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Column: A COVID vaccine with your tacos? Just a day’s work for this Muslim activist

Sara Ahmed, 29, of Anaheim gets  vaccinated by EMT Daniella Gochuico
Sara Ahmed, 29, of Anaheim gets vaccinated by EMT Daniella Gochuico during a May 1 COVID vaccine/taco truck party at Islamic Center of Santa Ana.
(Francine Orr/Los Angeles Times)

The sun was setting on the Islamic Center of Santa Ana on a recent weekend day as Rida Hamida posed in front of a taco truck. In her hands were the menu items for the evening: halal tacos — and the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine.

“Let’s do a TikTok,” the Anaheim resident told a friend. “Let’s show everyone what’s here. Let’s get them here!”

A COVID vaccine/taco truck party at Islamic Center of Santa Ana
A COVID vaccine/taco truck party at Islamic Center of Santa Ana on May 1.
(Francine Orr/Los Angeles Times)

Over 200 Muslims sat in tables in the Islamic Center’s parking lot as they prepared to break the Ramadan fast. Some lined up with Latinos to get vaccinated. A muzzein silently mouthed the adhan — the Islamic call to prayer.

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It was a scene that even the most kumbaya activist could scarcely imagine. For Hamida, it was just another day’s work.

She’s a longtime presence in Orange County’s progressive scene, as distinctive for her bright-pink hijab as she is for her innovative activism. Hamida convinced a majority-Republican Anaheim City Council to recognize Columbus Day as Indigenous People’s Day by lobbying each member with phone calls. She holds workshops where Muslim women who wear hijabs demystify the submissive stereotypes put on them by outsiders, and continues to push alongside others for Anaheim to deem the Middle Eastern part of the city as Little Arabia.

But what gets Hamida national press coverage every year since 2017 is what she brought to the Islamic Center just one week ago: Taco Trucks at Every Mosque. It’s an ongoing series with a simple, brilliant premise.

Taco trucks. Mosque. Cultural touchstones for two maligned groups shared so that their respective communities can meet and learn about each other and work toward political change.

Hamida has received international attention for the event and has taken it to mosques from San Diego to Sacramento. Alongside those tacos, Hamida also sneaks in sides of good citizenship with every iteration. In 2018, it was a voter registration drive. Last year, a push for eaters to fill out their U.S. Census form.

For 2021, COVID vaccines.

Hamida got Care Ambulance Service to bring a pop-up clinic to the Islamic Center with 150 vaccines, and will do so again this Saturday at the West Coast Islamic Society in Anaheim. She thought of the pairing after talking to Muslim women at her pilates class who confessed they had no idea how to sign up for a vaccine appointment.

Rida Hamida, a Muslim woman  hosting a COVID vaccine/taco truck party
Rida Hamida hosts a COVID vaccine/taco truck party at Islamic Center of Santa Ana.
(Francine Orr/Los Angeles Times)

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“People talk about the taco truck — that sticks,” said Hamida.

Once she filmed her TikTok, Hamida walked around the Islamic Center’s parking lot to check in with seemingly everyone. The click of her stylish wedges hitting the asphalt rose above the din of happy diners as she offered air hugs to people she knew and a “Salaam alaikum” to those she didn’t.

“One of the reasons I like working with her is because everything she does is about getting to the root of the problem,” said Santa Ana Unified School District trustee Alfonso Alvarez. He directed cars at an overflow parking lot. “She sees where there’s a need, and does something about it.”

“It’s amazing, it’s inspirational,” said Sara Ahmed, 29, of Anaheim. She sat in the vaccine waiting area as her mother finished off chicken tacos while the two made sure there weren’t any side effects from their shots. “I can see this work so well everywhere.”

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“She’s a total patrona [boss lady],” said Moises Moreno, the taquero who caters Hamida’s Orange County events. He had never even heard of halal meat until they met; now, he uses it at his taco truck all the time and made 400 carne asada and chicken tacos for the Islamic Society. “Rida is one of those people who doesn’t just say stuff to say stuff. She does stuff.”

As darkness set in, Hamida finally relaxed for a bit to offer some remarks.

“Our faith compels us to not just take care of our community, but that we want to see the same thing for others,” she said via loudspeaker to the nods of the crowd. “May Allah reward all of you for trusting each other.”

She was so busy, she had barely touched her tacos.

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A couple of days later, I met Hamida at an IHOP in Santa Ana. It was 4:15 a.m., less than an hour before the beginning of the Ramadan fast, and she ordered two glasses of water and strawberry crepes with powdered sugar to fill her stomach until sunset.

Farith El, left, Farzana Farith, 17 months,  and Mariny Math  enjoy dinner together
Farith El, left, Farzana Farith, 17 months, and Mariny Math, all of Santa Ana, enjoy dinner together during a COVID vaccine/taco truck party at Islamic Center of Santa Ana.
(Francine Orr/Los Angeles Times)

“People see the glory of Taco Trucks at Every Mosque, but they don’t see the grit and sweat and tears and tenacity needed to make it happen,” said the 43-year-old. “People think it’s cute, a trend. But to say that is offensive. It’s a way to dismantle systems that don’t serve us.”

The daughter of Palestinian immigrants, Hamida grew up in Monterey Park before moving to Anaheim Hills in fifth grade. That’s when she got her political awakening.

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A teacher mispronounced her name (it sounds like “ride,” not “reed”), and asked why her mother had an accent. “I never realized I was ever different before that,” Hamida said. “So I had to create a space that made me feel like I belonged.”

She created that with the help of food.

White friends who visited her house would walk away with bags of pita bread. Shawerma sandwiches were shared with classmates when they tired of their bologna. In seventh grade, Hamida transferred to the private Orange Crescent School in Garden Grove and promptly organized a bake sale to raise funds for the school’s first-ever yearbook.

The power of food stayed with her decades later in 2017, when Hamida and her Latino friends were thinking of how to respond to Donald Trump’s broadsides against Mexicans and Muslims at the time. Someone brought up an infamous 2016 quote by a Trump supporter that if Hillary Clinton had won the presidency, there would be “taco trucks on every corner.”

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“Taco trucks are such a California experience, and everyone can identify with that message,” said Hamida. “It’s not a passive message; it’s literally hands on. It was perfect.”

Mosques and taqueros alike were confused about this fusion at first. Enter the Islamic Center of Santa Ana, which hosted the first gathering and serves mostly Cambodian Muslim worshipers — minorities within a minority.

“She’s doing great work,” said Islamic Society President Sean Tu, 59. “She brings awareness to marginalized communities like ours, and an understanding that few have.”

At the second one, over 1,500 people attended.

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As we finished our predawn IHOP breakfast, Hamida emphasized again that Taco Trucks at Every Mosque wasn’t a gimmick. “If people can’t recognize what I’m trying to do, that’s fine,” she said. “We’ll continue, and just do more and more until people finally get it.”

She was so busy, again, she had barely touched her crepes.


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