Rediscovering Nagi Daifallah

Posted by Natalie Nisco-Frank on August 15, 2016 in Blog
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Courtesy: Happy Arab News

I had never heard the name Nagi Daifallah before. Not growing up. Not in school. Not in my history books. Never. Yet his story is distinctly American as it reflects our history of immigrants who came to this country with few profitable skills, but have had a lasting impact on the social and political fabric of American society. As a Yemeni immigrant who was a leader in the United Farm Workers (UFW), Nagi was fighting in solidarity with laborers from all backgrounds and nationalities until he died from injuries inflicted by a Kern County deputy sheriff. Nagi was revered for his leadership in the Arab worker community, activism in union issues and his ability to translate for UFW organizers—Nagi spoke Arabic, English and Spanish. He was killed advocating for the rights of UFW picketers, who were routinely harassed and arrested during the grape strike of 1973. Nagi, one of many farm workers protesting the unfounded arrest of a fellow worker, was singled out by a deputy sheriff, leading to a foot chase. One forceful blow to the head with the sheriff’s 5-cell, metal flashlight severed Nagi’s spinal cord from the base of his skull and sent him to his knees. Unconscious and with a severe head injury, the police dragged Nagi’s body by his wrists to the gutter, head “dangling and bouncing on the pavement” for sixty feet.  

In a time when headlines of police brutality and the murders of Black men and women flood the news, Nagi’s story strikes a familiar cord of frustration and anguish. The image of Nagi’s 5 foot, 100 pound body being dragged and left in a gutter hauntingly resonates with accounts of other victims of police aggression, like Tamir Rice, who was left alone for four full minutes before police provided any first aid. In both cases, police handcuffed or arrested individuals who rushed forward to help their injured loved ones. 

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Cesar Chavez (center) at the Nagi Daifallah funeral march, Delano, CA, 1973.

Nagi’s story connects a history of the marginalization of immigrants and his resulting activism with present struggles and activism in communities of color to remind us of the work still to be done. I first learned about Nagi when I heard Arab American Institute President Dr. James Zogby, a tireless advocate for human rights and civil liberties, was to be presented with the Nagi Daifallah Social Justice Award at the "16th Annual Orange County Celebration of our Flag” on June 11. This memorial award recognizes the sacrifice Nagi made. His struggle transcended race, ethnicity and religion in order to prioritize the basic human rights entitled to all farm workers, many of who were immigrants. So it is fitting that Zogby, who’s spent much of his life fighting for social justice, even in the face of threats and violence, be recognized in this way and particularly at this time by Orange County’s 72nd Assembly Democratic Alliance. 

Like many Americans, my own story could not be told without referencing the dreams and the journeys taken by my grandparents and great grandparents. Although their stories are distinct from one another in terms countries of origin, including Lebanon, Germany, and Italy, the spirit of opportunity, service and hope color their experiences in America. The life and the death of Nagi remain exceedingly relevant in a time where America’s conflicting narratives, one of the great melting pot and the another of a country divided by racial tensions, continue to intersect.

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Funeral procession for Daifallah in Delano, CA (1973). UCLA Library

Immigrants like Nagi and those in my own family don’t just come to America to better their own plight. Their activism contributes to reshaping the communities they occupy. The San Francisco consulate of Yemen estimates that of the 35,000-40,000 Yemeni-Americans in the state of California, 8,000-10,000 reside in the San Francisco area. The Yemeni community’s migration to California (and New York, Buffalo and Detroit) began in the 1960s. Although a handful were educated professionals, many joined the blue-collar workforce, and worked low-waged jobs to give their kids a better life. Nagi’s legacy is stitched into the fabric of the Yemini community—a community whose story and identity is founded on a commitment to bettering the prospects of future generations. This selfless struggle is apparent in Nagi’s activism and is echoed by the sacrifices of Yemeni immigrant parents who continue to work tirelessly to ensure their children’s futures are brighter than their own.

Nagi’s spirit of activism reverberates in San Francisco’s unions today. One such union, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), represents the demands of low-wage workers, many of whom are immigrants. The SEIU, founded in 1921, is the fastest-growing union in North America, an accomplishment the union partially attributes to its ability to “embrace its heritage as a union of immigrants… [and stand] on the frontline of immigrant justice.” In 2002, a senior union organizer of the SEIU drew parallels to the union’s success and Nagi’s vision by commemorating the “sense of multiracial unity that was a hallmark of the UFW in the days when Nagi overcame shyness and a limited education to learn English and reach out to his fellow grape pickers.”

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Courtesy: Happy Arab News

The statement made by Cesar Chavez after Nagi’s death paid tribute to his ideals and his sacrifice. “Like so many thousands of Farm Workers, he came to this country seeking opportunity and fell into the trap of poverty and powerlessness that has enslaved so many migrant Farm Workers….He joined the United Farm Workers Unions and gave himself fully to the grape strike and the struggle of justice for all Farm Workers….We are faced with discrimination, exploitation, and even slaughter… [by the] government [which] represses our people….In the struggle to change these evils, Nagi gave his life.”  

Chavez’s words are eerily akin to calls of today’s activist groups, like Black Lives Matter who are working “for a world where Black lives are no longer systematically and intentionally targeted for demise…and left powerless at the hands of the state… in the face of deadly oppression.” Nagi’s struggle against the exploitation and oppression of farm workers in life and in death instills strength and fortitude in those who carry on the fight for justice.

When I asked the Yemeni consulate in San Francisco about how Nagi is remembered and who tells his story, I was told it is not schools who keep Nagi’s story alive but Yemeni parents who recount his sacrifice to their children. As I look around at those struggling for justice today, I see the connection to Nagi’s story and know we all must carry his work forward.