Published on March 17th, 2017 | by Aya de Leon


School Lunches and ACTS OF RESISTANCE

My daughter needs some protein in her lunch. And it’s gotta be good. In her new school, she has about 25 minutes to eat and if the protein isn’t appealing, she’ll start with the sugary carbs. Then she’ll run out of time and be out of fuel before the end of the day.

I look in the fridge and only see pork salami. She likes it well enough, but it simply won’t do.

My daughter is a first grader, and she’s the new girl in her charter public school in Oakland. Prior to that she was in a tiny, independent Spanish immersion school. There were mostly black and brown kids, and they spent one day a week in the forest. Now her school speaks English. She has to wear shoes. They play on concrete. Still, I love this new school. Also mostly black and brown kids, and a similar focus on social justice.

by Shelly Provost / Creative Commons License

The independent school ended up closing mid-year, unexpectedly. My daughter started in late January at public school, and it was a rough transition. She went from a learning community with 30 kids to one with 250. She was overwhelmed by the number of bodies, the noise, and the constant instructions to sit down, be quiet, and stay in your spot on the rug.

Being the involved parent that I am, I stayed for the entire first day. At recess, the kids had several different activities to choose from. My daughter was clearly overwhelmed, and I asked if there was a quiet place we could go to take a break. As we retreated from all the activities, one of the girls from her class—let’s call her Aishah—invited my daughter to come join a game. Her brown face was lit up with an inviting smile. Not only was the gesture thoughtful and generous, but she looked interested and curious to get to know my kid. I thanked Aishah but declined. We needed the moment alone.

Later that week, we ran into Aishah and her mom on the way out of school. I was surprised to see that her mom had on hijab, the traditional head covering that women wear in Islam.

My daughter’s eyes lit up. “You all are Muslim? That’s my culture too!”

I smiled awkwardly. It wasn’t exactly true. My spouse is of Caribbean heritage—East Indian and black. His Indian grandfather was Muslim, but for the last two generations, his family has been Christian. My partner converted to Islam shortly before we met, although he was also smoking cigarettes and drinking alcohol at the time. In the sixteen years we’ve been together, I can probably count the times he went to the masjid on one hand. When we got married, we each had our own clergy person, and his was an Imam. Still, my husband identifies generally as a Muslim. He’s stopped smoking and drinking for health rather than religious reasons, but the one strong prohibition he followed firmly in the early years of our relationship was not eating pork.

Which brings me to the salami. My daughter will be eating lunch with Aishah—who is best-friend material—and I don’t want there to be any pork. I had bought beef salami from the kosher deli, but it didn’t last as long as the packaged kind, which I could only find with pork, neither kosher nor halal.

My daughter has a number of close friendships with kids that are challenging. Great kids, but they are sometimes harsh with her, or show lightweight bullying behavior. She stands up to it, but those friendships are a struggle. I am hoping for her to learn about warmth and reciprocity in close relationships.

Kindness and empathy are hard lessons to find, these days. We have a president who is the king of bullies. He mocks the disabled, brags about assaulting women, and went into office with a court date for statutory rape. He is loved by white supremacists, and blames Jews for anti-Semitism. He is currently trying to ban Muslims from the US. His first attempt failed, but he has unveiled 2.0, better researched and more carefully drafted to withstand judicial scrutiny.

CNN’s Van Jones said “If a Muslim family moved in next door to you, you would be the happiest family in the world.” He notes how, “the Muslim community has the lowest crime rate, the highest entrepreneurship, the highest educational attainment for women in the country, they are the model American community.” Yet mosques are being targeted. So far in 2017, there have been two separate incidents of hate crimes against mosques right here in Northern California.

I can only imagine what Aishah’s parents are going through right now. Both of them move through the world in the traditional head coverings that mark them as Muslim. Perhaps they pray five times a day facing east, even when inconvenient. True faith is often inconvenient.

My own faith has been inconvenient, at times. These days, as a busy/working writer/mom, I don’t have much of a practice beyond a brief meditation in the morning, the occasional prayer when I’m anxious, and an altar to help me stop stressing about my writing career. My mother is Latina, and was raised Catholic. My father is black and was raised protestant. I was raised without any explicit religion, but found an eclectic mix of faith in my 20s—Buddhist, Afro-Christian, and Yoruba. (At our wedding, my clergywoman was a Yoruba priest.) I have taken my daughter to black churches many times when she was young and I needed to praise out my stress. We also celebrate many of the Jewish holidays (my stepfather is Jewish). Sometimes our family practices mindfulness. Sometimes we go to Yoruba rituals. I wanted my daughter to know all the faiths of her cultural and religious heritage. It has been much easier to expose her to Christianity than anything else, because it is dominant in our country. When she was three, I noticed that we had been to church more times than everything else put together. So I took her to the masjid, because I wanted her to know her father’s faith, as well—even if he didn’t take her. For weeks after, she would sometimes curl her body in the posture of supplication we had seen.

I teach college, and one of my Muslim students was recently talking about how her parents didn’t want her or her brothers to go to the mosque. The parents feared that their children could be targeted with violence. Aishah’s family lives in a suburb near Oakland that is overwhelmingly white—even as gentrification makes Oakland whiter every year. There are no mosques where they live. I wonder if anyone made them feel welcome when they moved in. I want to support my daughter’s relationships with this girl who is brown, friendly and supportive. I am grateful she has come into her life. I want this family to feel safe and welcome in this country, in this city.

I try to start with my daughter’s lunch.

I want Aishah to know, her family to know, that they could share our food if they were hungry. Kids that age can be so literal. My girl is new in school. We’re still making our first impression. I don’t want my daughter to offer her the meat of the infidel. I want her to offer respect, understanding—empathy. In an era where the highest office in the land is telling them they are unwanted, I want my daughter’s lunch to feel like a safe haven.

I pick around in the refrigerator and I see leftovers—old and current—lettuce that should go in tonight’s salad before it wilts. We’re running low on flaxseed. Then I see it. The square corner of a package, tan surface peeking through the plastic wrapping. Tofu! We are saved! I put the salami away and slice open the teriyaki tofu, cutting the block into strips. Praise god/Iba Orisa/Hallelujah/Inshallah. My daughter’s lunch will be halal after all.

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About the Author

Aya de León teaches creative writing at U.C. Berkeley. Kensington Books publishes her adult novels, her award-winning “Justice Hustlers” feminist heist series (which includes SIDE CHICK NATION, the first novel published about Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico), A SPY IN THE STRUGGLE, about a young Black woman FBI agent who infiltrates an African American political organization fighting for climate justice and Black Lives (out now), and QUEEN OF URBAN PROPHECY about women in hip hop, police violence and the climate crisis (out now). In October 2021, Aya published a young adult thriller about a pair of undocumented Dominican teen girls who uncover a kidnapping plot to stop the Green New Deal called THE MYSTERY WOMAN IN ROOM THREE. Given the climate emergency, this novel was too politically urgent for traditional publishing, so it was serialized in in six installments on Orion Magazine, and is available free of charge. In October 2022, her next young adult novel comes out from Candlewick Books, UNDERCOVER LATINA—about a 14-year-old spy who passes for white to stop a white nationalist terrorist—the first in a Black/Latina spy girl series. In spring 2022, Aya is producing a free online conference called Black Literature vs. The Climate Emergency at UC Berkeley African American Studies. Aya is also working on a memoir of her body that explores the intersection of food, body image, race, and the environment. Finally, her Justice Hustlers series has been optioned for television, and she is currently working on the pilot. Find her at

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