July - Sept 2003, Latino Muslims, USA

The Latino Muslims Conference in Dallas

The Latino Muslims Conference in Dalla

By Juan Galvan

“We’re here to stay,” I proclaimed. I said those words three times throughout my speech. Afterwards, I wondered how I could say something so ignorant, corny, and so often. Maybe I was simply nervous and searching for words to fill the silence. I wondered and wondered. If I could change things, I would have said, “We’re Latino Muslims, and we’re here to stay. We will create our future regardless, and we need your help to ensure it’s the best future.” However, our Prophet (pbuh) said to avoid using “if”, and Allah (swt) knows best. ISNA’s Latino Muslims conference was a reminder of the importance of our dawah work. The Latino Muslim conference is part of ISNA’s annual Islam in America Conferences. This year ISNA held the Islam in America Conferences in Dallas, Texas.

After my speech, Br. Benjamin Perez spoke about how he came to Islam. He grew up in New Mexico but now lives in California. He was once a member of the Nation of Islam. Yes, some Latinos are members of the NOI. He even met Malcolm X. Much of his dawah work revolves around working with incarcerated Muslims. Br. Abdul Khabeer Muhammad spoke after Br. Perez. He grew up in Panama and studied in Saudi Arabia. He has translated several important pieces of Islamic literature to Spanish. Omar Weston, an imam from Mexico City, was the moderator of the session. He spoke about Islam in Latin America. I remember the first time I heard him speak. He said, “We go to villages to talk to people about Islam. One Mexican lady said to us, ‘Why didn’t anyone tell us about this before?'”

My speech was about how I got involved in promoting Islam to Latinos. After my conversion, I was obsessed with two questions. Am I the only Latino Muslim? Why aren’t there more of us? As many new Latino converts do, I searched the Internet for “others” like me. I wanted to know how I could help. I began to learn about the various American Muslim organizations. Who is out there? What are they doing? What’s working, and what’s not? What’s needed? What can I do? I wanted to encourage these organizations to get involved in promoting Islam to Latinos, directly or indirectly. I would come to learn about an organization called the Latino American Dawah Organization (LADO). The organization has had a significant impact in bringing Islam to America’s Latinos.

After our session, a sister asked us speakers what we actually do to promote Islam to Latinos. Abdul Khabeer Muhammad’s response was essentially that Latino Muslims actually do a variety of things but you do not really hear about their work. I was thinking to myself, “I write and answer e-mail to questions from Muslims and nonMuslims. I introduced two Latino Muslims from Florida to each other. I also donated some Spanish Qurans to the local mosques.” However, who really cares about these things? Small contributions can assist many people, and if more people help, we will see one huge impact. Small deeds performed daily are better than big deeds performed twice a year. We can all do something.

Although we may all agree that much work needs to be done, we may be unwilling to perform the work for a variety of reasons. While living in Lubbock, I would work each Saturday with Habitat for Humanity. Habitat for Humanity builds houses for low-income families. While some volunteers were putting together the frame of the house, my friends and I were busy shoveling and wheel barreling bits of concrete. A friend said, “I told my mom I would be building a house today.” We laughed. Although shoveling and wheel barreling seemed meaningless, our contribution was another step toward the completion of the house. Today, a family lives in that house thanks to all the volunteers including the concrete shovelers.

Along with super activities, many Muslims are also looking for super Latino Muslims and their super organizations. Last year I listened to a Dominican Latino Muslim deliver the Friday Khutbah during Jumaah prayer at a local Washington DC mosque. I could not help but look around at the various Muslims, who were mostly immigrant, listening closely in hope of learning from this 21 year old Latino Muslim. I was in awe. He was involved in helping young Muslims learn how to read Quran as well. You also do not hear about the various Latinos who work within their local Muslim Student Associations. I have heard of Latina Muslim MSA presidents in Tennessee and Florida. Another Latino Muslim brother is a MSA high school advisor in the Chicago area. We also overlook the Canadian Latino who converted to Islam but then had to leave his home but regardless of his struggles, he continues to hold firm to his newfound faith. We have not recognized many Latino Muslims but they are all our unsung heroes.

I thank ISNA for organizing the Islam in America conferences. The Latino Muslims conference has given many Latinos from around the country an opportunity to network with other Latinos. We have to let other Muslims know we exist and that we want to help. I fear that isolating ourselves from other people for whatever reasons does a much more disservice to Islam because those people are those who need us the most. At ISNA conferences, you will see a full spectrum of Muslims who want to network and meet other Muslims who share similar ideals. It is always great to meet people through the Internet and then meet them in real life. Even if I were the only Latino Muslim in the world, I would have attended this year to let the general Muslim population know that they are needed. Many Latinos have suggested putting together their own conference, and I certainly encourage more Latino Muslim related events. Of course, we would face the same difficulties that other organizations have experienced in the past. The money and marketing aspects are among the complexities.

I was very happy to share ideas and knowledge with other Muslims. A Latina from Chicago said to me, “Dawah is a huge responsibility. I am terrified about having to face God on the Day of Judgment if I mislead people.” True, we will be judged for what we do, what we do not do, and for our intentions as well. She told me that a Muslim group she once worked with became very political. We all hate politics and controversy, but you will find it in every group. We are all imperfect people trying to fulfill the duties that our Creator has required of us. The more you do the more people who will not like you. At the end of the day, I hope that more nonMuslims dislike me than do Muslims. I knew about her work with Latinas in Chicago. “Sometimes, I’ll call some sisters together, and we’ll have a halaqa,” she said. Although her group does not have a name, I would like to know that I direct Latinas to her when they contact me about their interest in Islam. Many Latino groups similar to this one can be found around the US and networking with these Latino groups is certainly needed.

Islam has the potential for enormous growth in America, particularly among Latino Muslims. Much of our work at this stage consists of spreading our religion, or planting seeds. Some seeds will never sprout, and some seeds will sprout. I see a number of Latino Muslims who are frustrated, and I worry that their frustration and desperation will lead them to seek help from anyone who offers it. During the weekend, my friend Robert said, “Islam is very powerful.” Someone will fulfill our needs because we need them, and they need us. Obstacles we face today should not lead us in a mistaken direction. While walking, we do not usually stop to see the path we have walked. Every step counts, and we do not realize the extent of our actions. We need to call each other with wisdom, patience, and courage.

“Where can I get some Spanish literature?” I was asked. I replied, “You can purchase Spanish literature online. You can also find it at many Islamic bookstores. I will gladly e-mail you a few websites where Spanish literature is available.” I was asked that ‘Where’ question at least three times while at the Latino Muslims table. I was giving away all the literature at the table including brochures, Qurans, and booklets. I hope that whoever received the literature will benefit from it in one-way or another. We should not underemphasize the need to make Islamic literature available to nonMuslims.

While setting up the Latino Muslims table, I ran into this one Latino brother studying in Medina. He is reluctant to speak until he is more knowledgeable about Islam. Another Latino brother from New York is studying in Mecca. I also know of two other Latino brothers studying in the Middle East. I have just given you more reasons to feel optimistic about the potential for Islam among American Latinos. The sky’s the limit. Other brothers from South American countries are also studying in the Middle East. In time, American Muslims will enhance their own Islamic institutions of learning to lessen the need to study overseas.

During the weekend, one nonLatino brother told me that he prints articles from Latino Muslim websites to give to all his nonMuslim friends. His enthusiasm was beautiful. He said, “In time, there will be a Latino Muslim community in Kansas City. Insh’Allah.” I grew up in small towns in the Texas panhandle, and my parents continue to live in a small town in the Texas panhandle. The first time I met a Muslim was in college. I have a question for you to consider. How do you bring Islam to nonMuslims where there are no Muslims? The answer holds much more importance for me than it does for many other converts.

Saturday night I missed hearing a Muslim comedian named Azhar Usman. He was one of the performers at Saturday’s entertainment night. Unfortunately, I was unable to attend. Azhar was quoted in a newspaper as saying: “I am a Muslim. I am an American Muslim. American and Muslim at the same time. He prays and eats hamburgers!” While imitating a recent convert, Azhar says, “Man, you sure it’s called Is-lam? I can’t drink. I can’t be with girls. I can’t even have a ham sandwich. It should be called Is- hard. ” During one of my speeches, I said, “Soon after the attacks, my dad asked my mom, ‘What’d he get himself into?’ They hadn’t heard from me in a while so they were a little concerned. I reminded my parents that Muslims aren’t a gang of fifty members. ” After the speech, a sister commented, “It’s like your parents thought you had joined a cholo gang.” True, Islam is not a cholo gang, but I have met a Latino Muslim who was a former cholo gang member.

While at the Latino Muslims table, a vice-president for Astrolabe Productions approached me. He asked, “Do you think there’s much interest from the Latino Muslim community for a Spanish version of Yusuf Islam’s” Life of the Last Prophet “CD. Yusuf Islam is the artist formerly known as Cat Stevens. Of course, I got excited. Yusuf Islam’s CD in Spanish? Wow! He told me that Yusuf Islam’s CD has already been translated into some other languages. If I had the money, I would have written him a check for all production costs associated with the project. Unfortunately, I have been unable to find an audio cassette or CD about the principles of Islam in Spanish.

In the afternoon session, a couple of Muslim sisters Gihan AlGindy, an Egyptian American, and Reham Nasr, a Pakistani American, presented a speech about Latino Muslims. They talked about who Latinos are, reasons for their conversion, and made suggestions for dawah to them. They were interrupted a few times throughout their speech. We all have to be as accurate as possible when discussing Latinos and Christianity. After making a correction, one Latina sister added, “You aren’t Latino.” She replied, “I was born like this. But I can still help.” Although it’s great to hear speeches from Latino Muslims, we cannot expect Latinos to do all the work. Many Latino Muslims had an opportunity to present and chose not to do so. I was very happy that they spoke. They gave interesting and helpful information.

After their presentation, Aisha Samad Matias, Cuban American, spoke. She is a Latina professor from New York City. Her speech was very interesting. She spoke mostly about the Spanish Inquisition. She mentioned that Muslims were persecuted for refusing to eat pork, for taking daily bathes, or for eating only with their right hands. These were all proof of one’s Islam. In high school, I concluded that the Spanish Inquisition was essentially a Salem witch trial situation in Spanish history. I thought that those most affected were witches and sorcerers. During the Inquisition, Jews and Muslims were forced to either convert or leave the country. She told me that she intends to speak about Latino Muslims as part of her course on Latino history.

As I was being introduced, I whispered to the Muslim sitting next to me, “I don’t want to present now.” I did not want to be rudely interrupted and especially not humiliated during my speech. I am shy and sensitive. Furthermore, the time allotted to the session had already passed, and I was a bit exhausted. Alhamdulila, I mustered up the courage to speak. I discussed Latino Muslims, in general. During my speech, I said, “We Latino Muslims are educating the next generation of Latino Muslims to become a stronger generation. In a few generations, Latino Muslim scholars will be found in most major cities in America.” Afterward, I could see faces light up with excitement throughout the audience. We have to give Latino Muslims hope about our tomorrow. I am very optimistic about the future of Islam in America. As always,