How to tell a Mexican from a Muslim: A guide for the panicky American

When we saw that the good people of Pocatello, Idaho were panicked about the prospect of a Mexican diner being turned into a local Islamic center, we knew we had to come to their aid.

“I get very fearful, because I live close to this place,” said a local resident with the unfortunate name of Rev. Jim Jones, when the people of Pocatello were given the chance to speak up.

We understand the good reverend's worry. How, for example, are the white folks of Pocatello -- who make up 90 percent of the town -- going to tell the long-suffering Mexicans among them from the new arrivals, the Muslims of various Middle East nations who are settling American towns and want places to gather like a local Islamic center?

We turned to our old friend Gustavo Arellano, editor of OC Weekly and author of the long-running column, "Ask a Mexican," to help us out.

And the first thing he pointed out is that the pale folks of potato country are going to have a very, very difficult time.

"I think it's almost impossible. The old joke is that Saddam Hussein was everybody's tío, because all of our uncles looked like Saddam. The mustache, the bushy hair. He could have been your Tío Gabriel or Tío Jesus," Gustavo told us in a telephone conversation.

It turns out there are many similarities that make it tough to decide, on sight, if a person is from Guanajuato or Riyadh.

"The hijab? My grandmother never went out of her house without a veil. That's what women used to do. Look at the Virgin Mary -- I don't think I've ever seen her hair in my life," Gustavo points out.

"And did you know 'Guadalupe' is not a Spanish word? It's mixed from Arabic and Latin. Virgen de Guadalupe literally means 'Virgin of the Wolf River.' And have you noticed that she's standing on a crescent? That's a big symbol for Islam," he adds. "Oh yeah. We're brothers from another madre, absolutely."

Even the most obvious differences seem to disappear when you look closer, Gustavo points out. "We have pork via al pastor, and they have lamb and beef via shawarma, even though it's the exact same meal."

But if Mexicans and Muslims have a lot of things in common, Americans do think of them differently.

"Americans have at least made their peace with Mexicans. They know we're taking over. But I think the only thing Americans have accepted from Muslims is hummus," he says. "Other than that we're indistinguishable. We both remain America's biggest threats."

So if Idahoans are going to have a tough time deciding if the person they meet on the street is from, say, Jordan, or from Culiacán, we asked Gustavo if there was a simple question they could ask to quickly tell the difference.

"They should ask, 'Will you eat refried beans?' Muslims won't eat it because it has lard, from pork," Gustavo answered.

That is golden. It should work every time. So, good folks of Pocatello, calm your fears, and be ready to ask your neighbors if they eat refried beans. Because there's nothing like peace of mind.

[Image: Logo for Gustavo Arellano's OC Weekly column, "Ask a Mexican."]