Latina Muslims in New York City
By Nichola Saminather
November 18, 2005
When Pamela “” now Aisha “” Munoz came to the United States from Bolivia five years ago in search of her true self, she didn’t imagine that it would involve a radical conversion away from her Roman Catholic roots.
Today, 17 months after she accepted Islam, she sits serenely on a metal bench in the bustling Queens Center Mall in Elmhurst, with her black hijab wrapped securely around her head. She has, she says, finally found what she was seeking.
Without the hijab “” the Muslim headscarf — she could be any 23-year-old Latina. Her shy, yet ready smile reveals the metal lines of retainers, giving her an air of vulnerability, of being thrust into adulthood before she was quite prepared to take it on.
In the cold weather, the fact that she is wearing jeans and a black long-sleeved turtleneck is not odd. But come summer, or when she takes the two children she baby sits to the swimming pool, her covered arms and legs stand out among the bikini- and shorts-clad women, even when she is not wearing her hijab. On the telephone, she speaks softly and respectfully, her South American accent at distinct odds with the Arabic expressions “” Salaam Alaikum, meaning peace be with you, and Insha Allah, meaning God-willing “” that pepper her conversations.
But Munoz says she is far more comfortable now than she ever was before she took her shahadah “” testifying that there is no God but Allah, and that Mohammad is the prophet of Allah, required for conversion to Islam. “I was always looking for a place to establish myself,” Munoz said. “I met some sisters, and they told me more about the religion. I fit in well. This is my place.”
And apparently, she is not the only Latina who feels at home in Islam. While the U.S. Census Bureau does not include religion in its survey questions, Islamic organizations such as the Council for American Islamic Relations and the Islamic Society of North America estimate that there are about 40,000 Latino Muslims, 0.6 per cent of the entire population. And this number is growing daily.
“It’s a strange phenomenon,” says Juan Alvarado “” who also goes by his Muslim name of Shafiq Muhammad “” one of the founders of LADO, the Latin American Dawah (invite) Organisation, which offers help and support to new Hispanic Muslims. “When I first became a Muslim in 1992, Hispanic Muslims were very few and far between. Now I hear about Hispanics converting or interested in converting every single day.”
Alvarado surmises that increasing interest in the religion after Sept. 11 may have given rise to increasing interest in Islam. “People are more aware of the Islamic world. People were like, “There’s this whole world we don’t know; we want to know why they attacked us; does it actually say that in the Quran?'”
Shamsia Ali, deputy Imam at the Islamic Cultural Center in Manhattan, which offers classes and support to people interested in Islam, said that 75 percent of the 153 people who have converted at the Center over the past year are young Latinas. They come from a religious background anyway, he said, so they are more inclined to religiosity. And they study Islam seriously, think about the ways of the religion, and decide that it is good for them to follow.
As for such a large number of converts being women, Ali said this is because, contrary to popular belief, Islam offers respect, care and protection for women.
Margarita Ng, Chinese by origin, but born and brought up in Venezuela until her move to the United States in 1992, agreed. Ng, 31, who took her shahadah three months ago, said one of the factors that attracted her to Islam was that women are considered equal to men, and, in some instances, even higher than men. “In the Hadith (Prophet Mohammed’s sayings), it says to respect your mother, respect your mother, respect your mother, and then respect your father,” she explained.
Ng, a real estate agent in New York, said she knows her husband “” when she gets married “” will be the head of her household. “But there’s always give and take in a relationship,” she said. “Just because he’s the head of the household doesn’t mean the woman has no say.”
And the requirements to cover the head and body do not make Islam oppressive, Ng said. Rather, it’s a means of protecting a woman. If a woman covers herself properly, it commands respect, she said.
Munoz agreed. “In Spanish, we say “libertina,’ someone who goes beyond just freedom,” she said. She proceeded to give an example. “One day, in the summer, I was wearing my veil. And there was another girl next to me, wearing a very, very short skirt. A guy behind her came up and touched her. He didn’t even look at me. When people dress like that, it asks for violation.”
Arelis Rodriguez, whose mother is Puerto Rican and father is from the Dominican Republic, is also a recent convert to Islam. Even before she took her shahadah three months ago, Rodriguez said she started to change things about herself, as she began reading voraciously about Islam after being introduced to it by a friend. She stopped drinking and partying and started to cover up more, she said.
And although Rodriguez, like Ng, only wears her hijab to the mosque now, she said she intends to start wearing it all the time after she changes her job, which she intends to do soon.
“It’s a bit difficult now where I work,” said Rodriguez, an accountant on Long Island. “I go out to clients and they wouldn’t be comfortable with me in my suit wearing a hijab.”
Rodriguez said she plans to find another job soon, where she will tell her employers from the beginning that she is a Muslim and about her intention of wearing her hijab to work.
These considerations make it more difficult for women to be Muslims, Alvarado said. Alvarado has two sons now, and said he is glad he has no daughters.
“Sisters have a hard time with people making fun of them or looking at them, staring at them,” Alvarado said. “Boys get to dress in regular clothes, so with the exception of their names, no one would think they’re Muslim. It makes it easier for us.”
The dressing issue, however, is not very high on the scale of problems. A bigger concern for many converts is how their own families react. Rodriguez has not told her parents that she has converted, although they seem to have figured it out on their own, as they see the changes in her lifestyle. Two of her sisters are supportive, and her mother has learned to accept it, she said.
Ng’s family wanted to kick her out of their home when she told them about her conversion, and only recently has her mother somewhat relented. “My dad’s given up,” she said.
Munoz said she found difficult to tell her family initially, but that they have accepted her conversion, although they themselves have not converted.
And although Alvarado brings up his sons as Muslims, his wife has refused to leave Catholicism for Islam.
The three women also face another problem “” their futures. Munoz is pursuing an associate’s degree in New Media Technology at LaGuardia Community College, and wants to return to Bolivia when she has finished. But, she will not date or marry a man who is not a Muslim, and there are very few Muslims in her home country. “I was thinking about this last night,” she said with a puzzled look. “What am I going to do?” And, sounding resigned, she answered her own question: “I don’t know.”
Getting married in the U.S. before moving to Bolivia is an option, she mused. But if she meets a Muslim man in the U.S., he might be from another country and want her to move back home with him. Or he might want to stay on in the U.S. and not move to Bolivia. “I know I have to start my own family,” she said. “But at the same time, what about my family?”
Ng’s story is complicated as well “” although she has grown up in Venezuela and the United States, her family will not accept anyone who is not Chinese. But, she will not marry anyone who is not Muslim, and a combination of the two is unlikely.
Rodriguez has told her family that she will only marry a Muslim man. “On this, they’ve been very, very supportive,” she said. “As long as I’m with someone who makes me happy, they’re fine.”
And wouldn’t the man’s family have trouble accepting her, as a Hispanic Muslim?
“I want to marry someone very religious,” Rodriguez replied. “If they are that way, then they should not have a problem. Islam encourages acceptance of others who are different.”
But one thing they all know “” whatever happens, wherever they go, Islam goes with them.