April - June 2006, Latino Muslims, USA

Latino Muslims in Chicago

By Juan Galvan

I have personally been blessed to have met several Latino Muslims from Chicago. I met Brother Ricardo Pena, Sister Diana Pena, and Brother Yahya Lopez in 2002 at the ISNA Latino Muslims Conference. Husband and wife, Brother Ricardo and Sister Diana, have been involved in the local Chicago Muslim community volunteering, for example, with the Inner-City Muslim Action Network (IMAN). Brother Yahya Lopez is responsible for translating much of the Spanish Islamic literature distributed by the Institute of Islamic Information and Education (III&E). A year later, I would meet Brother Edmund Arroyo who works extensively with the Nawawi Foundation. I would later meet Sisters Ruth Saleh in Dallas and Rebecca AbuQaoud in Chicago. These two sisters have been working together in organizing Latina Muslims in Chicago for over a decade.

It is perhaps quite logical that in time they would all come together to help found the Chicago Association of Latino American Muslims (CALAM). Latino Muslims in Chicago are a small but growing community. Latino Muslims in Chicago estimate that there are somewhere in the neighborhood of 500 to 1,000 Latino Muslims in the Chicago area but they do not know for sure. Latino Muslims in Chicago are from all kinds of Latino backgrounds from Mexican, Puerto Rican, Columbian to Brazilian, Peruvian, and more. Quite remarkably, Chicago with its rich history of Islam among Americans, particularly among African-Americans, has added a new chapter to that history with the inclusion of Latino Muslims.

The Chicago Association of Latino American Muslims (CALAM) is an organization dedicated to conveying the message of Islam to the Latino community in Chicago. CALAM organizes events, participates in local Latino festivals, distributes literature, and holds Islamic study classes. CALAM is an acronym that is phonetically equivalent to the Arabic word “Qalam”, which means “pen”. It is a very significant word for them in many ways.

The pen was mentioned in the very first revelation of the Quran to the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). In the Quran 96:1-5, God states, “Read! In the name of your Lord and Cherisher who created – Created man out of a clot of congealed blood: Proclaim! And your Lord is Most Bountiful, He Who taught (the use of) the Pen, Taught man that which he did not know.”

These blessed verses are the famous first five verses revealed to the Prophet (pbuh) at a time when he did not know he was to be appointed a Prophet and Messenger of God. Indeed, Islam was first introduced, even to him, with these very words. God “taught” Muhammad “that which he did not know.” He taught him that which is written by the Pen – our Holy Quran. And, today the Quran is preserved in the hearts and minds of Muslims.

Therefore, CALAM is a quite fitting name for these Latino Muslims who seek to introduce Islam to those who do not know, as the Quran eloquently explains. The pen, for them, represents knowledge, wisdom, and enlightenment. CALAM hopes to bring what the pen represents to Latinos. Embodied in this instrument is the concept and purpose for their organization. Consequently, the pen is the symbol they use for their logo.

From this commitment, CALAM encourages Muslims to travel the middle road and to avoid extremes, which is not limited to so-called “Islamic extremism.” They place an emphasis on traveling the middle road when it comes to our Deen, that is, our way of life. They encourage Muslims to be steadfast in what they believe and to be understanding when their brothers and sisters have a different opinion.

They encourage non-Muslims to explore Islam by exploring God in general. They believe that it makes no difference what the religions of this world have to offer if a person doubts the existence of God in the first place. After coming to the conclusion that the universe cannot exist without a Creator, they encourage a person to seek for God’s guidance by exploring Islam with sincerity. Only God knows what will happen after that. God guides whom He will.

CALAM is best known for their annual Latino Eid festivals. CALAM organizes festivals to celebrate the two most important holidays for Muslims, Eid Al’Fitr and Eid Al’Adha. CALAM organizes these two events because they believe that it is important for those with common backgrounds to connect and celebrate on these holidays. They also want to express the importance of these holidays to their children. They always make sure the children have a great time playing games and receiving presents. They also weave the Latino culture into the festival by bringing a variety of Latino foods in a potluck style dinner. And, of course, for the children, they bring out a piñata! The event has grown in tremendous popularity. Although they call it the “Latino Eid Festival,” all are welcome, and the event is by no means limited to Latinos.

The founders of CALAM hope to see it grow into an organization that can stand on its own in a significant way. They have learned what a true challenge it is to establish a Latino Muslim organization. They have been making slow progress because they are lacking serious funding and the dedication of free time by various members. On the positive side, they see their numbers growing more and more every year. Overall, they believe that founding CALAM has been a challenging yet rewarding experience. While the members of CALAM sustain its activities for the most part, with limited resources, they can only do so much. Some founders of CALAM fear that the dedication of its members will whither away. They know much work needs to be done towards introducing Islam to the Latino community and believe that Latino Muslims are the best capable for the job. Even if CALAM does not grow as an organization, they at least hope to keep up with what they are doing now. Insha’Allah.

Organizations such as CALAM are certainly needed to dispel common myths about Islam. A couple of summers ago, CALAM had a table under the community organization tent at the Puerto Rican Festival. They displayed a large banner with their organization’s name and website address. Signs were displayed that explained a few interesting facts that typically catch the interest of Latinos and that most Latinos do not know about, such as our belief in the Biblical Prophets. They also set literature out on the table to give away free.

One day at this five-day festival, a Puerto Rican lady stopped at their table. Without reading any of the signs posted, she asked who they were and what they were doing. Members kindly explained that they were a community of Latino Muslims and that they were there to introduce Islam to their fellow Latinos in an effort to build bridges of understanding in these times of confusion about Islam. Upon explaining that to her she said, “Oh…well…Muslims don’t believe in God. Right?” Moments such as these exemplify just how much work Latino Muslims have to accomplish.

May our Creator bless the Latino Muslims of Chicago with all that is needed to allow them to continue in their wonderful endeavor.