Though shootings raise fears of backlash, Lebanese Muslims feel at home in Bell
Customers poured into Fatima’s Halal Meat Market in the city of Bell. Behind the cash register, Latife Saleh, 40, rang up one man’s purchase while a second yelled out an order in Spanish.
“Otra de asada,” he said.
“Otra de asada, torta?” Saleh replied, prompting the man to nod.
Several feet away, a Lebanese woman placed an order with Leonardo Castañeda, a 45-year-old butcher who has worked six years at the market: a half a pound of kibbeh and housee.
Castañeda said it took him a while to learn a few words in Arabic before it became like a second language.
“You always learn the bad words first,” Castañeda, a Mexican immigrant, said with a chuckle.
Recently there has been talk of databases to track Muslims, surveilling some mosques and turning away Syrian refugees. Billionaire mogul and leading Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has talked about seeing “thousands” of Muslims celebrating after the 9/11 attacks in New Jersey — allegations debunked by authorities and others.
The mass shooting in San Bernardino on Wednesday that killed 14 people, carried out by a married Muslim couple, Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik, has reignited debates about terrorism and Islam. In San Bernardino, services at some mosques were more sparsely attended than usual and some Muslim residents said they worried about being blamed, even as they grieved over the deaths.
Then there are places like Bell, a small working-class community in southeast Los Angeles County where a Lebanese Muslim community established itself at roughly the same time as another group that’s frequently in the crosshairs of politicians on the stump: immigrants from Mexico and other parts of Latin America.
Layla Matar, 21, who sells cars at Kia in downtown Los Angeles, said growing up in Bell never made her feel out of place. Half of her friends are Latino, the other half Arab.
“I never knew wearing a head scarf was something different,” Matar said. “Bell is like my house. As soon as I step out I have to be ready for everybody else.”
Bell Mayor Ali Saleh, 40, said that as the news broke about the massacre, he couldn’t help thinking: “I hope it’s not a Muslim or an Arab. It’s what’s on every Muslim’s mind.”
But like Matar, he said he did not fear a backlash, at least in Bell, where close interactions over decades between Latino and Arab residents have eased suspicions.
“They’re our neighbors, and some of my son’s best friends are Arab,” said Antonia Mejia, owner of El Colimense, a Mexican restaurant next door to Saleh’s business. “I think we have been living side by side with them for so many years that this is a normal thing.”
That does not mean that there have not been ugly episodes in the past. Unsurprisingly, most involved political campaigning.
In 2009, two Lebanese American candidates for the Bell City Council were targets of a smear campaign during a heated election. Ali Saleh was among them. Saleh — no relation to Latife Saleh — and another council candidate were labeled as terrorists.
In fliers, Saleh’s face was superimposed on a picture of a man holding a sign that read “Islam will dominate the world.” The flier also showed pictures of radical Iraqi cleric Muqtada Sadr, the burning towers of the World Trade Center and terrorists wearing black executioner’s hoods and standing over a kneeling hostage. “Don’t vote for a Muslim,” the flier warned voters.
“People that knew Saleh really didn’t pay much attention to it,” said Gaston Gutierrez, 31. Saleh was not victorious in his bid to join the Bell council in 2009, but he was elected in 2011 after a corruption scandal that united Latino, white, Lebanese and other residents. He is now the mayor.
There have been minor conflicts.
Abraham Hernandez, 17, said he once got in a fight with a Lebanese American student who called him an ethnic slur. But he said the confrontation was a one-time event.
He likes Middle Eastern culture and food, the teenager explained. He said he works for a Syrian family at a bakery in Anaheim and listens from time to time when politics is discussed. Recently, he said, the owners have been talking about the Syrian refugees and how saddened they are by the crisis.
He said he feels no animosity toward Muslims.
“Why hate someone who hasn’t really done anything to you?” he asked.
In 2010 an estimated 2,000 people of Lebanese descent lived in Bell, a town of roughly 35,000 people, making them about 6% of the city’s population. More live in neighboring cities, including Maywood, Cudahy and South Gate. Some of the Lebanese immigrants who came to Bell fled a brutal civil war in Lebanon. A very small population of Palestinians is in the city.
At Bell High School, with about 150 students of Lebanese descent, the school created Arabic language classes nine years ago. Nada Shaath was the first to teach the courses and most of the students were Latinos.
From three classes, the program expanded to eight.
Shaath said every year the foreign language teachers ask students attending the Arabic classes what comes to mind when they think about the words “Muslim” or “Arab.”
“Every year it’s the same answer: terrorist,” she said.
But she said that perception should change as students discover similarities between their cultures.
“It has bridged a gap,” Shaath said. “It definitely has created more understanding and tolerance.”
Teacher Rasha Elomeri said that Latino students are often her most committed students, sometimes seeking help from their Lebanese friends. Recently one student submitted a “most wanted” ad for Mexican cartel kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman in Arabic.
“I can tell she had her Lebanese friend write this,” she said with a laugh.
Two weeks ago, Nicole Courrejolles, 24, was standing behind the cash register at World Famous Grill, a hookah lounge and restaurant where patrons eat burgers that are made in accordance with Islamic dietary laws. A man ordered his meal and looked at a woman wearing a hijab. After paying, he asked where the restaurant owners were from.
“I told him, ‘Oh they’re Lebanese,’” Courrejolles said, recalling the exchange. “That’s when he said ‘Oh, so you work for terrorists?’”
“That’s when he went on his rant,” she added, saying the man brought up ISIS (also known as Islamic State or ISIL) and Syria.
“He was being ignorant,” Courrejolles said. “You can’t think all Muslims are that radical.”
When Jamal Saleh, 65, arrived in Bell in 1973, the mayor’s uncle said there were only four Muslim families in the city. He sold clothes at the nearby Paramount Swap Meet until he could open his own clothing store business.
Among those who had been living in the city were the parents of Downey Mayor Pro Tem Alex Saab, who moved to Bell in the late 1960s. His father, who recently died, was Lebanese and his mother Cuban.
By the late 1970s, the white families that made up the majority of the population in Bell and surrounding cities were beginning to leave as manufacturing and factory jobs disappeared. By the 1980s, the region had shifted to predominantly Latino.
Saab, who was raised in Bell for a short time before moving to Downey, said the Latino immigrants were more accepting of the Lebanese community. At soccer games, parents cheer for both Latino and Lebanese children.
“I think it’s because they related to one another; they were immigrants and they worked hard,” Saab said.
He said because some Arabic words sound like Spanish words, it was easy for the Lebanese immigrants to learn Spanish. Some even took to watching telenovelas to learn the language of their neighbors.
On a recent Tuesday afternoon, Saleh, 40, the mayor of Bell, stopped by the home of Sonnia Manzanilla, 70. Saleh said he learned Spanish from his parents, working at his father’s clothing store and listening to Mexican regional music such as banda.
They chatted about Cuban coffee and a tree across from her home that needs trimming — mostly in Spanish.
Manzanilla said there is a small population of Muslims in Cuba.
“I grew up with them,” she said. “When I came here, it was no different.”
Latife Saleh of Fatima’s Halal Meat Market said the San Bernardino shootings caused her to cry. When she learned the shooters were a married Muslim couple, she felt angry. Saleh said her 12-year-old son suggested that they drop off flowers at a memorial site for the victims, but she worried about how being Muslim could cause some people to react.
“Thank God for my community here,” Saleh said of Bell. “People here understand I’m not the same Muslim as those that are on TV.”
MORE ON SAN BERNARDINO SHOOTING
The view from Sacramento
For reporting and exclusive analysis from bureau chief John Myers, get our California Politics newsletter.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.