Taking a Bite of Converso History Through Tacos
Since 2005, Texas-born conceptual artist and former Heeb photo editor, Peter Svarzbein has been interviewing and photographing Latino families in the American Southwest who are returning to Judaism — believing their ancestors were Conversos, forced converts to Catholicism during the Spanish Inquisition.
Svarzbein, 33, was looking for a way for more people to feast their eyes on these portraits of Crypto Jews and to chew on the historic circumstances that connect Latinos and Jewish traditions. That’s when he came up with the idea for a food truck — a kosher taco truck, to be exact.
With the support of various organizations in his native El Paso, Svarzbein launched Conversos y Tacos Kosher Gourmet Trucks, an innovative and interactive art installation than ran for a week in the city in far West Texas in late July.
Over the week, the truck made six stops at various community and food events around El Paso (where Szarzbein grew up in a culturally Jewish family with a Hispanic-Ashkenazi background), serving fusion taco plates melding Jewish and Mexican cuisine. The food reflected the questions Svarzbein wants to challenge people with, like: How can a person be both Jewish and Latino? How can culture, religion and identity fuse together over, or through, the U.S.-Mexico border?
The artist teamed up with local chef Jose Cazares of Hello Day Café to come up with three unique tacos inspired by both Jewish and Latino food. The first was a pickle and brisket taco (“a deli experience on a corn tortilla”), the second was a chicken shawarma taco served with Israeli salad and tahini, and the third was a kosher carne asada taco with pico de gallo and cilantro. All three were served together, along with a latke and a jalapeno dipping sauce with a soy sauce base. Conversos y Tacos charged patrons a symbolic $6.13 for the whole plate.
Sourcing the kosher meat for these special tacos was not so simple. Svarzbein got some of it from fellow El Paso native Ari White, who has been wowing New York recently with his pop-up kosher Texas-style barbeque (his smoker is called HaKadosh BBQ). “We had to go to the Trader Joe’s in Albuquerque, New Mexico for the rest of the kosher chicken and brisket,” Svarzbein said.
The taco truck also had to have a mashgiach , or kosher supervisor, which for part of the time was Rabbi Juan Mejia, who was born in Bogota, Colombia to a Catholic family and made his way back to Judaism when he learned his family was descended from Conversos. Rabbi Levi Greenberg of Chabad in El Paso was also a mashgiach for the project.
As customers enjoyed the fusion tacos, they watched an audiovisual presentation of Szarzbein’s photographs of Conversos and perused special fold-out menus he prepared containing a timeline of the Spanish Inquisition and the history of the Conversos, a list of Sephardic surnames, and definitions for the terms “Conversos,” “Crypto-Jews” and “Anusim” — all referring to Jews who were forced to convert to Christianity on pain of death.
The tacos Svarzbein served up were intentionally neither authentically Jewish nor authentically Mexican. “That’s the whole point. It was about challenging assumptions,” he noted. “People who were looking for authentic Sephardic or authentic Mexican food would have been disappointed.”
Based on the attention the project has received, it would seem that few people were disappointed. Diners appeared to be hungry for Svarzbein’s artistically presented lesson on food as identity, and his attempt to ironically reclaim the identity of Jews once derogatively called Marranos (pigs) through kosher tacos.