This Texan Jew Is Bringing Kosher Tacos to the Border

Some of the Crypto-Jews who were forcibly converted to Catholicism during the Spanish Inquisition fled to the high desert reaches, including El Paso and Texas-Juárez.

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Nov 28 2015, 7:00pm

Peter Svarzbein has documented the stories of Crypto-Jews for the last decade—more specifically, the Sephardim of the Iberian Peninsula who were forcibly converted to Catholicism during the Spanish Inquisition. Some of these conversos fled to the high desert reaches of New Spain in hopes of finding sanctuary from the Church, including the heavily Hispanic Catholic El Paso, Texas-Juárez, and Mexico borderplex along one of Mexico's Camino Real trade routes.

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Conversos Y Tacos logo. All photos by Robert Strickland.

"Being from El Paso forces one to think of space and place differently," says Svarzbein, a multimedia artist, El Paso native, and first-generation Hispanic-American Jew. Indeed, El Paso isn't just one city. It's half of a city. The other half is Juárez, Mexico. From most vantage points in El Paso, it's difficult to distinguish where America ends and Mexico begins. The cities are nearly inseparable, living in the fuzzy realm between fraternal and identical bilingual twins. And the narco warfare of the early 2000s that turned Juárez into a cartel battle zone notwithstanding, residents have freely crossed back and forth for more than a century. Things are looking up again. They go dancing. They go to dinner. They go to school. They go to work. They run. (Earlier this month, the 2015 Run Internacional: The US-Mexico 10k's course crossed the border, finishing at the middle of Paso Del Norte Bridge.) And because of Svarzbein, they also eat kosher tacos.

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In 2013, with the help of an artist incubator grant through the City of El Paso Museum and Cultural Affairs Department, Svarzbein created the Conversos y Tacos Kosher Gourmet Trucks est. 1492 food truck. It doesn't keep regular hours in a gas station's parking lot. Taco aficionados don't line up for their late-night drunk tacos fix of tortilla-wrapped Yom Kippur dishes. Conversos y Tacos is an art installation rolled out for special events. In the past two years, it has slung tacos at local food truck rallies and even made a trip to New York City in 2014, where Svarzbein had attended the School of Visual Arts.

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"To understand that while there are differences among us, there are more things that we share. I created an art installation about those Crypto-Jewish families returning to Judaism. And I created this through food. Food is something that speaks to many cultures. It is a language of love."

But, Svarzbein is quick to note, food can also be used as an instrument of denigration. During the Spanish Inquisition, Jews who outwardly embraced Christianity were referred to as marranos (swine).

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Sergio "Katfish" De La Cruz turns the truck into a kosher space with tin foil.

"I felt exploring this idea through the concept of a taco truck would not only be educational but would also drive my creative process in terms of pushing the limits of what we consider conceptual art. The liminal space that is the El Paso-Juárez borderplex continues to fascinate me and drives my questions concerning my own Jewish and Latino identity."

The presence of Crypto-Jews in the El Paso del Norte region began to reveal itself in 1986, days into Rabbi Stephen A. Leon's tenure at Congregation B'Nai Zion, one of three synagogues in El Paso.

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Peter-Svarzbei-kosher-tacos Conversos Y Tacos creator, Peter Svarzbein.

It was then that Leon received a call from a gentleman—a devout Catholic—in Juárez who said that while he was growing up, his grandmother would light candles on Friday nights. When she passed away weeks earlier, the man asked his mother who would continue the family tradition. He was rebuffed. That wasn't a family tradition—that was grandma's practice. The man asked around regarding the candles and was directed to the local priest. The padre said that of course he knew why the man's grandmother lit candles on Friday night—a lot of women in the community did just that. But it was better that he discuss the subject with a rabbi. Enter Rabbi Leon. The two men then put the pieces together, and eventually the gentleman converted.

The community grew. There were vaqueros and yarmulkes. And nowCongregation B'Nai Zion and its approximately 300 registered families—including the Svarzbeins—hosts the Anousim Conference, an annual symposium on the subject of the Crypto-Jews, which Conversos y Tacos headlined this year.

The loaner food truck—remember, Conversos y Tacos is an art instillation, not a full-time rig—has banners duct-taped to its black body. The logos depict a purple cowboy hat-wearing, brown-skinned gentleman with peyos hanging to his shirt collar. He's looking skyward, behind him the Star of David. The vehicle's interior is covered in aluminum foil in minimum compliance with kosher dietary laws—the mandates that outline how Jews must prepare food, what foods are fit to eat, and how that food must be consumed—and it's stationed in front of B'Nai Zion as the Sabbath ends.

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Taco assembly inside the truck.

The observant mill about outside the hilltop synagogue. Below is the border city, with an estimated 5,000 Jews as of 2011, and Juárez.

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Pollo al pastor.

English and Spanish can be heard tonight. But whatever language those present prefer, they're here for the tacos—kosher, of course. Two are on the menu: a brisket taco and a shredded chicken taco, pollo al pastor. The latter is a religiously dictated adaptation of the iconic Mexico City taco al pastor, chile-marinated pork roasted on a trompo, a vertical rotisserie, then sliced straight from the spit onto a warm corn tortilla. The preparation is itself a Mexican interpretation of the cooking practices Lebanese immigrants brought with them to the country in the early 20th century. And tacos at their most basic represent a time and place. Tonight, in El Paso, that's kosher tacos, which prohibit pork. According to kosher law, pigs aren't verboten because they do not chew their cud.

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Shredded beef brisket.

The chefs Svarzbein has enlisted to prepare the tacos are Mario Ochoa-Gurany, a chef at Stonewood Modern Grill in El Paso—himself a returned Crypto-Jewish native of Juárez—and Sergio De La Cruz, a chef at El Paso's Crave Kitchen and Bar. They're quickly and quietly assembling the tacos in the rig's foil-lined interior and passing them through the truck's windows.

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The pollo al pastor taco is a sneaky treat. Chiles and achiote haven't come anywhere near the chicken. Chef Ochoa-Gurany has replaced commonly accepted ingredients with components like honey and cumin and lime. Yet the meat mimics the tangy bright-spicy profile of sienna-colored pork tacos al pastor. There is no char, but there is cubed pineapple. Ribbons of brisket, cooked for seven hours over two days in the synagogue's kitchen, lie across a corn tortilla. Next to the beef are pink-hued tangles of pickled onions. A slice of a traditional kosher pickle seesaws atop the meat. Brisket and pickles, used in Jewish, Mexican, and Texas cooking, here combine to bridge cultures in one nosh. It has all the flavors of home. That home includes Mexico.

And it's Mexico where Svarzbein would like to take Coversos y Tacos. "I'd love to drive down the old Camino Real slinging kosher tacos," he says. "Just imagine that! It would be the best." One day, that road will be paved with pollo al pastor.

This post previously appeared on MUNCHIES in August 2015.

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