. Tensions began to rise, and eventually, police arrested one of the men.
MARC: Accosted, a group of strikers on a public street in Lamont, perfectly peaceful. This is a little town South of Bakersfield. Nagi was among them.
SUZANNE: The group was outraged and argued with the officers outside the cafe.
MARC: Things got pretty heated.
SUZANNE: According to the United Farm Workers that’s when one officer zoned in on Nagi.
MARC: Nagi took off from the group and deputy Cooper ran after him. Cooper struck Nagi on the back of his head with a big metal flashlight. He was knocked to the ground. Then the deputy dragged him by his feet with his head hitting the pavement, quite a distance. There was a line of blood that marked the path.
SUZANNE: He was taken to the hospital, and thousands of people 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.
ARCHIVE: All summer long the police have used excessive force, they’ve beaten women over the heads and then they’ve lied to the press and said the women have attacked them, they’ve beaten young children over the heads and they’ve said the young children have attacked them, and now they’ve killed one of our Arab brothers. And it was inevitable because the police here are racist.
MARC: The UFW was unable to reach Nagi’s family in Yemen initially. And so they asked his coworkers, what was the best thing to do? Should he be buried in California and then later maybe returned to Yemen? The Yemeni workers said that it would be the first time that a Yemeni worker who had died outside the country would be shipped home. And that that would be considered an honor. So the UFW finally was able to make arrangements with the family to ship his body back to Yemen.
SUZANNE: Ray Cordova was one of the thousands of marchers at Nagi’s funeral. They carried his casket from the California town of La Paz to the nearest airport in Bakersfield, where his body was to be taken back to Yemen.
RAY: I think it was around an 11 mile trek, I believe it was. There were over 7,000 strikers, all farm workers, union members.
SUZANNE: In the video of this march you see ariel shots from a helicopter, and the road is full of people, snaking back for miles and miles, and Nagi’s casket at the front.
MARC: At the head of the March proudly displayed large blown up photographs of the late Egyptian leader, Gamal Abdel Nasser. Cesar Chavez, marched behind the casket and in front of the photographs of Nasser.
RAY: And what we did about every a hundred feet or every a hundred yards, eight of the of the people carrying the casket, they would peel off. And then those up to the front of the March, they’d be able to go and grab the casket and carry it more. So as we got closer to the airport, a lot of people have their hands on the casket. It was a very solemn tribute to Nagi. That 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 with a shuffle of the feet on the pavement. It was a very solemn tribute to Naji.
SUZANNE: This is from a speech Cesar Chavez gave at Nagi’s funeral.
CESAR CHAVEZ (VOICE ACTOR): Nagi Daifallah is dead at the age of 24. The hand that struck brother Nagi down trembles in fear. It too is the victim of the climate of the violence, racism, and hatred created by those men who own everything, and kill what they cannot own.
In the struggle to change these evils, Nagi gave his life.
SUZANNE: After the break, the struggle continues after Nagi’s death.
SUZANNE: After Nagi’s casket was sent back home to Yemen, There was little justice for his brutal killing.
MARC: The Sheriff’s deputy who killed Naji was never charged with a crime.
SUZANNE: The United Farm Workers eventually tracked down Nagi’s family and helped with their travel to the US for his funeral, as well as the return of his body back to Yemen.
MARC: The UFW finally located a Mohsin Daifallah, Nagi’s father in Yemen. Cesar arranged for him to come out to the United States on several occasions to take part in union ceremonies, honoring his son. Although Nagi never worked under a union contract and never qualified for a union pension, the UFW sent a remittance, a payment to Mr. Daifallah every month. And it continued until Mr. Daifallah passed away.
SUZANNE: On a number of occasions, Nagi’s father and Cesar Chavez also exchanged letters, usually around the time of the anniversary of Nagi’s death.
CESAR CHAVEZ (VOICE ACTOR): Dear Brother Daifallah, on behalf of all of us in the United Farm Workers of America I send greetings and best wishes on this the seventh anniversary of Nagi’s death. As all of us in the farm workers’ movement honor Nagi and the other martyrs who have given their life’s blood for the cause of justice for farm workers, we take this opportunity to tell you of our gratitude for Nagi’s life and sacrifice and of our continuing sorrow at the loss you and your family suffered. So long as farm workers struggle to be free, Nagi’s memory will burn bright in their hearts. With warmest personal regards. Viva la Causa.
SUZANNE: 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.
MARC: In the farm labor camps, where they were living, some who had not already joined the strike did so. In fact, there was a whole camp of Arab workers at Roberts farms that joined the strike at that point. There was a vigil at the hospital, hundreds of strikers gathered there the following night.
SUZANNE: Days later, another United Farm Workers member was killed on the pickett line. Juan De La Cruz was fired on during a protest, by a worker subverting the pickett line driving past in a pick-up truck.
MARC: But, Nagis death was not in vain.
ARCHIVE: The deaths of Nagi and Juan didn’t stop us. As the harvest came to an end and the growers prepared to shift their grapes to the market, we gathered by the hundreds in Delano, Lamont, Fresno and the other agricultural towns in order to resume the boycott.
MARC: And then 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.
MARC: At countless churches and synagogues and mosques and union halls. And on college campuses, they told the story of the 1973 grape strike, especially the deaths of Nagi Daifallah and Juan Dela Cruz.
ARCHIVE: We would go to every major city in the United States and Canada, over 60 of them in all, and take our cause to the people.
MARC: 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.
SUZANNE: Eventually, two years after farm workers had began picketing, after countless arrests and after two farm workers were killed, California passed the agricultural labor relations act of 1975.
MARC: This is the first law in the country that granted farm workers the right to peaceably assemble, to vote in secret ballot state conducted elections to bring the union in. And then to bargain with their employers as equals across the bargaining table. So they wouldn’t just have to take orders all their lives. That year in 1975, among the workers voting in the first elections were Yemeni workers at big farms in the central valley, and their activism was dedicated in the name of Nagi Daifallah. So Nagi’s sacrifice really did produce genuine progress for farm workers that continues to this day because farm workers still use that law to organize, bring the union in and materially improve their wages, hours, working conditions, and win a whole array of other benefits, many of which were unimaginable back in 1973.
SUZANNE: But for many Yemeni Americans, Nagi’s death also became a symbol of the fight Arab recognition in America. This is Naema Alamari again.
NAEMA: I mean, I think first and foremost, Nagi’s death was shocking to Yemenis both here in the US and in Yemen. And so this sort of myth of the American dream or this idea that America was full of endless opportunities, like, that was challenged after Nagi’s death. But alongside that, I think Nagi’s death also politicized Yemenis in the US and elsewhere in the diaspora.
SUZANNE: Naema told us that, what she finds remarkable is the impact Nagi’s story had on Arab organizers who had never known or met him. In fact, she says 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.
ALAMRI: In Michigan where there was a really large prominent Yemeni American community in Dearborn, in Detroit working in the auto industry. And so 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 a farm workers were facing in California.
SUZANNE: 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. But Nagi’s story is not an anomaly, and builds on a longer history of Yemeni and Yemeni American organizing in the United States. Like, the Yemeni bodega strike in New York in February of 2017.
ARCHIVE: We’re in Brooklyn, New York outside Yemen Cafe. Its one of more than 1000 bodegas and Yemeni owned businesses that is one strike today as a protest against President Trump’s executive order barring people from seven majority Muslim majority nations, including Yemen, from entering the United States.
ARCHIVE: We want to send a message that we are opposing that travel ban.
ARCHIVE: He’s trying to make America great, he’s not making America great, he’s making America worse and worse. We need to top this. I’m from Yemen, and my name is Mohamed, and I came here today to tell him he cannot destroy America.
NASSIM: My name is Nassim Almuntaser, Yemeni American raised and born in Brooklyn, New York. When that when the bodega strike happened, it was, I believe I was a junior or senior, a junior in high school. And I said, this is the perfect opportunity for me to do something about this. And so my family shut down their bodega, you know, we took it to Borough Hall and we made our voices loud and clear and I felt, I mean, I felt I was quite emotional because I didn’t think the Yemeni community can do this.
DEBBIE: It was a historic moment. And I always like to say that the sleeping giant, the Yemeni American community woke up on that very day to show that they are a force to be reckoned with.
SUZANNE: This is Debbie Almotaser, co-founder of the Yemeni American merchants association in New York. She’s been working as an organizer in Muslim and Arab communities in New York City for years, even working to help get halal options for students in public schools. But for her, and the rest of the Yemeni-American community, the Bodega strike was a defining moment. It gained international attention and was a flashpoint for Muslim, Arab and Yemeni American communities after the election of President Donald Trump.
DEBBIE: What really has motivated me and inspired me to come back and, 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. And just knowing his story, what he symbolized and how he was intersectionality organizing really embodied for me, you know, what I wanted to see for myself. 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 Daifallah.
NASSIM: And so with the emergence of the bodega strike, that’s when I began to learn Nagi’s story. And that’s when I began to learn the purpose behind activism and the purpose behind speaking up. And I believe that was a stepping stone for me. That’s the door open. That was the pivotal point in history where we finally stepped out of the shadows.
DANA: This episode was produced by Suzanne Gaber and Will Thomson, and edited by me, Dana Ballout. Additional support on this episode from Alex Atack, Nadeen Shaker, Zeina Dowidar, Shraddha Joshi and Abde Amr. Sound design by Alex Atack and Mohamad Khreizat.
SUZANNE: Special thanks to Ray Cordava, Marc Grossman, Naema Alamari, Nassim Almuntaser, Dr. Debbie Almontaser, Andreas Chavez, Jorge Betanzos, and Yehya Elfgeeh. Thank you also to Gemma Castro and Duncan Ober, who helped us record a couple of the interviews in the story.
A lot of the archival sounds you heard throughout the episode are from a 1975 documentary about the United Farm Workers, it’s called Fighting For Our Lives, and it’s such a powerful film. Thank you to the Cesar Chavez Foundation for letting us use the sound from that documentary in this piece.
DANA: Kerning Cultures is a production of the Kerning Cultures Network, which means we have lots more shows, in Arabic and in English. Search Kerning Cultures Network wherever you get your podcasts, or go to kerningcultures.com to hear more.
We’ll be back with a new episode next week. Thanks for listening.