“Saludos, que onda, salaam.”
Storyteller Mark Gonzales offered his Spanish and Arabic greeting yesterday to an auditorium filled with nearly 700 students at Valley High School in SanTana. He came at the invitation of activist Rida Hamida and Valley teacher Benjamin Vazquez. It’s the first in a series of outreach events spearheaded by Hamida called “Adventures in Al-Andalus,” a bicultural effort with Vazquez to bring OC Latinos and Muslims closer together through history, food and community.
“Borders change,” the Mexik Muslim adorning a black kabus Tunisian hat told the students. “Andalusia is today what we call Spain.” For centuries Muslims ruled southern Spain, ushering in a period of tolerance and civilization where all Abrahamic religions lived in peace until 1492. Gonzales started the journey to North Africa and Spain through Mexico, sharing family history of when his abuelos migrated after the 1910 revolution. His father became a bracero, toiling in the fields before moving to Alaska where Gonzales was born. “I am proof that Mexicans are everywhere,” he chimed.
The poet and speaker grew up Roman Catholic like most Mexicans but began practicing Islam in 2003 when he was 28. Then living in Southern California, he found himself organizing politically with Latinos and Muslims around different issues that brought them together. Gonzales started traveling the world around that time, including a trip to Palestine in 2003. The antiquity of cities like Bethlehem and Jerusalem inspired larger spiritual questions.
A return to Palestine in 2011 is where Gonzales met Soraya Hosni, his future wife. He showed pictures of them together which inspired fawning “Awwws” from the crowd. When they wed and started a family, he visited Tunisia, where Hosni’s grandparents lived. Gonzales delved into cross-cultural experiences sharing how novelas translated into Arabic are wildly popular in North Africa and how they have a love for spicy food, just like every habanero-eating Mexican. He mentioned how Tunisians and Mexicans looked the same and even likes to think of fricasse, an open-ended fried bread roll filled with meat, lettuce and a boiled egg, as Tunisian tacos.
Calling the current moment “the era of Trump,” Gonzales invited the youth to understand that diverse people share many things in common, a timely tale he mentions in the backdrop of the awful Klan melee in Anaheim. “Where do I belong in the world, especially if I’m being told I’m not wanted where I’m at?” he asked. “When we talk about Latinos and Andalus, we often talk about ourselves as different people.” But differences aren’t so different. It’s a lesson deeply ingrained in him while traveling to twenty countries the past four years. The mostly Latino high school students listened intently and asked questions towards the end of the talk.
“How do you define yourself?” one girl asked. “I identify as many things: I’m Chicano, American, Muslim, a father and son,” he responded. “Why am I only one thing?”