In ‘A Town Called Victoria’ a Texas Community Reckons with History and Hate When a Mosque Burns

Women of the Victoria Islamic center pray in a temporary building after an arson destroys their mosque. Image Credit: Halyna Hutchins, ASC
"There is this concept of Southern hospitality, of neighborliness and connection, which I do feel is true. I feel it here... The thing is, though, is that’s also rooted in power. " Li Lu, Director of 'A Town Called Victoria'

On January 28, 2017, President Trump issued an executive order banning citizens from seven predominantly Muslim countries from traveling to the U.S. Later that night, someone set fire to a mosque in Victoria, Texas. The building was already engulfed in flames when firefighters arrived. Members of the mosque gathered across the street and prayed together as the building came apart. They prayed that it was an accident. They prayed that it was not intentional. (Investigators would soon discover it was.) In the week that followed, media descended on the South Texas town and a GoFundMe raised more than a million dollars to rebuild the Victoria Islamic Center. But what happens when the media leaves and a town is left to grapple with its troubled history and deep divides? 

Li Lu, producer/director, and Anthony Pedone, producer, examine that question in A Town Called Victoria, a three-part docuseries about the fire and its aftermath. Lu, who grew up in the Houston area 100 miles away, began following news about the fire from the start. Everyone she spoke to suggested that she connect with Pedone, who was living in Victoria at the time and was known for founding a film festival. The filmmakers met at Pedone’s restaurant in town and joined forces. Following local leaders and ordinary residents, A Town Called Victoria presents a nuanced portrait of a community confronting hate in its midst.  

Lu and Pedone spoke to CAAM over Zoom. A Town Called Victoria, a CAAM-supported production, airs on PBS on November 13 and 14 and will be streaming through March 2024. 

Melissa Hung: The series opens and closes with Omar Rachid, a member of the mosque and a civic leader who has done so much in Victoria. Can you talk about the choice to begin and end with him?

Li Lu: Omar is such an incredible character. Here’s a guy who gave everything and then some to make his community better, whether that be trying to run for mayor or serving on every single board that there was, from advocacy across all different themes and problems from domestic violence to poverty. And here’s a person who, even though this was such a tragedy and a horrific hate crime, he saw an opportunity and an aperture opening to finally make this moment the moment where all of his dreams and wants and commitment toward the community come through. And what profound loss and what profound trajectory he then experiences to end up where he did at the end.

MH: It’s just heartbreaking watching that. It shows the psychological toll of discrimination.

Anthony Pedone: His actions and his words really put all of that in context. He truly recognizes the opportunity he has, as he says, as an immigrant to represent immigrants, to represent his religion and be an ambassador of that culture, and he embraces that fully and fearlessly, despite endless jabs. There’s a saying: Death by a thousand cuts. And that’s what happens with Omar.

Omar Rachid, hopeful for change in his community, Image Credit: Li Lu

MH: I found myself thinking about language during the film. A mosque member brings up the question of who gets called a terrorist. And then we see a glimpse of both Beto O’Rourke and Ted Cruz when they come to town while they’re campaigning for senator and the ways in which they speak. The film is saying something about language and rhetoric. What is the message you’re putting across?

LL: That language and rhetoric really matter and affect people. I think what the story attempts to touch towards is: When it’s easy to label people with certain words, inelegant words, rough words, inaccurate words, the effects of it can be devastating. And if we don’t look into the nuance of the situation, then this is how this can happen. If no one is going to step in, especially leaders, to say, “Yes, there is terrorism in this world. Yes, there’s extremism, but these are not those people. Ordinary citizens who happen to be Muslim and who are also Americans or wanting to be Americans in this country deserve to be protected and treated equally like any other citizen. And those people have nothing to do with organizations or governments that they don’t belong to.” And that’s the moment we’re in right now where we’re asked about how to comment on the situation right now in Palestine and Israel. And that’s what I always come back to, is to say, “These are people.” This is Omar. This is Abe. This is Dr. Hashmi. They tore themselves away from their homeland, their families, their culture, which is not nothing, and not easy, in order to find a place of solace and peace, and tranquility to grow their families. And when someone — especially a politician or someone in power, someone with a loud microphone — puts broad strokes onto a whole population of people and labels them by one word or two words, that’s how this happens.

AP: For me, I’m watching my community’s language. And words like tolerance have never rung so empty as when they say, “We’re a very tolerant city,” which just sounds like, “We don’t like you. We’re just putting up with it.” The line that really becomes the hammer for me is when the fire captain says, “One of the members, the spokesman Abe, his daughter played soccer with my daughter for many years, but I didn’t know till that night that he was a member.” And then he pauses and adds, “or anything really about him” … And through that, I kind of figured out something about myself, too. Omar and I have been friends 10 years, and I never once asked him about his religion or about his faith. I’m not a person of faith, so I don’t talk about those things. But that’s not an excuse to not ask questions.

Li: What comes up for me is also who has the power of language? Who is free to talk about actually how they feel? And that goes all the way back to who has power. Who has power in Victoria? … There’s a sense of fear and there’s a sense of incredible self-editing that most folks in Victoria feel and internalize because they know they’re not in a position of power. So who speaks and who doesn’t? And the manner in which they speak is an interesting way to look at the whole story because sometimes people are pushed to the edge where they cannot be silent anymore… And in terms of language, this perpetrator, this arsonist, he is modeling a person within the position of power who could say things, imply meaning, and put forth action. He himself wants to sit in that position of power, power that’s been modeled to him for his entire life, in his community. And power has to do with everything as to why this happened and why he wanted to sit in that position of power and use the language and the privilege of all of those means.

Animation of the night of the Victoria Islamic Center arson. Image Credit: ATCV LLC

MH: I appreciate that the second episode was dedicated to trying to figure out what’s going on with the perpetrator, and just how someone becomes so hateful to do something like this. Was that hard to explore without his participation? You interview his parents, but they just have this stance that he’s innocent.

LL: I think we use that as an advantage, because we really wanted to see his environment, his conditioning. I personally have a lot of sympathy towards him and towards his family. But I think you see the conditioning in which he grew up in. And also, what’s sad about this whole thing is that all throughout this journey, you could see a young man trying to fit in to some place, a place that would accept him, a place that would give him the power and authority and acceptance and self-confidence that he was seeking…

Because we didn’t have access to him — we couldn’t get access to him during the trial, that was just not allowed at all — I think what we did and what we hope to offer is a sense of him through the story of the people around him and what might have happened, especially regarding his psyche after he was rejected from achieving the dream that he wanted, the ultimate dream that he wanted, which was to serve in the Air Force. And he was denied that opportunity. So what happens to a young man after catastrophic failure and without a support system that could redirect him to a more holistic and functioning future?

AP: It’s a shame that the media kind of evaporated around this story too. It was such a big story and the moment that it was not a white MAGA-hat-wearing Trump supporter that had a rebel flag, the media was like, “oh, bye.” Nobody was there at the verdict. … When Li and I found out [that the arsonist was Latino] we were like, “Oh my god. Now we got a F-ing series.” Immediately my thought was he is signaling. He is craving power. He’s signaling to the master. He is like, “I’m doing your bidding. You don’t have to pick on me anymore. I’m with you.”

LL: We didn’t fill in the gaps of the narrative to fulfill our suspicions. We were very open to what had actually happened. But unfortunately, as we walked this path, what Anthony just said is exactly what it was through the court testimony, through his own language, his own posts, through learning about his family background, through all of these things. And this wasn’t just a person who hated one group. It was a person who had hate in his heart for basically anybody that he could have power over. The story is not just about Islamophobia. It’s about, also, other kinds of hate crimes, like towards a gay man that was part of his friends circle at the time. And as you watch, there’s stories of abuse that he inflicts on his family members. So, what is it when a person like this indiscriminately tries to take power from people to make himself feel more empowered? We knew we had to address, also, the time and place we were in. We knew we had to open it up to history. We had to open it up to as far back as the Texas Revolution and what country Texas was a part of at the time and why the war was fought, which was for slavery. Mexico had abolished slavery, and that’s why the Texians revolted and created their own country. And where the Hispanic or Latinx community falls within that history has everything to do with where they are now. An incredible line from the film is Josie Solis, who is the first Hispanic female city council person in Victoria, and she says, “They took away the pride, and the sense of confidence the culture felt. And all of this comes from generations before us.” And that’s such a strong line. There is a sense of generational trauma that feeds into exactly what happened in this incident.

MH: Dr. Shahid Hashmi, who founded the mosque along with his wife, brings up the saying, “I wasn’t born in Texas but I got here as fast as I could.” It’s about how a Texan is made, not necessarily born. How does that intersect with this story?

LL: Thank you for that question. It’s something that I really want to talk about. There is this concept of Southern hospitality, of neighborliness and connection, which I do feel is true. I feel it here. I’m in Houston today. I miss that sense when I go back to Los Angeles. The thing is, though, is that’s also rooted in power. When we — my family and their families — when we first came to Texas, I think we were being seen as visitors. And when you are seen as a visitor or someone that’s new and is not as planted as someone who’s been there for generations and generations, it’s easy to be generous. It’s easy to be welcoming. It’s easy to be gracious, and that’s wonderful. But what we’re experiencing now is that people are realizing we’re not visitors. We’re growing our families here. Our children are having children here. We’re buying property. We’re voting. We’re getting involved. And once that becomes the reality is when we see the other side of that extreme, which is hostility, othering, and marginalization for some folks — for some folks. I think generosity happens when you have something to give. And right now the question is how much more are we giving those people? Or can we have enough for all of us to truly share the space together?

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Melissa Hung is a writer and journalist who grew up in Texas. She is the founding editor of Hyphen and the founder of Slant, an Asian American shorts film festival that ran for 12 years in Houston.

Episodes 1 and 2 of A Town Called Victoria air on PBS Monday, November 13. Episode 3 airs Tuesday, November 14. Check local listings for times in your area.