By GUSTAVO ARELLANO
The connection between Middle Eastern and Mexican food goes all the way back to the Moors, and is well-known in culinary circles. Al pastor tacos are just a pork version of the shawarma spits that Lebanese immigrants brought with them to Mexico City in the 1930s. In nearby Puebla, a wrap called tacos árabes — Arabic tacos — uses a flatbread that’s halfway between pita and lavash. Kibbe (fried meatballs made from bulghur wheat) is popular in the Yucatán, thanks to Syrians who settled in the Peninsula over the past century. And the Lebanese-Mexican Chedraui family of Mexico City owns one of the largest Latino supermarket chains in the United States, El Super.
But it wasn’t until Orange County, Calif., residents Rida Hamida and Ben Vazquez created #TacoTrucksAtEveryMosque that someone tried to explore the political potential between Muslims and Mexicans in the United States with their shared foodways. The two put on events that are exactly what the hashtag promises. A lonchera parks at a mosque and serves free tacos after a religious service that includes a talk urging Latino-Muslim unity. Visitors feast on tacos of carne asada and chicken prepared by a halal-certified butcher.
#TacoTrucksAtEveryMosque is more than an epicurean evening of education, though. “There are layers of sharing beyond just food,” says Vazquez, a history teacher at Valley High School in Santa Ana, Calif. “It’s our job as activists to nurture understanding and build relationships. And we are developing deeper relationships as we build this.”
“Dismissed people are longing for a space in these divisive times,” says Hamida, a staffer for Los Angeles-area Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia, a Democrat. “And they’re doing it in a delicious way.”
It’s a perfect meeting ground for Latinos and Muslims in Orange County, a long-conservative place that has changed dramatically since Hamida and Vazquez attended high school there during the 1990s. Today, Orange County is majority-minority; Latinos make up about a third of the county’s 3.2 million residents, while an estimated 120,000 Muslims live there.
But the two groups continue to lack political power: There is only one Muslim elected official in Orange County, while Latino politicians are concentrated mostly in the cities of Santa Ana and Anaheim, cities that happen to have sizable Latino and Muslim communities. And the groups suffered the majority of documented hate crimes in Orange County in 2016, the last full year for which the Orange County Human Relations Commission has statistics.
“We’re our neighbors, but we don’t know one another,” says Hamida. “We go and fight for justice at protests and stand side by side, but we really don’t know our stories.”
Hamida and Vazquez first met at a rally in 2015, and realized they shared a passion for immigrant rights because of their families: Vazquez’s parents are from the Mexican state of Zacatecas, while Hamida’s family is Palestinian. Their first collaboration happened in 2016 with “Adventures in Al-Andalus,” a lecture series in high schoolsthat sought to emphasize the commonality of Latinos and Muslims; it also included a voter registration drive at a mosque and a culinary tour of Little Arabia, an Anaheim neighborhood that’s the largest Middle Eastern enclave in the United States outside of Michigan.
The friends also organized #IStandWithHijabis, an evening presentation at the Islamic Society of Orange County in Garden Grove, where Muslim women talked about wearing hijabs with non-Muslim women who wore them throughout that day in solidarity.
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