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   ABOUT THE YEMENIS OF THE SAN JOAQUIN VALLEY, CALIFORNIA

Yemenis are the latest immigrant group to come to central California and the fertile San Joaquin Valley that stretches from the outskirts of Los Angeles to the edges of San Francisco. This is one of the most productive agricultural lands in the world and a major supplier of fruits and vegetables to the rest of the United States. Most of the American-grown grapes you buy in groceries and supermarkets come from California.

In the latter part of the nineteenth the century, grains were grown in the San Joaquin Valley and many Native Americans were made to toil the land. In the early twentieth century, a monumental agricultural shift occurred and fruits and vegetables became the mainstay crops in the San Joaquin Valley. Their cultivation necessitated a large labor force to tend and pick nature's bounty—almonds, citrus, grapes, pistachios, plums, peaches and nectarines, persimmons, strawberries--as well as asparagus, lettuce, artichokes, and spinach. Access to water and an irrigation system became the lifeline of growers. At one time, family owned farms were common, but since the middle of the twentieth century, large companies and corporations became dominant, hiring thousands of workers. The 1960s saw the rise of unions that sought to improve working conditions and protect workers’ rights.

The largest labor force by far is from nearby Mexico. Other nationalities include Chinese, Japanese, Armenians, and people from Yugoslavia who settled in California during the Great Immigration from 1875-1925. During the Great Depression in the 1930s, destitute farmers from the “Dust Bowl” of Oklahoma and the Midwest came to the Central Valley in search of work (their plight was underscored by the novel and film The Grapes of Wrath). And with an increase in immigrants to the United States in the post-1965 era, yet other nationalities arrived in the San Joaquin Valley that included people from the Philippines and Yemen.

Mohamed Abdullah was one of the early arrivals in the San Joaquin Valley. He and a small group of Yemenis came to Delano in 1956 and found work in the vineyards, tending and harvesting grapes. Their success prompted other Yemenis to seek work in agriculture, triggering a chain migration that culminated in some 5000 Yemenis laboring in the fields and orchards. Mohamed excelled in his profession and became a crew manager and supervisor of 1300 Yemeni and Hispanic workers. Many lived in camps and others in Delano proper, which once boasted that grapes were its claim to fame. Today, a large plaque downtown proclaims Delano as “an international community working together.”

Most of the workers that toiled the land have now retired. Some are enjoying the fruits of their labor in Yemen. Today, perhaps only several hundred Yemeni families live in the San Joaquin Valley from Bakersfield to Fresno. Though small in numbers, they are part of a larger Muslim American community in California—the largest in the United States. The Yemenis have established a mosque and madrasa (religious school) in Delano, where people congregate for daily prayers and celebrate Muslim holidays, especially Ramadan. Extended families pooled their savings and opened family owned stores. The second generation, now young adults, are moving into businesses and the professions, striving for the American dream while facing the challenges of preserving their Yemeni Arab heritage and Muslim identity in America’s agricultural heartland. 

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