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Most Influential 2017: Rida Hamida and Benjamin Vazquez bring halal tacos, cultural mingling, to mosques throughout Southern California.

Their simple idea — to unite two seemingly disparate communities in Orange County, Muslims and Latinos — began over food.
In late 2015, Rida Hamida, 39, a Muslim of Anaheim, and Benjamin Vazquez, 46, a Latino of Santa Ana, started talking about how people from their respective cultures could learn from each other and benefit each other while sharing a meal in Anaheim. Over the next year, they worked on a variety of community projects that, indeed, brought together local Muslims and Latinos.
Rida Hamida, 39, of Anaheim; Benjamin Vazquez, 46, of Santa Ana In 2017, their community outreach effort, #TacoTrucksAtEveryMosque, brought halal tacos — and cultural mingling — to mosques throughout Southern California. (File photo by ANA VENEGAS, ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER/SCNG)Rida Hamida, left, founder of “Adventures of Al-Andalus and Benjamin Vazquez, right, a Santa Ana Valley High School history teacher have teamed up to create the Muslim and Latino unity project which works to connect the roots of both communities to unite against hate. Hamida is Muslim-American and Vasquez is Mexican-American. (File photo by ANA VENEGAS, ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER/SCNG)Ben Vazquez, co-organizer of Taco Trucks at Every Mosque, and Rida Hamida, lead organizer for Taco Trucks at Every Mosque, right, with one of the taco trucks being used during an iftar dinner (one of the religious observances of Ramadan) at the Islamic Center of Santa Ana. (File photo by Steven Georges, Contributing Photographer)Benjamin Vazquez and Rida Hamida, lead organizers of the #TacoTrucksAtEveryMosque event, right, with one of the taco trucks being used during an iftar dinner (one of the religious observances of Ramadan) at the Islamic Center of Santa Ana. (Photo by Steven Georges, Contributing Photographer)Show Caption of Expand
But in 2017, fueled by the election of President Donald Trump and a widely perceived rise of anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim feelings in American culture, they turned their idea into something closer to a national movement. And that movement was based on the nutritional equivalent of their simple idea:
Halal tacos.

‘Every corner’
Hamida is a staffer at the district office of Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia. She also is vice chairwoman of the Orange County Refugee Forum, and holds the distinction of being the first hijab-clad woman to serve in public office in the county.
Vazquez is a community activist who teaches history at Valley High School in Santa Ana. He holds the distinction of having a sandwich named after him — the Don Benjamin.
Over the summer, during the Muslim holy period of Ramadan, their community group Latino Muslim Unity, put on an event called #TacoTrucksAtEveryMosque.  As the hashtag spells out, it meant bringing taco trucks to mosques around Southern California at the moment of the daily break from the Ramadan fast. Once at the mosques, the trucks provided halal tacos.
Initially, the concept was a tongue-in-cheek response to a public statement made by Marco Gutierrez, founder of the group Latinos for Trump, who became momentarily famous for suggesting that mainstream American culture soon could embrace one very specific aspect of Latino culture: “You’re going to have taco trucks on every corner.”
Hamida and Vazquez talked about that idea, and thought about how the world might react. Could we bring Muslims to a Mexican restaurant, Hamida wondered.
“What restaurant?” Vazquez said. “I’m taking you to a taco truck.”
And an idea was born.
“We took two things that were demonized and brought them together,” Vazquez said.
“Our hope was to create a cultural revolution and fight hate, one halal taco at a time,” Hamida said.
The first taco truck iftar kicked off June 3 at the Islamic Center of Santa Ana. Hamida deliberately chose a lesser-known mosque whose members are predominantly Indo-Chinese and families that fled the violent Pol Pot regime in Cambodia.
The event, attended by about 600 hungry people, was followed by similar taco truck visits to mosques in Garden Grove, San Diego. They even went south of the border, to Rosarito.
“This wasn’t a door-to-door campaign,” Vazquez said. “We used cultures to capture people’s imaginations. We saw them let their guards down and… learn from each other.”
The results, Hamida added, were “almost magical.”
Hundreds attended many events. People talked. Ideas — and tacos — were shared.
Soon, a mosque in Milwaukee copied their idea. And news outlets from The Orange County Register to local television to National Public Radio and Public Radio International told stories about the apparent bonding power of halal tacos.
The world was taking notice.
No more status quo
This was a natural progression for Hamida and Vazquez. Before the taco trucks they’d organized community meetings, poetry readings, art shows, music and restaurant crawls — sometimes in Santa Ana and sometimes in a pocket of Anaheim that has been dubbed “Little Arabia.” They called it “Adventures in al-Andalus” exploring the history shared by Muslims and Latinos; how the Iberian Peninsula was under Arab rule throughout the Middle Ages.
Before the trucks, Hamida and Vazquez, along with community partners, had organized another event, #IStandWithHijabis, which drew hundreds of people to the Islamic Society of Orange County mosque in Garden Grove.
As part of #IStandWithHijabis, Hamida invited non-Muslim women to wear head scarves in solidarity with Muslim women to combat the stigma associated with the hijabs.
Nationwide, women wearing head scarves were (and, according to national crime statistics, still are) being victimized in hate crimes and hate incidents. Muslim leaders have reported that some Muslim women fear wearing hijabs because they could become targets.
Perla Dionicio, a computer technician at the Santa Ana Unified School District, said the #IStandWithHijabis event made her see Muslim women in a different light.
“I had this idea that Muslim women had to bow their heads down and do everything their husbands tell them to do,” she said. “But then I met women like Rida. They were the opposite of what I imagined. They don’t let anyone shut them up.”
The idea of following up poetry and hijab solidarity with a taco truck dinner felt natural, said Adil Nyear, president of the Islamic Society of Orange County in Garden Grove.
“People are always happy around food,” Nyear said. “It was the perfect environment to start a conversation. People were trying to reach out to one another. I could see that the event was… breaking a lot of the barriers that separate the Muslim and Latino communities.”
Claudia Perez, director of youth organizing at Santa Ana-based Resilience OC, said the taco trucks event prompted her first visit inside a mosque.
“It’s a different feeling when you walk in,” she said. “You take off your shoes. What I found really strange at first was how men and women sit separately.”
But Perez also saw things that were familiar; women in a mosque cover their heads with scarves, just as many Mexican women do when they attend a Catholic church.
“It challenged me to experience something different,” Perez said.
As for Hamida and Vazquez, their friendship has come a long way.
“When I go to his house, he has his refrigerator stocked with halal foods just so I feel comfortable,” Hamida said. “I go to his mom’s house for tea and he’s not even there.”
Hamida and Vazquez plan to take the momentum into 2018.
“These campaigns are about coming together,” Hamida said. “And changing the status quo.”
Rida Hamida, 39, of Anaheim; Benjamin Vazquez, 46, of Santa Ana
In 2017, their community outreach effort, #TacoTrucksAtEveryMosque, brought halal tacos — and cultural mingling — to mosques throughout Southern California.
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Source: Oc Register

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