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 schools that 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.
The two would’ve continued with similar, relatively mainstream workshops if not for Marco Gutierrez. In the fall of 2016, the Latinos for Trump founder appeared on Joy Reid’s MSNBC show and declared, “My culture is a very dominant culture, and it’s imposing and it’s causing problems. If you don’t do something about it, you’re going to have taco trucks on every corner.”
The statement became instantly infamous, and is mocked to this day in Mexican-American circles. But it particularly bothered Vazquez. His hometown of Santa Ana is the largest city in the United States with an all-Latino city council, yet members have long tried to outlaw loncheras. And as Hamida and Vazquez were thinking up a new program, his mind kept returning to Gutierrez’s comment.
“We have to protect folks who carve out a life any way possible,” Vazquez says. “When we organize with taco trucks, we give them the stage and dignity we all deserve.”
“It wasn’t enough to take the [Muslim] community out of their space and bring [it] to a Latino-centric space,” Hamida adds. “It’s about bringing that taco truck model that everyone is demonizing, and embracing it and welcoming it to our space.”
The first #TacoTrucksAtEveryMosque happened last June during Ramadan at the Islamic Center of Santa Ana, a mosque comprised mainly of Cham, Cambodian and Vietnamese Muslims. Latinos and Muslims alike initially had concerns about the food that was served – though for different reasons.
Hamida assured Muslims that the meats were fully halal, with no contamination. “We had halal markets cut it taco style and pre-marinate it, to ensure it was halal,” Hamida said. Meanwhile, she says she had to convince some Latinos who went to the event that “eating a halal taco doesn’t make you Muslim. [People] thought they were compromising their own faith!”
The kickoff event drew more than 400 people. (Hamida’s dad ate 10 tacos). More than 1,400 people attended the second happening, held a couple of weeks later at the Islamic Society. Since then, #TacoTrucksAtEveryMosque has traveled as far south as Baja California, in Mexico, and as far north as Sacramento, where they held an event last week. All told, Hamida estimates they’ve served 7,300 people — and nearly 29,000 tacos – at the seven events they’ve held so far. (They’ve also inspired imitators.)
The taco tour quickly got national attention — a profile on NBC Nightly News, stories in the Los Angeles Times and PRI’s The World. It even got the attention of Gutierrez: On Instagram, he posted a video of Hamida with the message, “I tried to warn you people. #TacoTrucksOnEveryCorner has mutated into #TacoTrucksatEveryMosque!”
The next taco tour won’t happen until May. In the meantime, Hamida and Vazquez are preparing high school Latino-Muslim unity lectures where students will snack on halal tacos. “At the end of the events, they’re not talking about how amazing the halal tacos are, although the tacos are great,” Hamida points out. “They’re saying, ‘Now, we can fight together.’ ”
Hamida says she’s even seen conservative protesters who initially showed up to troll #TacoTrucksatEveryMosque line up instead at their events. “I guess they just wanted the halal tacos,” she now says with a laugh. “They wanted to know what the magic is.”
Gustavo Arellano is the author of Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America, and a longtime guest on NPR’s “Barbershop” segment on Weekend All Things Considered.
Copyright 2018 NPR.