Evolution of the Latino American Dawah Organization
By Juan Alvarado
Since childhood I always noticed that I was spiritual to say the least. I was baptized, did my communion and confirmation. I was even an altar boy. By the time I was 19, I renounced Christianity once and for all due to my lack of belief in the basic teachings of Christianity. However, I continued my search for truth. This search led me to read on a non-stop basis, something that I still do. After studying Islam for a couple of years, I was sufficiently comfortable that I decided to convert in 1992. The only twist in my conversion story is that I took two shahadas rather than one because of my experience with a Black Nationalist movement called the Ansar cult, or the Nubian Islamic Hebrews. Thankfully, a Latino Muslim brother noted my error and gave me a book by Bilal Philips about the Ansars called, “The Ansar Cult in America.” I lasted two years in this movement before taking my shahada with Alianza Islamica in El Barrio in Spanish Harlem.
In the late nineties, I was a savvy Internet chatterbox. I would look for any Islamic chat rooms and message boards on AOL. Their message boards were very active at that time. The Islam message boards used to have 100 posts a day – from Muslims, talking about Islam, which is certainly not the case now. I’d say the year was 1996. There were many people online; each person had many opinions. We would discuss Middle Eastern and world politics and all aspects about Islam – the permissible and forbidden, questions and answers, rebuttals, etc. In this melee of ideas, many non-Muslims visited just to disrespect Islam saying some of the most audacious things. However, many non-Muslims were interested in Islam or at the very least were tolerant and respectful of our different beliefs. They were there to learn about Islam, Muslims, Islamic culture, the Middle East and/or specific Islamic countries.
During those times, I was happy to have met many, very good people. I learned much about Islam from many knowledgeable Muslims. I also learned about the bad things that happen within cultures that claim to be Islamic but are not. As a Muslim revert, I can only hope to show others the beauty of Islam and somehow incline them toward Islam. In the Qur’an 16:125, Allah SWT states, “Invite (all) to the Way of thy Lord with wisdom and beautiful preaching; and argue with them in ways that are best and most gracious: for thy Lord knoweth best, who have strayed from His Path, and who receive guidance.” Allah SWT guides whom He wills. I love Islam, and I would like others to love Islam, too. As such, I have tried to find ways to disseminate Islam. I have come across non-Muslims interested in Islam, and I have spoken with them at length trying to answer all of their questions. I have had some great online/written conversations, too.
Among the good people that I met was a young lady interested in Islam. She was a Bronx native like myself named Samantha Sanchez. She was not yet a Muslim. She was a graduate student writing her master’s thesis about Hispanics coming to Islam. I was one of her thesis interviewees. Samantha’s inspiration to seriously begin learning more about Islam happened after coming across an acquaintance on campus. Samantha couldn’t believe her eyes. While standing in the middle of a Jesuit college campus, she was dressed in modest clothing with her hair covered. “How? When? Why?” Samantha asked herself. From that moment on, she was hooked, but not on Islam. She was hooked on finding out why a Latina would choose Islam.
After answering those questions, the Latina Muslimah told Samantha that she would give her a book about Islam. They promised to stay in touch. After reading that book, she made an intense study of the Qur’an and Islam. She also contacted various new Muslims online including myself. After many conversations, I noted that Samantha was clearly seeing the light of Islam. I don’t remember exactly when she decided to become a Muslim. There is no doubt she was on a quest for the truth. I encouraged her in her quest as I would anyone interested in Islam. We must in any case thank Allah SWT for opening her heart and giving our Ummah such an educated lady. We continued our online friendship and conversations for more than a year.
Saraji Umm Zaid met Samantha through another sister who had met her on the AOL message boards. Saraji was very active on the Islam message boards. She was one of the most intelligent Muslims on the boards. She would answer tough questions, respond to various misconceptions, and give advice to anyone interested in Islam. Although Saraji made her shahada as a teen in private, someone insisted that her first shahada needed witnesses for it to be valid with Allah SWT. She renewed her shahada with a Latina sister from New Jersey in 1997. A few days later Saraji found out that Samantha had made her shahada on the same day at the large Islamic Center in Queens.
Little by little, a group of Muslims had developed, which had the ambition of spreading this deen to others. Together, we immediately recognized the need for some type of group that would cater Islam to the unique Hispanic community within the United States. We were not quite sure how we could accomplish this. Nevertheless, we exchanged thoughts, articles, and topics of interest through e-mail. This was in effect our first Latino Muslims e-mail newslist. We all recognized that communication would be a prerequisite for the cooperation needed to begin a national grassroots organization among Hispanics. In the beginning, we were in a quandary as to what we could do. Many ideas were up in the air. We came to an agreement that we needed an organization that would encourage Latino Muslims from around the United States to work together to fulfill their common needs. By identifying those needs, the organization would struggle diligently to fill the void. Consequently, the organization and anyone interested in dawah to Latinos would have a sense of direction.
Our hope was to establish an organization that would give credence and assistance needed to succeed. Insh’Allah. For example, an organization of this scope would help bring more participants into dawah work. Our requests about the need for Spanish Islamic literature would also be more likely to be acknowledged. At the time, very little attention was paid to any converts to Islam, let alone Latinos. We wanted it to be an organization where Latinos could speak for themselves. As Saraji said, “I wanted something established so that by the time my daughter was old enough to think for herself and notice how the world works, she would see Latinos represented in the Ummah.” On a more personal level, we hoped that by working with this type of organization we would become better Muslims, as our ideals would be put into practice. Each of us could contribute our own unique skills and knowledge.
Next, we needed to come up with a name. We wanted to choose something that would express our ethnic and religious identity as Latinos/Hispanics and as Muslims. We also wanted to emphasize that this would be an Islamic organization whose primary purpose would be dawah and education to Latinos. The word ‘lado’ came to Saraji’s mind after a few hours of trying to think of an acronym that would mean something in Spanish. From the word ‘lado’, she came up with Latino American Dawah Organization. Today, our organization is known by most Muslims as simply “LADO” and as “The LADO Group.” In Spanish, LADO is known as “El Grupo LADO.” The acronym LADO means ‘side’ in Spanish.
Samantha came up with “¡A su LADO!” as a motto, which in English means “At your side!” By 2001, the motto evolved to become the following: “¡Puro Latino! ¡Puro Islam! ¡A su LADO!” Far from being an exclusive club, membership is open to all Muslims regardless of race. Members are also actively encouraged to assist, join, and even begin other Muslim organizations. LADO emphasizes a full-fledged, comprehensive dawah effort toward Latinos. Encouraging Latino Muslims to organize to enhance dawah opportunities is one aspect of that effort. Hence, “¡Puro Latino!” With dawah, though, comes responsibility. By continuously learning and practicing Islam, we seek to become better Muslims and hence preserve the teachings of the Qur’an and Sunnah. Hence, “¡Puro Islam!” And of course, LADO is at your side!
LADO is a grassroots organization founded in September 1997 by a handful of Latino converts to Islam in New York City. “¡A su LADO!” is the essence of our mission statement. LADO’s mission is “to promote Islam among the Latino community within the United States by becoming better-educated Muslims and by working with like-minded Muslims.” We openly acknowledge and emphasize the importance of education and cooperation as a prerequisite to dawah efforts. In Islam, the most important way of identifying ourselves is by belief. Therefore, part of our mission statement includes a statement of Islamic faith. Patiently, we will work with what we have today, actively working for a better tomorrow. As stated in the Qur’an 13:11, “Verily Allah will not change the condition of people until they change it themselves.”
Thousands of miles away, a person with a similar story to ours became interested in LADO. Juan Galvan was introduced to Islam after seeing a Hispanic Muslim in prostration. Juan wondered, “What’s this Hispanic guy doing praying to Allah?” Juan had many questions, which the brother patiently answered. Juan instinctively knew that this was what he was looking for because it answered life’s unanswerable questions. However, he would continue studying Islam for three more years before officially embracing Islam. After taking his shahada, he pondered why there seemed to be few Latino Muslims in Texas. From these types of questions came his eagerness to serve Allah SWT.
After deciding to work with LADO in 2001, Juan Galvan began finding Muslims to work with him by contacting various Muslims from Texas and around the United States. One Latina Muslimah from Oklahoma couldn’t believe Juan wanted to be part of a national Muslim organization. She sent him an e-mail stating that Islam is about beauty in small deeds. She said that the best way to be a good caller to Islam is to be a good Muslim. Like most new Muslims, her conversion was marked with small, good deeds along the way. Her journey toward Islam began in college when a classmate answered her questions about Islam. Her questions led to deeper discussions about Islam. She was given Islamic literature. She was invited and later driven to a mosque. She was taught how to wear hijab. After taking shahada, she was taught how to pray. She has received and continues to receive many words of encouragement. Most Muslims consider the conversion of each non-Muslim special and beautiful. This Latina was concerned that large Muslim organizations would cheapen that beauty. Our intention is not to make conversion less special but rather to show the beauty of Islam to more people, so that they may also see the beauty of Islam. And, there are many things that one person cannot do alone.
As LADO members, we seek only the pleasure of Allah. We pursue opportunities only for Allah, not for LADO or for our own selves. Like the disciples of Jesus PBUH said in the Qur’an, “We are Allah’s helpers. We believe in Allah. And do bear witness that we are Muslims.” (3:52). We seek to aid all Muslims and non-Muslims by sharing the beauty of Islam as expressed in our mission statement. Because few materials are available to the Spanish-speaking and Portuguese-speaking communities, we emphasize this aspect of Islamic diffusion. In addition to educating anyone about Islam, we will also guide whom we can to the right resources. In addition to its other dawah contributions, LADO has been recognized for its very beneficial website. Our first attempt at a website was really Samantha’s. We thought a website would be the most cost-efficient way of offering free information about Islam. She used her free personal AOL homepage as our preliminary website. We then added information to the website as we saw fit. Today, the LADO website is available at www.latinodawah.org.
We have always believed that there was more to dawah to Latinos than simply translating some pamphlets into Spanish. Certainly, Islamic literature in the Spanish language is extremely important. Who can, for example, deny the importance of Spanish Islamic audio literature? However, we also need to address the emotional needs of new or potential Muslims. Our dawah efforts have attempted to address these needs in various ways. For example, Saraji offers practical advice for new Muslims in her article: “How do I tell my parents and family I’ve become a Muslim?” I attempt to address common misconceptions about Islam in a lighthearted way in my article: “Is Your God Black?” Saraji recalls that the mother of one Latina Muslimah complained because her daughter stopped eating her pastels. Pastels and tortillas do not necessarily have to be haram, or prohibited in Islam. We have been fortunate to address these kinds of misconceptions among Latinos.
Life’s twists and turns are strange. After some time, I lost touch with Samantha and the other LADO people. After regaining Internet service, I either forgot all of the people’s e-mail addresses or they had been changed. Years later, while working for the Los Angeles Times, I came across an article in the New York Times mentioning LADO and Samantha. Alhamdulillah, I was able to contact her and Juan to find that LADO continued. I have found a good ‘virtual’ friend and brother with Galvan. I am only one of the many Latino Muslims who are grateful for the opportunity to have met other Latino Muslims through LADO. We will continue to emphasize the universal principle of brotherhood and sisterhood in Islam. Insha’Allah. We are trying to break down the barriers that separate Latino Muslims, Latino non-Muslims, and the general Muslim community. This is certainly a great endeavor. I have since contributed to LADO whenever I can. And, the rest as they say is history.
Since its founding, the Latino American Dawah Organization has had its focus on promoting Islam to anyone interested with emphasis on the Hispanic community. Since then LADO has had the opportunity to speak with many non-Muslims interested in Islam. We have also had the opportunity to work with Muslims from all walks of life. Insha’Allah (or Ojalá), we will continue to encourage potential Muslims to learn more about Islam and provide information about Islam. Insha’Allah, we will also become better Muslims while we’re at it. LADO continues to evolve from its humble beginnings. Today, you can find us throughout social media, particularly on Facebook. We have also chosen to focus our dawah efforts on establishing scholarships and grants that benefit the Latino Muslim community.
In Qur’an 110: 2-3, Allah SWT states, “When God’s help and victory have arrived, and you have seen people entering God’s religion in droves, then glorify your Lord’s praise and ask His forgiveness.” Every Hispanic Muslim hopes that their lost Islamic heritage, which was taken from them, can once again be revived, rekindled, and reborn.
This article was initially published in the April-June 2005 issue of The Latino Muslim Voice. It has been updated in 2021.