Faced with harsh election rhetoric, Muslims and Latinos break bread in Orange County

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SHAFAQNA – The event had the look of feel-good cultural diplomacy. Rida Hamida, a Muslim of Syrian descent, led about 30 Latinos on a tour of Anaheim’s Little Arabia.

They cracked jokes, sipped Arabic coffee from tiny cups, asked about hookah bars, and broke bread – or sangak – over their cultural similarities and differences.

But the gathering organized by Hamida in late spring had a more practical purpose: It was an effort by local Muslims to make inroads with another, much larger group that often finds itself in the political crosshairs.

As Donald Trump has risen to become the presumptive Republican candidate for president, Muslims and Mexicans have been a constant subject of his speeches as he talks about barring refugees and immigrants from Muslim countries and building a wall along the Mexico border.

At a San Diego rally last month, Trump accused U.S. District Judge Gonzalo Curiel, who is presiding over a class-action lawsuit filed against his real estate investing program, Trump University, of being biased because he’s of “Mexican” heritage. Curiel was born in Indiana. Shortly after, Trump suggested a Muslim judge would probably also be biased toward him.

“These are dark days for our community,” Hamida said. “Trump is rising while we’re being demonized. Muslims are told they can’t enter the country. Latinos are accused of being criminals. But if we come together for a movement, we can stay strong.”

In Orange County, immigrants who trace their roots to the Middle East and other predominantly Muslim countries number about 25,000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. But Latinos make up more than 1 million of the county’s roughly 3 million residents.

And over the years, Latinos have built up a much wider network than Muslims, Asian Americans and other minority groups – not including the black community – for flexing political muscle.

“We are natural allies. Our numbers are going to matter together,” says Ada Briceno, interim director of Orange County Communities Organized for Responsible Development (OCCORD). “More than ever, it’s necessary to join forces because this kind of election rhetoric is disgusting.”

Jose Moreno, a longtime Anaheim resident who heads Los Amigos, a countywide alliance focusing on politics and civil rights, said the Latino community in Orange County knows “what it means to be targeted with hate,” particularly in the past, when it was much smaller. But even though most Latinos in the country were born in the U.S., “we’re still treated like newcomers.”

In past years, Latino activists reached out to Arab Americans after suing the city of Anaheim to allow district-based elections, in which council members must live in the area they represent. Officials promised to put a measure on the ballot allowing both communities to collaborate, drawing district maps, and promoting Little Arabia. It passed last year.

Moreno, Hamida and other Muslims and Latino residents showed up at an Anaheim council meeting in May where leaders debated a resolution to condemn Trump’s rhetoric.

Lou DeSipio, a political science professor at UC Irvine specializing in ethnic politics, said different ethnic and racial groups have long banded together at times when they feel discriminated against by the government, society or both.

In the 1920s, Polish, Italian, Greek and Eastern European Jewish immigrants made alliances, he said.

And Latinos, Asian Americans and Native Americans joined blacks in the 1960s in the run up to the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act and the Fair Housing Act of 1968.

“This is something that goes back decades for people who feel excluded or who realize that shared interests can create something more meaningful,” DeSipio said. “Would they have been as successful working individually? Probably not.”

Hussam Ayloush, director of the Los Angeles chapter of the Council of American-Islamic Relations – whose office is based in Little Arabia –  said “we must create synergy since we have the same battles for equality and for justice.”

But he said it’s not “just about political power. We’re also in the business of promoting personal relationships. It could start with a meal or going to a wedding. You have to leave your comfort zone.”

Little Arabia is centered along Brookhurst Street, near Interstate 5, where clusters of halal butcher shops, beauty salons, travel agencies and restaurants pop up block to block, run by Syrian, Egyptian and Palestinian immigrants.

Hamida collected donations so the tour would be free. She recruited Ben Vazquez, a teacher friend from Santa Ana, as co-organizer for the tour. He in turn asked friends from Santa Ana to help lead the exploration of Little Arabia.

“Rida and I are good friends, but I would not even venture here if she didn’t push me,” Vazquez said.

“Unconsciously, we already crisscross cultures with Latinos. We do commerce together – why not more?” asked Hamida, president of the Arab American Chamber of Commerce. During the tour she rattled off a few of the thousands of Arabic words that have influenced the Spanish language.

Carlos Perea, a sociology major at Cal State Long Beach from Santa Ana, said he was glad to take part in the tour, calling it “not just symbolic. It’s timely.”

Perea said many Latinos can empathize with Muslims who feel judged by the actions of a relative few.

We “can sympathize with what they’re going through because we’ve been through it,” he said. “The big takeaway is we both are marginalized groups … facing a backlash in this election.”

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