We are grateful to Menat Elattma and the Yemini Student Association of Berkley for organizing this remembrance and honoring us with the invitation to participate. It is a pleasure to be with you. Educating people about Nagi Daifallah and keeping his memory alive is truly a blessing. The lessons of Nagi’s example are no less important today than they were 44 years ago when he died.
Throughout the 1973 grape strike, rural judges issued dozens of injunctions stopping striking workers from picketing at struck vineyards. Most were found to be unconstitutional. That summer, from Mettler, south of Bakersfield, north to Fresno, 3,500 strikers were jailed for nonviolently disobeying those junctions.
The Kern County Sheriff’s Department had its own strikebreaking tactics. Deputies would arrest the picket captains—or strike leaders—often at their homes in the middle of the night. Some would go in and out of jail several times a week.
Yemini farm workers in the ‘70s were only the latest wave of dark-skinned immigrants imported by California agriculture to work and be exploited.
After arriving in California, Nagi Daifallah had learned both English and Spanish. He quickly became a leader of the Arab workers on strike.
Around midnight on August 13, Deputy Gilbert Cooper ordered a small group of strikers on a public street in Lamont, south of Bakersfield, including Nagi Daifallah, to disperse. Things got heated. Nagi took off from the group and Deputy Cooper ran after him. Cooper struck Nagi with his big metal flashlight, knocking him to the ground. Then the deputy dragged him by his feet with his head hitting the pavement—a line of blood marking the path.
The UFW sent a doctor from its clinic to the General Hospital in Bakersfield to check on Nagi. Then the union unsuccessfully tried to reach his family in Yemen.
News of Nagi reached the Arab brothers in the farm labor camps where they lived. Some who were not yet on strike joined the strike. In fact, an entire camp of Arab workers at Roberts Farms joined the walkouts.
A vigil of a few hundred strikers formed at the hospital the following night, including about 70 Arab workers—joined by a priest and a Muslim prayer leader.
The Muslims formed prayer lines with the prayer leader in front, all kneeling and facing east. The Latino workers gathered silently on either side. The prayers began in Arabic. After the Muslim prayers, the Latino workers, who were Catholic, recited the Rosary. It was a moving scene.
Nagi died the following day.
On August 17, seven thousand farm workers followed Nagi’s casket in a somber three-mile procession to services at the union’s “Forty Acres” property outside Delano. It was an endless stream of men, women and children dressed in work clothes, wearing black armbands and holding black UFW flags. The pallbearers were young Arab men.
Some Arab workers at the head of the march proudly carried large photos of the late Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser.
Initially unable to reach the Daifallah family, the UFW asked the Arab workers what was the best thing to do—whether Nagi should be buried in California or be returned to Yemen. The Yemini workers said it would be the first time a Yemini worker who had died outside the country would be shipped home, and it would be considered an honor. So the UFW arranged with the family for Nagi to be returned to Yemen.
* * *
I vividly remember those times. Partly because I was just about Nagi’s age.
And because the day after he was struck down, I was at the Lucas Ranch table grape vineyard near Earlimart—just north of Delano. I had gone to the picket line with Fernando Chavez, Cesar Chavez’s oldest son who has been one of my best friends since we were both in college. Anthony Chavez, Cesar’s youngest son who was 14, was also with us.
Suddenly, a strikebreaker emerged from the struck vineyard with a .22 rifle, firing it from the hip. All of us on the picket line hid behind what little cover there was—mostly parked cars. Fernando and Anthony Chavez and I went behind one car. We could hear the shots: pop, pop, pop. I helped hold Anthony down behind the car. But a young girl standing in the open a few feet away froze when the gunfire started. Fernando jumped up, grabbed her and threw her down with us behind the vehicle.
After the shooting stopped, there were bullet holes—gut level—on the other side of the car.
Tulare County sheriff’s deputies arrested the shooter. Fernando and I drove to the sheriff’s substation in nearby Porterville. The district attorney was only charging him with a misdemeanor, firing a gun across a public road. Fernando argued for 30 minutes before the shooter was charged with a felony. A local jury acquitted him.
The next day, Juan De La Cruz, a 60-year old grape striker, was shot and killed on another picket line south of us near Mettler—by a strikebreaker shooting a rifle from a passing pick-up truck. The shooter was charged with a lesser degree of homicide. His lawyer said he had fired in self-defense. To counter the defense the district attorney would have had to defend the farm worker strikers on the picket line who were completely nonviolent. This, the district attorney refused to do and that defendant was also acquitted.
No one was ever even charged in Nagi’s death.
* * *
Those times also moved me because Nagi was not the first martyr of the UFW.
The year before, in January 1972, the union’s first martyr was a young Jewish woman, Nan Freeman. She was 18 years old from Massachusetts, and was attending college in Florida when she answered an appeal to join striking sugar cane workers at 2 in the morning at the entrance to the Talisman Sugar Plant near Belle Glade, in central Florida. A double trailer truck carrying 77,000 pounds of struck sugar cane raced past the pickets into the plant. Nan was hit and knocked into the guard railing. She died shortly afterwards.
It is an irony that the first two UFW martyrs were Nan Freeman, a young Jewish woman, and Nagi Daifallah, a young Muslim immigrant. The next three UFW martyrs were an older Latino Catholic, Juan De La Cruz, and two young Latino Catholics, Rufino Contreras, killed during a lettuce strike in the Imperial Valley in 1979, and Rene Lopez, murdered during a strike at a dairy near Fresno in 1984.
* * *
I was Cesar Chavez’s press secretary and personal aide when Rufino Contreras was killed in 1979. Cesar took each death personally. Even though he was not responsible for the killings, he felt responsible as leader of the union.
After the twin deaths of Nagi and Juan, Cesar called off the strike to prevent further bloodshed, and began organizing a second international grape boycott that spread across North America and Western Europe. Soon, 17 million Americans were boycotting grapes.
Two years after Nagi’s death that boycott convinced then-Governor Jerry Brown and the California Legislature to enact the Agricultural Labor Relations Act. It is still the only state law in the nation granting farm workers the right to organize, to vote for the union in secret-ballot elections and to negotiate with their employers for union contracts that improve workers’ lives.
Among the thousands of farm workers who voted in the first union elections in 1975 were Arab grape workers in the Central Valley who organized in Nagi’s memory. Farm workers still use that law today.
So real change came about as a result of Nagi’s sacrifice.
* * *
Each year, around the anniversaries of their deaths, Cesar Chavez would hold religious services in memory of the martyrs. The UFW did make contact with Nagi’s father, Mohsin Daifallah, in Yemen. Cesar brought Mr. Daifallah to California to take part in services honoring his son. I was with Mr. Daifallah at some of those services. Nagi came to America to work and send home money for his family. Although he didn’t qualify for a union pension, for decades the UFW sent a remittance every month to Nagi’s father. It lasted until Mr. Daifallah passed away.
A tradition at every UFW convention is a religious service honoring the five martyrs, attended by hundreds of union delegates and supporters. That tradition continues to the present.
Cesar established Martyrs Rock on the grounds of our headquarters at Keene, Calif. on 187 acres in the Tehachapi Mountains near Bakersfield. It is where Cesar lived and worked his last quarter century, and where he is buried. Martyrs Rock is a large outcropping of boulders on top of which Cesar had erected in metal a Christian Cross, a Star of David and a Muslim crescent moon—representing the faiths of the union’s five martyrs.
Martyrs Rock is next to where President Obama came to Keene in 2012 to dedicate before a crowd of 7,000 people a portion of the grounds as the Cesar E. Chavez National Monument, the 398th unit of the National Park Service.
Mohsin Daifallah later immigrated and settled in Oakland. For many years, whenever Cesar was passing through this area, he would stop in Oakland to pay his respects and spend time with Nagi’s father, visiting with help from a translator.
Cesar distinguished between those who are of service and those who are true servants. Many decent people perform daily acts of charity or idealism, he would say. But only a relative few become servants by totally dedicating their lives to serving the most needy among us. Cesar placed the five union martyrs—including Nagi—in an even higher category because they literally gave their lives for the cause.
Cesar held deep convictions about sacrifice. He never made more than $6,000 a year, never owned a home and lived a life of voluntary poverty.
Those convictions are reflected in his statement at the end of one of his long public fasts, this one the year before Nagi died in 1972, in Phoenix, Arizona. Then, Cesar said, “We can choose to use our lives for others to bring about a better and more just world for our children. People who make that choice will know hardship and sacrifice. But if you give yourself totally to the non-violent struggle for peace and justice, you will also find that people will give you their hearts and you will never go hungry and never be alone. And in giving of yourself you will discover a whole new life full of meaning and love.”
* * *
The best way the farm worker movement honors Nagi Daifallah is by continuing its work in his memory. The United Farm Workers continues organizing farm workers and winning new or re-negotiated union contracts with some of the largest strawberry, vegetable, tomato, wine grape, mushroom, and dairy companies in California and America.
Those union contracts bring workers significant pay increases—from the typical mushroom picker who averages about $40,000 a year to the average fresh tomato picker who earns $23.84 an hour. Union health and pension programs have paid workers 500 million dollars over the years.
All California farm workers—especially those at non-union companies—benefit from UFW legislative and regulatory victories. They include the pioneering California regulations to prevent deaths and illnesses during extreme heat and last year’s historic state law granting farm workers overtime pay after eight hours a day for the first time in American history.
The Cesar Chavez Foundation honors Nagi through the 46 high quality affordable housing communities it has built and manages for poor working families and seniors in four states; through the foundation’s Spanish-language educational radio network of 10 stations with 1 million daily listeners in four states; through our after-school academic tutoring for disadvantaged students in California and Arizona; and through the National Chavez Center, which educates people about the legacy of Cesar Chavez and the farm worker movement, including partnering with the National Park Service to administer the Cesar Chavez National Monument.
If you are driving up or down California, we invite you to visit the Chavez national monument, where you can also see Martyrs Rock—and the Visitor Center and Memorial Garden where Cesar and Helen Chavez are buried. It is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. seven days a week.
If you would like to keep up with and take part in the latest activism by the UFW, please sign up for the union’s free list serve by going to www.ufw.org.
Finally, you can honor Nagi Daifallah by doing what Nagi was doing when he was killed 44 years ago—by exercising your right to directly participate in the democratic process through your own social and political activism . . . including the contemporary humanitarian causes on behalf of the suffering people of Yemen that are represented at this event.
Nagi’s example is all the more relevant today because the cherished rights he exercised—freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, the right to organize to oppose oppression—are very much under attack today by the same forces of prejudice that took Nagi’s life.
So when you exercise those same rights and resist those same forces of oppression you do honor to Nagi Daifallah’s memory.