Latino Conversion to Islam: From African-American/Latino Neighbors
to Muslim/Latino Global Neighbors
By Khalil Al-Puerto Rikani
In recent times, there has been a sudden increase of Latinos converting to Islam, both in the United States and within Latin America. This phenomenon has even reached the attention of some within the media. Despite an increase of Latino Muslims, there has not been (for the most part) a great effect to call the Latino population to Islam. Indeed, Muslims have a long way to go in when it come to calling Latinos to Islam. For those Muslims in the U.S. who are concerned with da`wah (calling to Allah), there are many unanswered questions as to how or why there has been an increase in the number of Latino Muslims. Chief amongst these unanswered questions is, “Under what factors and environment does Islam thrive?” While thinking of ways and approaches to better facilitate conversion to Islam, one is forced to ask himself/herself, “Why do Latinos convert to Islam?” One method of analysis that can be used to attempt to begin to answer some of these questions is the social sciences approach.
In this essay, I have tried to use the social sciences methodology of analysis to help better understand these processes which are taking place on a societal level to try to understand Latino conversion to Islam. Better understanding the factors that have lead Latinos to accept Islam at certain times and places can help assist Muslim du`aat (callers), organizations, masjids, and daw`ah groups to better facilitate the process of Latino conversion to Islam. This essay is an attempt to try and answer some of these unanswered questions. This however is just a beginning step to try and answer some of the important questions related to Latino conversion to Islam.
I will give a brief description of the history of Latino conversion. My analysis is based primarily upon my own personal and intimate knowledge and understanding of the history of Latino Muslims in New York. This understanding has broadened after coming in contact with the Latino Muslim community of Union City, New Jersey. I came in contact with the latter community in 2006. I have also come into contact with Latino Muslims in Puerto Rico in 1999 and 2006. Moreover, I have been in contact with Latino Muslims in the United States and throughout the world through the medium of the internet. However, it was after several visits to Union City that it became apparent to me that there are new factors leading Latinos to Islam. Thus, Latino conversion seems to have occurred in five key areas. These five areas are: (1) Puerto Rican/African-American interactions, (2) the internet, (3) Latinos living among immigrant Muslims, (4) prisons, and (5) marriage. The first three areas are time-based; the first occurred from the 1960s until the mid-1990s; the second phase began in the mid-1990s and continues until the present; and the third area began in the post-9/11 era. The last two areas are not based upon any particular period of time.
In this article, I have used the term ‘phase’ or ‘era’ when referring to the first three time-based areas. The use of these terms is most appropriate to divide these periods. I chose to use time as an appropriate way to divide these shifts. That is since like any other phenomenon phases, or periods of time do not necessarily have an easy point of demarcation. In other words, one phase may overlap into another phase. The mid-1990s and post-9/11 are significant points in time in which to express the major shift of conversion in the Latino community for the time-based sections of my essay.
II. PUERTO RICAN/AFRICAN-AMERICAN INTERACTIONS
The first area and phase touches upon the first Latinos who converted to Islam. Those Latinos who converted were mostly Caribbean Latinos – namely Puerto Ricans in the New York City area. The majority of the younger generation of Puerto Ricans of the 1960s were U.S. mainland-born and English-dominant. At the time, the Puerto Rican community was coming of age. Furthermore, Puerto Rican barrios and colonias (colonies) in New York City were not exclusive Latino communities, but tended to have large populations of African-Americans living within these same communities. The younger generation of Puerto Ricans was quite familiar and at home with the issues affecting African-Americans and shared much of the same concerns (such as racism, discrimination, housing, education, prisons, and poverty). There was a high level of intertwining and intermingling of traditional Caribbean Hispanic and African-American cultures amongst young Puerto Ricans. This can be seen in the Puerto Rican musical creations of the era, such as in the musical genres of Latin soul, Latin boogaloo, and even salsa.
Politically, the greatest influence on these young Puerto Ricans was the Black Consciousness movement of the 1960s and 1970s. It helped to spark a Puerto Rican movement in the 1960s and 1970s. In that era, conversion to Islam for Latinos, as with African-Americans, was a continuation of the Civil Rights and Black Power movements. (See Imam Al-Amin’s Revolution by the Book). These movements were not unfamiliar to Puerto Ricans in New York, and many of them were at the forefront of these movements. In addition, Puerto Ricans and African-Americans shared many commonalities and shared spaces in neighborhoods, parks, schools, prisons, and nightclubs. They are both, “New York’s quintessential resident minorities.” (Rivera, 45). That is not to say that all was harmonious between the two communities, however, there was more in common than there was different. Nonetheless, there was also a common historical connection to Africa. This is due to the fact that Puerto Rican culture has many of its roots within African culture. This is as a result of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, when many African slaves (or runaway slaves from neighboring islands) came to Puerto Rico. (For more on African roots as part of the foundation of Puerto Rican culture, see José Luis Gonzalez’ “El Pais de Cuatro Pisos”).
The first Latinos who became Muslims were mainly Puerto Ricans in New York. Prior to accepting Islam, a sizeable amount of Puerto Ricans had taken part in such groups as the Nation of Islam, Malcolm X’s (Malik Ash-Shabazz) group, The Five Percent Nation, the Black Panther Party, and the Young Lords Party. These groups can be seen as pre-cursers or (to borrow a term from Sherman A. Jackson) “Islamizers” to Islam. (Jackson, 28). The Young Lords Party, unlike all the other organizations mentioned, was a Latino-dominated organization. The Young Lords Party was originally part of the former Chicago gang-turned-political organization known as the Young Lord Organization. It was the culmination of the Black Consciousness Movement, the Students’ Movement, and the Puerto Rican Independence Movement.
Due to the close proximity of Puerto Ricans to African-Americans – culturally, politically, racially, and most importantly demographically – Latinos began to learn about Islam. This is an important point that cannot be overlooked. Puerto Ricans actually lived next to African-Americans in many parts of New York City in such neighborhoods as East Harlem, the South Bronx, the Lower East Side (Loisaida), Hell’s Kitchen, Williamsburg, Brooklyn Navy Yard, and Bushwick. In fact, Puerto Ricans in New York live in closer proximity to African-Americans and have closer ties to them than any other Latino community in the country. With the movement of Islam (and pseudo-Islamic groups) among African-Americans, in this era, it was only inevitable that Puerto Ricans would also become Muslim. This reality may explain why the oldest Latino Muslim group, Alianza Islamica, was started by Puerto Ricans in New York and not by other Latino in another part of the country.
For Puerto Ricans in New York City, Islam was an outgrowth and product of the era of change and struggle from which they and African-Americans participated. Besides the political and cultural factors, history played a big role in informing these early Latino Muslims about a Muslim past coming from two lines of Puerto Rican heritage, namely Africa and Spain. As far as the conversion of Latinos in other parts of the United States, such as in California and Texas, the author does not know how far back conversion can be traced. The Chicano Movement of the 1960s and 1970s may have had a similar effect on the Latinos from the Southwest. However, that is something to be further explored.
The first area and phase of Latino conversions also took place chiefly in the 1960s and 1970s. There was somewhat of a continuation of this movement in the 1980s and 1990s, but it was not as pronounced it was in the two preceding decades. Those Latinos who came to Islam in this later period looked towards the movements of the 1960s and 1970s with a sense of pride and honor. Those who converted in the 1980s and 1990s may or may not have participated in the then-defunct organizations of the former period. The 1980s and 1990s saw the rise hip-hop, the direct descendant of the Civil Rights, Black Power, and the wider Black Consciousness movements of the 1960s and 1970s. It played a huge role in the conversion of Latinos in the short-lived Consciousness Movement (not to be confused with the Black Consciousness Movement) within hip-hop in the late 1980s. The fact that Puerto Ricans were co-founders of hip-hop is also very relevant to my analysis.
Looking at the role of Puerto Ricans in hip-hop can give us much insight into the rifts and widening gap between Latinos and African-Americans in the post-Black Consciousness period. It may also be argued that the Consciousness Movement within hip-hop could have also ostracized Latinos away from hip-hop. During the late 1980s, Puerto Ricans had been written out of hip-hop’s history. (For more on New York Puerto Ricans’ role in early hip-hop, see Raquel Rivera’s New York Puerto Ricans from the Hip Hop Zone). The Consciousness Movement within hip-hop espoused an African-American urban identity and had no room for Latinos. With the rise of Gangsta Rap in the 1990s, hip-hop exposed and glorified a ghettoistic identity. Newly arriving Latinos and those already living within the U.S. who wanted to get ahead in life would not look towards hip-hop (in this new form) as a good model for progress and self-development. This stigma attached to hip-hop, and by extension African-American culture, was a model that was seen as one not to emulate if one wanted to become successful in the U.S. By extension this stigma, therefore led to a stagnation of Latino conversion to Islam. Islam even within the African-American community was no longer seen as a way of life that African-American youth wanted to embrace. The lifestyle of Dr. Dre and not Malcolm X was the one that African-American youth aspired to emulate. Gangsta Rap had a devastating effect on the African-American community. The glorification of ghettoism (in all negative senses of the term) has led many young African-Americans to not look beyond the ghetto and progress within life. Unfortunately, African-American culture became synonymous with ghettoism. Both African-American youth and those outside of the African-American community viewed ghettoism as the only authentic expression of African-American culture, as opposed to the vast shades of expressions of African-American culture that truly exists.
III. THE INTERNET
The second area and phase of Latino conversion to Islam began during the mid-1990s. In this phase, Latino conversion was a direct result of the explosion of the internet. With this explosion, many Latinos have gotten connected to other people around the world. Latinos were no longer living within their own isolated worlds of New York, California, Mexico City, San Juan, Buenos Aires, Bogotá or Caracas. Prior to having access to the internet, they may have never met a Muslim; but now they were in communication with Muslim peoples through the medium of the internet. This communication was not exclusive to cross-border communication but also included intra-border communication. For example, a Latino from San Antonio, Texas could now easily meet a Muslim from Dearborn, Michigan, as a result of this new medium. This evidences to the fact that two individuals from two different communities within the continental United States could meet, exchange ideas, and share each others culture. Latinos communicating to Muslims took place both within the United States and between Latin America and the Muslim World. Due to this new medium of communication, more people had greater access to information about Islam and Muslims. The technological age and global exchange continues until the present. The internet still tends to be a principal medium and factor which has led many Latinos to Islam in the U.S. and Latin America. Within the Latino Muslim community new groups arose to accommodate these new Muslims within this space. The Yahoo! group Latino American Dawah Organization (LADO) is a prime example of Latino Muslims who banded together to speak about Islam on a national and even international level. (See http://groups.yahoo.com/group/LADO/ or http://www.latinodawah.org/ for more information on this group).
IV. LATINOS LIVING AMONG IMMIGRANT MUSLIMS
After September 11, 2001, many Latinos wanted to learn more about Islam. This leads us to the third area or factor to consider in Latino conversion to Islam. That horrible event had led many to go out and speak to Muslims and/or go to the internet searching for answers. This phase (as well as the second one) also saw a greater diversity in the ethnic, national, and racial background of Latinos converting to Islam. In the post-9/11 period, we also saw the increase of non-Puerto Rican Latinos coming to Islam. Formally Puerto Ricans from New York had dominated Latino Islam. Ironically, in the post 9/11 period, New York Puerto Ricans seem to be the least affected among all Latino groups by this new wave of conversion. I would even argue that although New York Puerto Ricans (by this I mean those born and/or raised in New York, even if no longer living there) were once the main Latinos converting to Islam (and truly pioneers) they are now the least likely to convert to Islam. There is also no longer a Latino Muslim organization that is dominated by Puerto Ricans. This era also saw the decline and eventual dissolving of Alianza Islamica, a Muslim organization that early New York Puerto Rican Muslims helped establish.
Although the earliest Latino converts to Islam were Puerto Ricans, the whole nature of the lifestyle in New York and the country has changed drastically since the 1960s and 1970s revolutionary era (discussed earlier in the first phase). Nowadays, what we see is that Islam is not as strong in the African-American community, as it once was in the 1970s. This has had a spill-over effect on the Puerto Rican community. There seems to be a short-term memory amongst Puerto Ricans that cannot remember that in the recent past there was a sizeable number of Puerto Rican Muslims amongst them.
During the post 9/11 phrase, many Latinos coming to Islam live near Muslims or know at least one Muslim. The immigration of Muslims after the immigration reform of 1965 has led to the formation of large immigrant Muslim communities. In our times, the primary contact that Latinos have come to Islam is through their interaction with Arab and Pakistani/Indian Muslims. In places like New Jersey, Latinos share neighborhoods with Arabs. Latinos live with and amongst Arabs in many places. Latinos interaction with Arabs has led to conversion in such places as Sunset Park, Brooklyn; Union City, New Jersey; and Puerto Rico. While in other places as Queens, New York and Chicago, Illinois there are a lot of Latinos interacting with Muslims from the Indo-Pakistani subcontinent.
In the post-9/11 period, most Latinos have come to learn about Islam primarily from their interactions with immigrant Muslims and not from African-Americans. This phenomenon can be seen with the rise of Latino Islam in cities such as Union City, New Jersey which has had large numbers of Latinos converting to Islam. There are also many new non-Puerto Rican Latinos within New York City converting to Islam. As stated earlier, some of these Latino communities, such as in Queens, New York, live in close proximity to Muslims – especially those from the Indo-Pakistani subcontinent. A parallel development is the fact that New York City is currently seeing a decrease in the population of Puerto Ricans. The relationship between New York Puerto Rican migration away from New York to other parts of the country (such as Florida) and the decrease in Puerto Rican conversion is yet to be explored. Nowadays, those who are converting to Islam are not, for the most part, New York Puerto Ricans. The fact that many Puerto Rican Muslims have moved out of the city and that there is not a stable epicenter for Puerto Ricans is one factor, however there may be many other reasons for this lack of conversion among Puerto Ricans. The question of Puerto Rican conversion to Islam with the greater study of Latino conversion must keep in mind that, “[t]his momentous pan-Latinization over the course of a single generation make is necessary to rethink the whole issue of Puerto Rican culture and identity in the United States.” (Flores, p. 142).
The fourth area of Latino conversion is conversion in prison. This area and the last one are not restricted to any particular time period. However, there is some relationship to various points in time which will be discussed. Prison conversion tends to also be an area that is exclusive to male Latinos. Latino conversion to Islam in prison, to a large degree, depends upon the level of exposure Latino have had to Islam in prison. It, like the first area of Latino conversion discussed earlier, is closely related to relations between Latinos and African-Americans. These relations have had ups and downs in various places and at various times throughout the United States. Two factors are relevant to this factor of conversion: (1) African-American have been and still are the largest ethnic group of Muslims within the United States; (2) African-Americans and Latinos statistically make up the largest ethnic groups within the United States penal system. These two factors have to be considered for a full understanding of Latino conversion in the United States.
Latino conversion to Islam has been higher when Latino and African-American shared struggles have been higher. The mere shared sense of oppression does not necessarily help for good relations between the two ethnic groups. It is when there is a level of consciousness amongst Latinos and African-Americans having a shared lot within side the prison walls that Islam can be studied and explored by Latinos. Perhaps the highest point of time for Latino conversion was when there was a united front around prisoner’s struggles and rights during the 1971 Attica Correctional Facility riot in upstate New York and the 1971 San Quentin State Correctional riot in California. These riots were the result of a shared struggle. Prior to these uprisings, both African-Americans and Latinos suffered from inhumane treatment by White correctional officers. At the time, indiscriminant killings were quite common. African-Americans and Latinos struggled just to stay alive. Some of the thirty-one demands of the leaders of the Attica riots were gains for all African-American, Latinos, and Muslims in prison. It was after this historical event that Muslims were given some of the most basic rights in prison.
There are many cultural similarities that can be considered for this area of Latino conversion that are not dissimilar to the first area discussed in this essay. While during the late 1960s and 1970s there were many ties between African-Americans and Latinos both on the streets of New York City and inside the prison system of New York State; this was not the case in places such as Chicago and California, for example. In the latter places mentioned, Latino/African-American ties were not as strong “on the outside” as they were “in the inside” of prison walls. So how can we account for Chicano conversions during the period the 1960s and 1970s time of Civil Rights struggles? Whereas Latino conversion in New York at this time was an extension of African-American/Latino coalitions and ties on the streets, Latino conversion by Chicanos was an anomaly of the situation (for the most part) on the streets. The situation of the shared situation in prison forced Latinos and African-Americans to become more united against a common nemesis (i.e., racist White prison guards and a racist prison industrial complex). This area of shared struggle has lead to and allowed Islam to spread among Chicanos, and it has also led to conversion at various times among many different Latino nationalities throughout the country.
Another example of an African-American and Latino front that had prison roots is the “Rainbow Coalition” of Chicago in the late 1960s and 1970s. This was a coalition between the Black Panthers, an African-American group; the Young Lords Organization, a Puerto Rican group; and the Young Patriots Organization, a White group. The Young Lords originated as a Puerto Rican gang, but became politicized when its leader, José “Cha-Cha” Rodriguez was imprisoned. During his imprisonment he met the leader of the Chicago chapter of the Black Panthers, Fred Hampton. It was after discussions with Fred Hampton that Chi-Chi decided to transform his gang from a criminal organization to a political one for the betterment of his community.
While good relations between Latinos and African-Americans has had a positive effect upon Latinos converting to Islam, conversely decreased relations between Latinos and African-Americans has lead to a decreased Latino conversion or the non-existence thereof. This was the case during the late 1980s in the New York State prison system. At the time, relations between African-Americans and Latinos in the urban centers were at one of the lowest they have ever been. Competition for resources, increased schisms between the two groups, and “scrounging for crumbs” from the government were not an isolated situation for “the outside,” but this bad state of affairs spilled over into the prison communities of the state. Latinos in prison not only felt oppression from “the man,” but they were also being greatly wronged by African-Americans. To further compound the problem, not only did African-American enjoy a higher status in the prison social hierarchy, but African-American Muslims or African-American pseudo-Muslims were at the very top. Many Latinos looked upon Islam as a “Black thang” (i.e., an exclusively African-American religion) that had not place for Latinos. African-Americans in the prison system professed a more narrow vision of Black Nationalism (read African-American nationalism). This narrow vision was quite different from the more Pan-African Nationalism or Third-World Consciousness movements that made room for Puerto Ricans or other Latinos in the 1960s and 1970s.
The terrible relations between Latinos and African-Americans at that time even promoted the spread of the Latin Kings gang in the New York State penal system, which further compounded the situation between the two groups. The Latin Kings came about as an organization for protection of Latinos from African-Americans injustices. (Brotherton and Barrios, 97-98). After spreading throughout New York State prisons, it spread to the streets of New York. Despite a less hostile (though not that less hostile) state of affairs between African-Americans and Latino “on the outside,” the situation was not nearly as brutal. Nonetheless, during this time, Islam was far from being considered a viable option for many Latino males who were at one time “locked up” in prison.
Despite the type of situation at that time in New York, the relatively good treatment (or perceived thereof) of African-American Muslims or pseudo-Muslims in relation to other inmates has also had a slightly positive effect upon Latino conversion. Muslims in the prison system tended to eat better and have a more tightly-knit brotherhood that could defend fellow believers. This higher status has prompted a small number of Latinos to accept Islam in prison. Unfortunately, most of those Latinos who came to Islam seeking a better lot “on the inside” did not remain long in the fold of Islam “on the outside.”
Another matter that needs to be considered in this discussion of Latino conversion vis-à-vis Latino/African-American relations is the percentage of Muslims among African-American in a given area. Islam among African-Americans in the United State has traditionally been stronger in urban communities of the Northeast. Outside of the Northeast, there are also large pockets of African-American Muslim communities in places such as Chicago and Los Angeles. In places where Islam has been weak or hardly existent among African-Americans it has naturally, by extension, been likewise among Latinos.
The last area of Latino conversion to Islam is conversion through marriage. It is not related to any particular time or place. The Latinos who have converted to Islam through marriage are almost always females. Data for this type of convert is much harder to tract. Latinas who have married Muslim men are of two main categories: those who converted just before marriage and those who converted after marriage. Those who converted to Islam just before marriage (or more accurately as a pre-condition for the marriage contract) have ranged from those who are only nominally Muslims (and may have returned to their former religion if the marriage were to cease) and those who have become very piously devout Muslims. A similar issue which could be explored is conversion and the relationship between divorce and retention in Islam. While there are those who became nominally Muslim, there are also those who have been very devout and committed Muslims yet had a very difficult marriage, and as a result when the marriage ended they may have become nominal Muslims or have even apostatized from Islam.
The first Latina Muslim converts through marriage have been Puerto Ricans who married African-American men in places such as New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. Latinas (of many nationalities) continue to marry African-American Muslims. In addition, after 1965, when Muslims as well as many different Latino nationalities started to immigrate to the United States in large numbers, marriage between Latinos and immigrant Muslims also took place. Since Arab and Indo-Pakistani Muslims have been the two largest immigrant groups, naturally marriage between them and various Latino groups have been the largest among marriages with immigrant Muslims. Therefore, Latinas converting to Islam have not been confined to marrying any particular Muslim ethnic group, but marriage has occurred more with African-American Muslims, Arab Muslims, and Indo-Pakistani Muslims simply because those are the largest Muslim groups in the United States. Latinas who have converted to Islam through marriage have been for the most part exogamous marriages, whereas endogamous ones have less been less common. Ironically, conversion due to Latinas marrying Latino Muslims has not occurred as often as marriage to non-Latino Muslims.
In conclusion, the connection Hispanic (in the broadest sense of the word) peoples have to Islam and Muslims is not something new. Muslims ruled Spain for over 800 years. Some Latinos also have a connection to Islam through Africans ancestors. There are many aspects of Latino culture that have its roots in the Muslim civilization of Spain. In the second half of the twentieth century, Latinos have reconnected to Islam in the United States. Globalization has allowed Islamization of Latinos to occur at an ever-increasing rate. The future is yet to be seen as to how deeply rooted Islam will become in the Latino communities of the United States and Latin America. Latino conversion to Islam is not quite different than other ethnic group converting to Islam in America. There are, however, many particularities to Latino conversion to Islam that needs to be further explored. This essay is the result of my own research, interactions, and experiences. If there is anyone out there who would like to be interviewed or would like to share their experiences or would like to contribute information about Latino Muslims and/or Latino conversion in his/her area, so that I can further refine thesis in future essays he/she can e-mail me at jazirapr2 at yahoo.com. I am also extremely open to hearing from those whom disagree with anything I have stated in this essay. La paz sea con aquellos que siguen la guía.
Al-Amin, Imam Jamil, “Revolution by the Book: The Rap Is Live” (Beltsville, Maryland: Writers’ International, 1993).
Brotherton, David C. and Reverend Luis Barrios, “The Almighty Latin Kings and Queens Nation: Street Politics and the Transformation of a New York City Gang” (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004).
Flores, Juan, “Pan-Latino/Trans-Latino: Puerto Ricans in the ‘New Nueva York,’” From Bomba to Hip-Hop: Puerto Rican Culture and Latino Identity (New York: Columbia University, 2000).
Gonzalez, José Luis, “El Pais de Cuatro Pisos (Notas para una Definición de la Cultura Puertorriqueña,” El Pais de Cuatro Pisos y Otros Ensayos (Río Piedras, Puerto Rico: Ediciones Huracán, 2001), pp 11-42.
Jackson, Sherman A., “Islam and the Blackamerican: Looking Toward the Third Resurrection” (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005).
Rivera, Raquel Z., “New York Ricans from the Hip Hop Zone” (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003).