Oct - Dec 2003, Other

First Annual Chicago Latino Eid Festival

By Ricardo L. Pena

November 29, 2003

We’ve all heard the proverbial “apples and oranges” analogy at some point in our lives but not many of us experience it. As Latino converts to Islam, not only are we mixing apples with oranges, but we are mixing yet with another group. Maybe it would make more sense to describe ourselves as tacos living the lives of falafels in a world of cheeseburgers. Other than making you hungry, this is probably very confusing and maybe even uncomfortable. If this is the case, then this may begin to illustrate what it is like to venture into the world of Islam.

At first we were all confused yet we hungered and as we searched, we thirsted and even when we tasted a few morsels we wanted more. It was food for thought…nourishment for the mind and the soul. Eventually, we satisfied the cravings of our minds and the confusion went away. Our hearts were filled and yet we still hunger for the sweet taste of spiritual candy that is Islam because similar to the way our bodies function, our souls must eat no less than five times a day.

We found ourselves, then, struggling to uphold a daily regimen of Islamic practice in a place where being a minority meant we were a minority within the minority. A minority to the extent that we’ve felt and have actually been quite alone. Alone. Yet we know that where we see one there is a second and where we see two there is a third and where we see three there is a fourth. Time and again we have found solace in our faith and found strength in places we didn’t even know existed. Alhamdulilah.

It is this faith that has caused our numbers to grow. And indeed even as we felt alone, we found another and a couple of us found another few and after a time we were a group. This group of Latino brothers and sisters are scattered about in a sort of diaspora, and we long to be together. Never again do we want any of us to feel like that island in an ocean of everything but firm ground, fearing the tidal waves will overcome us.

Slowly but surely and with Allah’s (swt) permission, we will continue to make the effort to come together and grow. Then come together again and grow, but it must begin small. Indeed as the miraculous creation of man begins with one fertile microscopic cell, we too must begin with one. Let this one be the self. When we bring ourselves together with others of this Latino Muslim community, there is growth far beyond just our numbers. The heart grows fonder, our faith grows stronger, and our resolve grows deeper. And thus, it is in this context that we looked forward to bringing our families together in celebration of the end of the Holy month of Ramadan, Eid Al-Fitr. Our hearts danced with anticipation and our nerves wrestled with anxiety.

They say that beside every strong man, there is a strong woman where in our case it is a strong group of sisters. While the sisters in Chicago have forged a strong connection among themselves, the brothers have yet to come together in a similar fashion. Feeling the need to do this, Yahya Lopez, Edmund Arroyo, and I sought to strengthen ties amongst our brothers and found the support we needed in our sisters.

Rebecca Qaoud was instrumental in initiating the arrangements to reserve the banquet hall at the Muslim Community Center (MCC) on Elston Ave. in Chicago for our first annual Latino Eid Festival. She coordinated among the sisters to bring food to the event such that it was somewhat of a potluck buffet. Given that the sisters have already been connected and meeting on a regular basis their strength showed when our bellies were filled, and we found it difficult to resist a second or even a third plate.

Edmund Arroyo, who first mentioned the idea of gathering the Latino community for Eid to me last year, also came up with the idea of bringing a piñata for the kids. Yahya Lopez, who has been a Muslim since the early eighties, had also taught me that it is important to make our holidays a big deal for the kids. With all of corporate America putting the weight of their millions of dollars behind the push to get everyone into a holiday spending cheer, it is a challenge to teach our kids to look forward to our Islamic holidays above and beyond Christmas. Especially when most of us were raised Protestant or Catholic Christians, and our family members make Christmas a big deal for our Muslim children. They must be taught that it is Allah (swt) who is the giver of all gifts, and it is Allah (swt) who keeps track of who’s naughty or nice and that Allah (swt) has no need to check his list twice. Yes, it is as important to be connected for the children as it is for the adults if not more.

The time was set for 2pm, and it would go to about 5pm or so. It was a slow arrival in the beginning. My wife and I were the first to arrive with Yahya and his family arriving soon after. We set up the tables and chairs and began to set the agenda. We designated the left for brothers and the right for sisters. Slowly, the guests began arriving.

While most of the guests were Latino, some were White, African-American, Pakistani, and even a Philipino sister brought her three daughters. It was better than a melting pot. It was a beautiful basket of a variety of pleasing fruits. It wasn’t long before we sat engaged in the deep conversations that we have come to love. Yahya’s wife Fatima and my wife Diana took care of arranging the food on the tables among the many duties they performed to make sure things ran smoothly. Before long it was a sight sure to spark envy from any restaurant owner had she gotten a look at the spread.

Food included arroz con gandules, guacamole, meatloaf,
chicken wings in addition to biryani and red chicken.

There were also a number of non-Muslim families and individual guests who were invited and attended the event. It was a great dawah opportunity of which we gave in abundance. One young man came to the event seeking to meet converts having heard of the event from another Muslim friend. Another non-Muslim friend of mine who had been looking into Islam since the summer made wudu and joined us in prayer for the first time. He was inspired and encouraged by a brother he had just met named Angel Ramirez, a Puerto Rican Muslim who had converted, like Yahya, in the eighties.

Brothers and sisters took turns approaching the tables for food. We announced that the sisters would go first and when they cleared the way, the brothers got their food. Soon after we finished eating and indulging in a little dessert, we launched our fun-for-the-kids initiative.

Brothers getting food.

Edmund Arroyo donated the piñata and brought the rope and stick as well. It was in the shape of a seven-point star that, historically in Mexican culture, represents the seven deadly sins. The defeat of the seven deadly sins was soon to come with many rewards for the symbolic deed. The MCC has a children’s classroom across the hall that we were able to use for the purpose. Thankfully, all the little children’s chairs in the room were perfect. The kids were instructed to sit in their little chairs and wait patiently for their turn. I personally got a kick out of watching them struggle with their excitement as they sat and actually behaved extremely well hoping to be the next child to get a whack at the piñata.

Edmund and I each took an end of the rope, perched atop a couple of octoganal shaped tables across from each other and hoisted the shiny piñata in the air. Edmund did a great job of calling the children out one by one for their turn at battling this comet on a string. He started with the smallest kids and moved his way up. With about twenty-five kids in attendance, by the time we got to the fifteenth kid or so, the piñata was cracked open, and candy was all over the floor.

Kids waiting their turn.

The stampede was on, and we struggled to get the kids to sit back down lest they get whacked in the head with a stick. A couple of more kids got their turn, and Edmund put the piñata out of its misery ripping what was left of it apart and shaking all the candy out of it while the kids crowded around him gathering the booty in a candy-grabbing frenzy.

Candy grabbing frenzy.

The kids loved it and had a great time but it wasn’t over yet. We also brought out the bags full of toys to their surprise. We called out the kids in groups by age and handed out a toy to each child. While Yahya and I were very afraid we wouldn’t have enough toys, alhamdulilah every child walked away with a toy, and we had about three toys to spare in the end. The children laughed and played and had a wonderful time. It warmed our hearts to see them carefree and content.

Children are chock-full of energy that doesn’t just expend by itself. They simultaneously extract whatever energy is left in their parents while they happily run around having a grand ‘ol time. As a result, it was a cue that many of the parents took to take their leave. Slowly, a number of guests began to leave the party. Little by little, we cleaned up the banquet hall that the MCC was kind enough to let us use free of charge. We swept the floors, folded up the tables, put the chairs back where they were, all while a good dozen of guests were still there. Finding it difficult to stop their conversation, but helping us clean the place, the fact that they didn’t seek the first opportunity to leave was a testament to the success of our festival.

From left to right: Jenai, Vilma, and Diana.
Guys sitting at a table.

All of the guests gave positive feedback of the event. Some were pleasantly surprised anticipating that the event might’ve been quite the bore. Two Pakistani sisters loved the event saying it was the best gathering of Muslims they had attended in many, many years.

I personally had a great time. I’ve been keeping in touch with the young man who came to the event inquiring about Islam, met a couple of newly converted Latino Muslims at the event, and I have the pleasure of reporting that a couple of marriages may come about as a result of this event. While it was not intended as a match-making opportunity, it was a pleasant side-effect. I am looking forward to organizing the next event on Eid Al-Adha, insha’allah, with my Latino brothers and sisters.

With Allah’s (swt) blessing, we can raise the bar a little higher and enjoy further growth in this burgeoning community. Soon it may just be that we won’t feel like a fruit in the wrong basket. It may just be that we’re simply the fruit born of a tree that hasn’t been planted since the times of Andalusia. By the will of Allah (swt), the raining of his favor and the light of His mercy upon us, we shall come to see the day that the Andaulsian tree will rise once again.