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Kosher taco truck highlights crypto-Jewish history

By Maria Garcia, MariaG@kvia.com.
Published On: Jul 22 2013 06:58:46 PM CDT
Updated On: Jan 15 2014 10:35:13 PM CST

Reporter: Maria Garcia

EL PASO, Texas -

An El Paso artist hopes to highlight the history of crypto-Jews in the Southwest through a kosher taco truck.

About six years ago, artist Peter Svarzbein started photographing crypto-Jews, Hispanic or Latinos of Jewish descent who had to keep their faith a secret after the Spanish inquisition, and their descendents.

Svarzbein wants to show the stories of those families through his taco truck, which was serving the fusion food at Congregation B'nai Zion and Hope and Anchor over the weekend.

On Monday, the truck was at the Foodville food truck spot in Downtown El Paso, on the corner of Mills and Mesa. Along with serving up tacos, the stories of crypto-Jewsare projected on walls.

Many crypto-Jews don't find out their Jewish heritage until generations later.

"It was a family secret. We grew up on the southside, the Segundo Barrio. You fear the unknown," explained John Garcia, a former crypto-Jew, who converted to Judaism after exploring his Jewish ancestry.

Garcia said he found out his Jewish ancestors were burned at the stake near Monterrey, Mexico, for practicing their faith.

Svarzbein said the inspiration for the project came from his own upbringing. "It started off as me being from El Paso and being a first generation Hispanic Latino Jew."

Rabbi Juan Mejia, also a former crypto-Jew, who grew up Roman Catholic in Bogota, Colombia is tasked with making sure the tacos are kosher and that the food follows Jewish dietary standards. That includes assuring utensils and ingredients are strictly cleaned and making sure no forbidden outside food, like dairy, makes it inside the truck.

"Food is the cornerstone of life. It's one of the things that we do most often and by having kosher tacos, you're making a statement you don't have to pick between Jewish culture and your Latino culture," said Rabbi Mejia. He currently lives in Oklahoma City and visited El Paso for a conference and to help with the taco truck.

The rabbi said the project helps celebrate the fusion of two traditions. "

When cryptos or people are starting to consider joining a people with as rich a tradition as Judaism, there tends to be an initial desire to imitate, we just want to be like everyone else because we want to be integrated into the community," Mejia said. "The unique aspect of the kosher taco truck is really allowing people to imagine ways in which they can bring both of their identities together."

The project is partly funded by the City's artist incubator grant, which supplies working artists who have an actionable plans for unique El Paso projects with up to $3,500.  It was also funded by the Jewish Federation of El Paso and the B'nai Zion Congregation.

The taco truck will be in Downtown El Paso's Foodvile this Thursday night for the monthly art walk.

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