Community Bonds After Mosque Arson in PBS Docuseries “A Town Called Victoria”

The three-part docuseries tells the story of the Victoria community’s response and how the mosque was rebuilt, all while providing context about the region’s history of racism and xenophobia.

Community Bonds After Mosque Arson in PBS Docuseries “A Town Called Victoria”
The docuseries follows the aftermath of a local mosque burning to the ground in an apparent hate crime. After the arson, the town of Victoria must overcome its age-old political, racial and economic divides to find a collective way forward.

The PBS docuseries "A Town Called Victoria" (2023) explores the aftermath of a 2017 mosque arson in a close-knit Texas community. The Victoria Islamic Center, the sole mosque in a 100-mile radius, was set ablaze just hours after President Trump's executive order targeting majority-Muslim countries.

It was quickly determined that the fire was no accident. Marq Vincent Perez, a Victoria resident who was 24 at the time, was charged with arson, which federal authorities deemed a hate crime. Perez is currently serving a prison sentence of more than 24 years.

But “A Town Called Victoria” tells more than the story of Perez’s arson, not allowing the town to be condensed to the crime. The three-part docuseries tells the story of the Victoria community’s response and how the mosque was rebuilt, all while providing context about the region’s history of racism and xenophobia. The documentary follows the leaders of the mosque — Abe Ajrami, Omar Rachid and founder Dr. Shahid Hashmi — as well as other figures in the community. Also interviewed are Perez’s parents, who maintain their son’s innocence.

Director Li Lu, a Houston native, emphasizes the small-town dynamics of Victoria, influencing the shape of the community. The members of Victoria’s mosque are a mix of converts to Islam and immigrants and refugees from SWANA countries who now call the city home.

In a recent interview with The LA Times, Li discussed her docuseries, highlighting how the events in Victoria mirror divisive national politics and reveal strain on communities. She also mentioned the late cinematographer Halyna Hutchins, who worked on the series, making it one of her posthumously released projects.

In "A Town Called Victoria," Lu, discusses how the 2016 election cycle transformed small communities like Victoria, emphasizing the relational ties crucial in such close-knit environments. The documentary explores the tight-knit Muslim community's integration into Victoria and their struggles with how other members of their community perceive them. The film also delves into the unity among different faiths in supporting the Islamic Center after the arson, contrasting with dissenting voices.

Lu touches on the complexity of Perez's identity as a Latino suspect, highlighting the nuanced conversation around assimilation and marginalized communities.  "A Town Called Victoria" portrays the tensions during Perez's trial, suggesting a potential bias against him as a person of color. Lu reflects on these broader implications, drawing parallels with national events like the Jan. 6 insurrection.

In the interview, Lu also addresses the role of political leaders in shaping perceptions and the responsibility they share. Regarding the Islamic Center members, she notes a sense of loss despite rebuilding the mosque, emphasizing the documentary's bittersweet ending. And ultimately, Lu pays tribute to cinematographer Halyna Hutchins, emphasizing her impact on the project and her dedication to justice.

You can read Lu’s full interview here.

“A Town Called Victoria” is now available on PBS.