August 15 and 17 mark 50 years to the day grape strikers Nagi Daifallah and Juan De La Cruz were murdered helping to build the United Farm Workers. Cesar Chavez said, “We don’t know how God chooses martyrs. We do know they gave us the most precious gift they possess—their very lives.” It is our duty to remember them now.
After immigrating from Yemen, Nagi Daifallah, 24, learned English and Spanish, and was a leader among Arab strikers during the UFW’s massive 1973 grape walkouts.
Around midnight in Lamont, Calif. on August 15, 1973, a Kern County sheriff’s deputy struck a nonviolent Nagi with his big metal flashlight and then dragged him by the feet with his head hitting the pavement. He died in the hospital. The deputy was never charged.
Thousands of farm workers followed Nagi’s casket in a somber procession to services at the movement’s “Forty Acres” property in Delano. Cesar Chavez joined workers wearing black armbands and holding black UFW flags. The pallbearers were young Arab men. The Arab workers said a Yemini worker dying outside the country had never been shipped home, and it would be an honor for Nagi. So the UFW arranged with the family for him to be returned there.
Grape striker Juan De La Cruz, 60—a gentle and quiet man, and a UFW member since 1965—was killed on a picket line near Arvin on August 17, 1973, by a strikebreaker firing a rifle from a passing pick-up truck. Juan shielding his wife by shoving her to the ground. The strikebreaker was charged with a lesser degree of homicide. His lawyer claimed self-defense. The district attorney needed to defend the nonviolent strikers on the picket line. He refused, and that shooter was acquitted.
Thousands of farm workers and supporters marched behind Juan’s casket in a procession to the Arvin cemetery, following a funeral mass in a city park.
Although neither man qualified for a union pension, the UFW paid a monthly stipend to Nagi’s father and Juan’s widow for the rest of their lives. All five UFW martyrs are commemorated during services at each UFW constitutional convention.
Fearing further deaths, Cesar Chavez called off the strike and turned to a second grape boycott. It quickly spread across North America and western Europe, with 17 million American adults boycotting grapes, according to a national poll. The supermarket industry pressed growers for a solution, leading to the 1975 Agricultural Labor Relations Act. So, Nagi and Juan’s deaths were not in vain.
Cesar said many decent people perform daily acts of charity or idealism. But only a relative few totally dedicate their lives to serving the neediest among us. Cesar placed the five union martyrs—including Nagi and Juan—in an even higher category because they literally gave their lives for the cause.
Images of funeral processions for both Nagi Daifallah and Juan De La Cruz by Bob Fitch.