Jan - Mar 2003, Latino Muslims

Thoughts Among Latino Muslims

By Juan Galvan

While researching for articles last year, I sent out ten questions to ten American Latino Muslims. Upon rereading the answers I received, I realized that many Muslims could benefit from this valuable information. Consequently, I decided to write an article composed of the responses. Latino Muslims may relate to the responses. For sake of privacy, either I only use first names or Muslim names of the Latinos. I have edited responses for clarity, concision, and grammar as needed. I hope you may benefit from the following responses.

1. Why do Latinos convert to Islam in America?

Getsa: People convert to Islam for the same reasons others convert to other religions. People convert to Islam because they have a belief that Islam is the best and true religion.

Daniel: It’s the same reasons why people convert to Islam anywhere else. They develop a love for Islam.

Teqwa: I think it’s mostly about disillusionment with the Catholic Church. Many Catholics don’t understand Christian concepts just like Baptists, Methodist, etc. Simplicity and unity is lacking in the Christian Church.

Farheed: I think maybe you are better off by asking the question: “Why do Latinos revert to Islam?” In my opinion, this question gets down to the crux of the issue, because you address all Latinos rather than analyzing a certain location.

Omar: Because converts had the opportunity to speak with Muslims, they opened their hearts to the message of Islam.

Aisha: I don’t think it is a question of America. The question is more about a clearer definition of God and about how to worship, about personal experiences, education, and similarities in family values.

Yolanda: Disappointment in Christianity.

Gilberto: I don’t know about others. I’m an Afro-Cuban raised in America, so in my case, I went through the route of reading about Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam, etc. along with more “religious” concerns about things like the trinity, incarnation, and others. I am not sure what trajectory other Latinos take. Reasons for conversion are different for everyone.

Ricardo: People have their unique situation in terms of what they’ve been exposed to all their lives. Because Islam is all encompassing, it typically addresses the average person’s concerns. Concerning Latinos, those who convert will usually have traveled the road of knowledge. It is through knowledge of both their current religion in comparison with the knowledge of what Islam is all about that enlightens them and then inspires them to embrace Islam. Most Latinos are Catholic, and there is much negativity experienced by Latinos towards the Catholic religion. Those negative concerns are addressed in Islam, and the whole thing begins to make sense. Once their rationale makes sense of it, their hearts follow suit bringing a person to embrace Islam with their minds as well as their hearts. That’s peace.

2. Why aren’t there more Latino Muslims? For example, what have been your observations?

Daniel: The community is not well established yet. More dawah needs to be done towards the huge Latino population. My observation is that there has been no emphasis on dawah towards Latinos.

Getsa: I think that there are more Latino Muslims, but where are they hidden? Latinos in states like Texas have been Roman Catholic for a while now as has been Mexico. I think that has something to do with it as well.

Teqwa: Most nonMuslim Latinos that I have been in contact with think that being a Muslim is a race not a religion. It’s a lack of information. The Telemundo novela about Muslims, “El Clon,” yes I know it’s a novela, has had a positive effect. More Latinos are watching it, and between the drama, an uncle gives information about Islam in a very positive light. I wish they had it in English as well.

Aziz: The biggest reason why there are not many Latino Muslims is because there is not much Spanish dawah. Dawah in Spanish is very important. This is because religion mixed with the Spanish language is a part of their culture. Dawah must address these issues.

Farheed: A possible answer to the question could be that Latinos are simply unaware that there is such a thing as a Latino Muslim. In my opinion, it just boils down to education and knowing that they exist.

Omar: Because many people are Hispanic and not all of them speak English. They find it difficult to learn another language. But they must to get a better job and to learn about Islam. People have many responsibilities with work and family. Learning about Islam requires some commitment.

Yolanda: There aren’t more Latino Muslims because of the lack of dawah work and proper cultural approach by those of us who are Muslims. There are not many of us. We are still growing, and the other Muslim communities have not done enough to train us new Muslims, so most of us are struggling on our own.

Gilberto: I really don’t know. Perhaps some Latinos groups, such as NY Puerto Ricans, can identify with African-Americans more than others and find Islam that way.

Ricardo: From my observations, there are three main reasons. First and foremost, there aren’t many people delivering the message to the Latino community, and many who do may not be very effective in doing so. Second, once there is someone who delivers the message there is a barrier that must be overcome. If the person is a devout Catholic, many times their emotions make it difficult to cope with the message delivered. It causes a sort of “crushing” of their faith; hence, they become somewhat heart-broken and try to stay away from Islam. The third reason I believe has to do with those Latinos who don’t think about religion much to begin with, much less a religion that they feel is cult-like, “promotes terrorism,” seemingly oppresses women, and that is very strict. Those who tend to listen have somewhat of a balance between being a rational person and a compassionate person.

Aisha: I think there are more Latino Muslims than we think there are. They just do not always come to the mosque. I thought I knew all the Latina Muslims in the community – that was about four, but recently I held a get-together of Latina Muslims in our area alone and found that there were 10 to 15 that are known by one lady in the community. Imagine those who we don’t know about. I just found out of another one just yesterday from the Dominican Republic who was not on the list of women I called to the gathering. I was astounded and pleased.

3. What are the main joys and difficulties of being a Latino Muslim?

Daniel: The joys include following the path of the Last Prophet of Allah and going back to our roots. Difficulties include dealing with stereotypes.

Teqwa: Joys include spending time with my friends, and there is an automatic sense of unity. Difficulties? I think all Latinos, regardless of skin color, should feel welcome by the general Latino community.

Getsa: One joy is that since there are so many Muslims now, I can’t really feel out of place. One difficulty is that as a woman, I have less contact with people.

Aziz: The main joy of being a Muslim is the peace of knowing that I’m on the Truth. This feeling is peaceful to the soul and the body. However, with all these great feelings, one cannot escape the reality of the state of the Ummah and the Muslims. One of the biggest trials is being patient with Muslims from Muslim countries who maintain a racist attitude toward other Muslims, especially towards converts. This type of Jahiliyyah still helps the enemies of Allah swt to keep the Muslims disunited. Because of something so simple and easy to fall into, the Muslims hate each other and cannot even come together to make Allah’s religion superior over all others.

Farheed: A joy I get from being a Latino Muslim is that I get to meet other Latino Muslims. I have the opportunity to link with Latino Muslims on two different levels. One, as Latinos, we have that instant connection through culture and language. Second, the initial connection becomes stronger once the Islamic connection is apparent. The only difficulty I encounter is when family members are partaking in a Catholic ceremony, and I choose not to be a part of it. In this type of situation, one feels awkward.

Yolanda: Islam gives me peace of mind. It brings me closer to my creator and gives me a purpose in life. It has brought me a clear and definite path to follow with other brothers and sisters. One difficulty concerns the issue of communities dividing by culture. For example, I am part of an Indo-Pakistani community. As a Musulmana, I’ve had to learn what is cultural and what is Islam. This is something that I’m open to since I work for a cultural institution, but what about those brothers and sisters that are converting? Where are they going? How do they feel when they become part of a mosque that is Arab? African American? Indo-Pakistani? Do they feel welcomed? If they don’t learn about the culture, are they left out? If people leave Islam because communities make them feel “left out,” who is responsible? This is a reality, and I am wondering how many communities choose cultural over religious. Is our goal as Latino Muslims to form our own mosques and separate ourselves culturally too?

Aisha: There are more joys, when one makes the decision to become a Muslim, regardless of where you are from – especially in a deeper and more spiritual sense. The clarity of the Qur’an and the constant reminders for us to learn more and to use our powers of intelligence, observation, and reason when dealing with all matters including faith, is simply refreshing and enlightening. The most prominent negative for me as a Latino Muslim is simply the barriers one feels with family. At the outset, they were astounded by my decision to change my faith. As time progresses, they have learned to accept it, but it is never quite a full acceptance. I have to admit that I made things more difficult in the process by being very strict on myself and not allowing the adjustment to take time – especially when I was around my family. Actions speak louder than words and although, the path is difficult, the benefits and results are always sweeter when one struggles.

Omar: We don’t have the same chance to get involved with other Muslims, because they have different customs than ours. They grew up in other places overseas, and in many ways, we do not and cannot think like them. I’m referring to people like Arabs and Pakistanis.

Gilberto: I’m not sure about joys specific to being a Latino Muslim. One difficulty is that since there are a small number of us, there is a certain degree of aloneness compared to other communities that are more represented.

Ricardo: The main joy about being a Latino Muslim has more to do with being a Muslim than about being Latino. There’s fulfillment in Islam that has nothing to do with being Latino. The main difficulty with being a Latino Muslim is letting go of things that were part of your Latino background that are un-Islamic.

4. What needs to be done to call more Latinos to Islam?

Aisha: We need to have more knowledgeable Latino Muslims, for one. Second, they need to speak and write the Spanish language fluently. Personally, I think there is more need to simply educate Latinos about Islam, the beliefs and practices, than to “call” them to the faith. The outcome of education would be of greater benefit towards building communities that tolerate and respect each other. If they knew about the similar values we share in our faiths, we could join hands to work together for many issues we have in common. The preaching mentality meets with much resistance. If we have a conversion mentality or demeanor, we will not get far. And let’s face it, it is Allah who makes Muslims, not us. I cannot stress enough that the character of a person speaks louder than simply what we say.

Getsa: We need more publications and more open, publicized events. I don’t know how you would become Muslim unless you have contact with other Muslims. I only came in contact with Islam by association through my husband. I don’t know if Muslims venture out to other groups for the purpose of calling others to Islam.

Teqwa: More interaction. I spend a good deal of time in the Latino community as a biligual/ESL teacher. I have parents who ask many questions, which is a good thing. I think that if more was put out there in Spanish, it would be much better. Just being around”allowing people to see you is key.

Daniel: Organize.

Yolanda: We, Latinos, need to empower ourselves. We need to approach mosques and other local organizations to assist us in dawah work in our own communities.

Omar: We need more dawah at the mosque but in Spanish. Dawah at mosques is better for new Muslims. For nonMuslims, maybe, somewhere other than the mosque would bring bigger crowds.

Ricardo: I believe that there must be individuals who will deliver the message to Latino Muslims. These individuals must possess certain qualities. They must be very knowledgeable in at least the basics of Islam and the everyday practices. They must be articulate, and they must have a certain degree of eloquence. Some people deliver the message stronger than others do. However, the point is that there is no better way to get someone to subscribe to a belief than by delivering the message by word-of-mouth.

Gilberto: Something that occurred to me a long time ago is that Latinos as a people have connections to Islam from three different directions. Spain was once a Muslim country, and Islam has made its imprint on Latino culture and language. The obvious is the African component. Some researchers say that Muslims arrived in the Pre-Columbian Americas and also left marks in the language and culture such as in names such as Tallahassee, Florida. Anyway, after the fall of Andalusia to Christians, Spanish culture has a tendancy to define itself in opposition to “esos Moros” over there. More work has to be done to make Islam seem less foreign. A Chicano friend who was considering Islam, partly because he was dating a Muslim woman, is drawn to the social justice element of Islam. Perhaps if Muslims stressed this aspect more, we would find more support in the Latino community. The mix of conservative “family values” and a radically progressive view of social justice would (insha’Allah) be appealing to many Americans who are not normally receptive to dawah.

5. What are ways to help Latinos abandon their misconceptions about Islam?

Ricardo: We accomplish this through educating them and by example. Muslims must first become less isolated from their nonMuslim neighbors. Increased positive interaction will create increased awareness. Awareness brought about through positive interaction can overcome popular negative misconceptions. All Muslims must do this, not just Latino Muslims.

Aziz: One of the best ways to help Latinos get around the misconceptions is educating them about Islam and about Spanish history. By doing so, they can see for themselves how Islam relates to them.

Getsa: We should define the common misconceptions for one. Many Latinos think women have to be completely covered and are also afraid about how women are treated by Muslim men. This needs to be removed from people’s minds by talking about positive role models. There is a lack of positive Muslim role models in our society. I can think of three instances that play in my mind when it comes to negative role models, though: 1. Ali – the movie. Muhammad Ali converts and cheats on his wife. 2. The harsh treatment of women in Afghanistan. 3. OZ – an HBO series. The Muslims in that prison kill. I know that two out of the three are fictitious but all three play on people’s minds just as the real thing does.

Daniel: We could begin by organizing media outlets for spreading Islam.

Farheed: A good approach is to tell Latino brothers and sisters that many Spanish words are similar to Arabic words. In addition, you could tell them that Islam had a large influence on the Spanish daily life and culture for hundreds of years.

Omar: We should speak with people who are interested in Islam. I mean Latinos watch the media, and media says wrong things or lies. Many Latinos are interested in Islam but no one is telling them what it really is.

Aisha: I think the first step is to not marginalize ourselves when we become Muslim. There are many ways we can work with the Latino community to help the injustices and social problems occurring in the Latino community and that means we have to volunteer in human rights organizations, immigrant organizations, domestic violence organizations, and so on. We must be active in both the Latino community and the Muslim community. After all, we have more similarities than differences when it comes to hardships we face here in the west as minorities. Once a person becomes active without a conversion agenda, both Latinos and Muslims will start to build bridges of respect and tolerance. Education, involvement, and activity are key.

Gilberto: I don’t know of a fast way. In terms of my mom, it has basically taken slow, patient explanations about various things.

6. Do you know any statistics about the number of Muslims in a particular state? Is there a way to get these figures?

Ricardo: I’d have to do research. The US Census is the first place I would look to get these figures. After that, I would think involving mosques in data gathering efforts would be the best way to get the information. The question of whether it is worth doing or even if it matters must be addressed first.

Gilberto: I have no idea about finding the numbers other than by calling all the mosques to ask what percentage of mosque attendees are Latino. You could also call Latinos around the country to ask about their religious affiliation. You could also poll Latino organizations to ask what percentage of members is Muslim. There are problems with whatever method you choose though.

Aisha: There really is not a system to attain demographic information about our community – unless you become a member of a mosque. Even then, they don’t keep records about your background or nationality. This is sad, but true. This kind of “census” work is really necessary in our communities, locally and nationally, but mosques have not taken on the task. Organizations, such as CAIR and AMC, have conducted some studies.

7. There seems to be a positive correlation between mosque size and rate of conversion. Why?

Teqwa: At larger mosques, there are more activities at all hours.

Yolanda: Larger mosques are more diverse and open.

Getsa: At larger mosques, there will be more positive role models. If more Muslims are in the community, more Muslims will be practicing Islam so there’s higher quality in the overall community. More people are available to speak about Islam so more conversion. It’s like with everything. The more resumes you send out, the more chances you’ll be called for an interview.

Ricardo: I can only speculate as to why this correlation exists. Maybe it is the fact that there are more Muslims living closer to larger mosques, thereby, creating a higher concentration of Muslims that in turn interacts with nonMuslims. Again, I believe that more interaction of Muslims with nonMuslims will increase awareness, which will increase the number of people who convert.

Omar: I disagree. Although there isn’t a mosque in Monterrey, Mexico, many people are interested in Islam there. I’m originally from Mexico.

Farheed: I would like to know more about how the information was collected to come up with the correlation.

8. Most Latinos who leave Catholicism choose the Pentecostal religions. Why? What can Muslims learn from this?

Daniel: Perhaps, they are tired of the same liturgy in the Catholic Church. They are looking to be active in their faith. Muslims can learn a lot from this. We need to be as effective as the Evangelicals or Pentecostals.

Yolanda: Protestant religions have always been more consistent and adamant about providing free social services and information about their religion. For example, Jehovah’s Witnesses have seen a dramatic increase in the last ten years because they are organized, focused, and persistent.

Farheed: I have no knowledge of the Pentecostal religions and cannot form an objective opinion.

Omar: I was Pentecostal, and I knew about Islam. I think people prefer to convert to Christianity because there are Hispanic churches where they can learn about Christianity in their own language. In general, it’s easier to find a church than a mosque in America. More people would convert if there were more mosques.

Teqwa: They probably leave the Catholic Church for lack of support. Alhamdulillah, I have been Muslim for a long time. If I were a new Muslim and didn’t have friends who could be a sounding board, I might have dropped out.

Aisha: I am curious to know why myself, but I can tell you that the trend I have seen is that they tend to leave Catholicism because of the idol worship, the pressures of the “high” social classes, and general hierarchy existing within the churches. They tend to go to other Christian denominations because they strongly believe in the divinity of Jesus (pbuh). In addition, I think that it also appeals to them that in other sects they read the Bible more than in Catholicism.

Gilberto: (getting on soapbox). I think Latino, African-American, and European-American Muslims need to realize the extent to which they can be themselves and still be Muslim. While riding my bike around campus, I found these people playing congas outside on one Sunday afternoon a few years ago. I stopped to listen for a while. Eventually, one Latino starts speaking in Spanish. I listen to what he’s saying, and it’s some generally positive stuff about God. And, then I listen a little longer, and I realize that they are Muslim. Subhanallah! We need to first learn the difference between being Muslim and being Arab, Indo/Pak, Malay, African-American, etc. Arabs, Indo/Paks, and other groups have developed their own ways of being Muslim. This is something that needs to happen among Americans as well. By doing so, we can confidently and naturally find ways to be a Muslim and a Latino. To get back to your original question, the idea of “Pentecostal Muslims” is obviously really messed up. In general, I would say that mosques don’t really run the gamut of what would be a permissible preaching style. And if there are styles that for some reason are more appealing to certain groups, mosques ought to be encouraged to include them along with others.

9. What kinds of Dawah activities would you suggest? What works and what doesn’t work?

Teqwa: We have to be accessible to the public and not be afraid to talk. Hispanic women love to talk so get some sisters out there and make sure they know what they are going to say and aren’t afraid to say it in a nice way. Another thing is to draw parallels. I make sure that I use things that are common in the Hispanic community to explain Islamic beliefs. Remember that you are dealing with people who have an allegiance to the Church and have a special place in their heart for Mary and traditions. You have to make sure that you are still positive about their beliefs and show them how Islam is different but also has many of the same thoughts. If not, forget it. They will shut down completely. Please don’t forget those who are Cuban, Dominican, Venezuelan, or Puerto Rican. Just because someone doesn’t look mestizo doesn’t mean they should be forgotten.

Omar: There should be regular meetings at mosques or wherever for nonMuslims and/or for new Muslims. Dawah is more successful if it frequent, not only once a year. You have to be available. NonMuslims have to be able to come to you when they are ready. We also should not expect or wait for them to come to us. Latinos need to know we are Latino Muslims. We can do this by showing our identity, praying, discussing Islam, etc.

Aisha: Education has a greater impact. Preaching or the “Jehovah’s Witness” mentality does not work, at least not for me. Being involved in the Latino community alone would have a significant impact by helping Latinos gain some interaction with Muslims as well as a greater understanding of Muslims. I think we need to start small. Look into your own community and its surround areas first. It is also key to build a relationship with Spanish TV networks, radio stations, and newspapers.

Daniel: I believe in acting what you preach. This is the best dawah tool. We should also organize meetings with the community using Hispanic festivals as a possible outlet. It seems to me that anything would work at this point. Cities with large numbers of Latinos should be targeted first and then rural areas. Most other areas are exposed to larger metropolitan areas so you would hope that the trickle effect would occur. Still, Islam should not be limited to any geographical areas.

Yolanda: We have to distribute free literature. We also need to place ads.

Ricardo: Word-of-mouth is the best. Individual attention is most effective. Everyone has their own perspective of religion, life after death, the soul, the origin of man, etc. Because everyone has a different perspective, it requires that the message of Islam be delivered to him or her in a unique way. You can’t expect to deliver the message in one way and hope to reach everybody. That is impossible. Individual attention must take place. To do that on a mass scale is extremely difficult. That is why Muslims must not be so isolated from their neighbors. As an ummah, we must interact with non-Muslims in a positive fashion delivering the message verbally and by example. There are many things that don’t work and many things that do work but it really depends on the individual who’s receiving the message and the way the person delivers the message. Some people will be offended when you say, “We don’t believe Jesus is the Son of God” while others won’t be offended at all. Generally, one must be very patient, tolerant, and careful not to step on their beliefs. We must present Islam as something we believe because of such and such rather than presenting Islam as we’re right and you’re wrong because of such and such. There are many do’s and don’ts.

10. What are your hopes and aspirations for Islam and Latino Muslims in America?

Daniel: InshAllah, we will be growing.

Getsa: I would like Islam to grow because I would like to meet more Muslimahs that are a good influence and role models.

Omar: I hope that there is more work done for Hispanic people in the Spanish language.

Farheed: I hope to see LADO become a dominant force when it comes to representing the Latino Muslim population. May Allah guide LADO.

Yolanda: My hopes are to organize and create a group that assists all new Muslims, not only Latino Muslims. There is a need for this in my own city. Many people who convert like myself need guidance. This needs to be in place before dawah work can be done.

Aisha: I simply hope Islam will be recognized and respected as a faith in our community. I strongly believe this will happen if Muslims improve their actions individually. They must consider themselves part of the American society by being active in it and build bridges of understanding with other communities. The outcome of our efforts to educate people about Islam will be up to Allah (swt), but we cannot think that things will happen without the work.

Ricardo: At the minimum, my hopes and aspirations are for people to understand Islam for what it is as opposed to evaluating Islam through a filter of lies, distortions, and misconceptions. At the maximum, I would hope for as many people to embrace Islam as possible.

I want to thank the American Latino brothers and sisters who took time out to answer my questions. I hope you have benefited from the responses. The variety of perspectives among Latinos amazes me. Answers to questions were both inspiring and enlightening. Muslims will always disagree on a variety of issues. Regardless of our differences, we all agree that calling people to Islam is essential.