What does it Mean to be a Latino Muslim?
By Khalid Malik Rosa
July 30, 2005
Thoughts from Denver, Colorado
I have been asked this question many times in my few months of “reverting” to Islam. I can only respond that I am only half Latino. 🙂 I can then respond with the fact that once I fully embraced Islam I became part of the community. The ‘umma (community) I belong to exists beyond the parameters of race, ethnicity, and nationality. I am Muslim and my concern is serving Allah (swt).
By no means does this indicate that Islam erases who I am. It means that my identity as a person of color, Latino and Asian, is part of my Islamic identity. I maintain who I am, as I embrace the path (deen) of Islam. I am a person Latino (and Asian) that is Muslim, and I am a Latino/Asian Muslim.
This also means I bring something to Islam as a multi-ethnic American. As a person of color in the United States, I bring a perspective of what it means to be an American that is not always treated the same in his homeland. As a person of color, I am not treated by the American majority the same as my Anglo counterparts. People can argue about the presence of racism in America today; all I can do is rely on my multiple experiences of prejudice from my fellow Americans. I bet many Muslim Americans can tell similar stories, especially after 2001.
My “conversion” has added to my status as a person of color. I am not only “one of those people”; I have now joined the “terrorists.” I was a “threat” before as a male person of color in this country; now I am the “enemy.” The external, negative perception of Islam is tied to all Muslims. Whether you were born one or you converted, the assumption or perception of such a person is linked to the acts of extremists. So what does this mean for Latino Muslims?
It simply means that we must follow the tenants of Islam and strive to be good Muslims. We take the prejudice attitudes and laws, and we face them as Muslims. We do not respond with hate or negativity; we respond with respect and an open mind. We have to follow the example of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) and treat people equally. We must maintain our cultural identity, while keeping our Islamic values. We strive for peace and tolerance in the world.
In a capitalist world, it can be difficult to maintain our values. We are tempted by lots of distractions to move away from our path. Prejudice is an example of such a distraction. I bring this forward as an example of one challenge that Latino Muslims and all other Muslims face each day in the US. It is our job as ambassadors of the faith to respond with kindness and respect. I also note this challenge as Muslims in the US, because it is something I am personally working on to make myself a better Muslim.
Beyond the political and social dealings, Latino Muslims live as other American minorities. We seek out the “American Dream” and want to visit Disney World like everyone else. What makes us unique is our tie to Roman Catholicism, Spain, and colonialism. Our heritage is born out of a forced merging with Spanish conquistadors; we were conquered physically, territorially, linguistically, and spiritually.
In our modern world, we still carry the Spanish “legacy” in our language, culture, and genes. However, many of us are looking beyond traditional faith for answers. Our hearts have sought refuge in many of the various Christian faiths, Judaism, and Islam. However, there has always been a tie to Islam. From 711-1492 C.E., there was a full presence of Islam in Spain. They were Spanish by our standards; the Moors intermarried and built a great deal of southern Spain. Somehow, Western history forgets this important point.
As we modern day Latinos have sought other sources for our spiritual needs, we have discovered Islam. I found my heart lifted by the stories of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), and I was truly changed by reading the Qur’an, the guidance given to humanity by Allah (swt). When the calling of my heart yearned for the path of Islam, I could not help but embrace the faith. I may have converted with a group of Muslims in Denver, but I had committed my life to Allah (swt) over a year before.
Now as a (half) Latino Muslim, what does it all mean? Well, it means I need to be part of the Islamic community, and I need to share my experience of Islam with other non-Muslims, especially Latinos and Asians. Why? It is my responsibility to bring the word of Allah to those that have not heard it. It means I must educate those that want to know more about my faith; it means I am to represent Islam in the things I do. It also entails me to network in the community and to assist my fellow Muslims.
To start out on this path of communication, I found the Latino American Dawah Organization (LADO). I communicated with the organization via the Internet and e-mail, and I was able to network with a few people here in Denver. I am still very grateful for the wonderful folks they got me in contact with; I have been able to build many friendships. I also was able to find organizations to volunteer with to continue my Dawah efforts. I want to cite a special point in my journey as a “new” Muslim; I was able to be part of a group of Latino Muslims in Denver. I was able to be in a space with more than two of us. 🙂
I was excited to hear that I would be able to meet fellow Latino Muslims here in Denver at the end of July. The infamous Juan Galvan was coming to town and organizing an informal meeting. In conjunction with this event, local Muslims would be hosting a rally in Denver that afternoon in response to the hate rhetoric against Muslims in the US media.
I arrived at our meeting place and found a few folks I knew, and I met some new faces. I had no idea where Juan was, but I sat and chatted. Apparently, a local newspaper was interviewing Juan. He invited the reporter to our informal gathering, where she proceeded to ask us questions.
Her questions were the typical “why” questions I am always asked. Why did you convert? How does your family feel about it? They never ask anything new or anything important. How does being a Muslim make you feel? What is it like to embrace a new faith?
How has Islam changed your heart? I appreciate it when I am asked a new, deep question. I love to explain how I feel my heart has been softened by my experience in Islam. I get concerned that people do not care about how Islam impacts you on the inside. There is more concern with external perceptions and data gathering. I feel as if we are not listened to as people. I thought faith was about seeking out the Almighty, not about how you fend off critics. We were asked really basic questions. Perhaps, I expected non-Muslims to know more about Islam, since it is in the public view right now.
One of the first questions, the reporter asked us was “So, who among you are Latino Muslim?” Almost everyone in the group said they were or raised their hands. One younger sister didn’t raise her hand. Later, we learned that she was the daughter of one of the Latina Muslims who attended. Her father is of Arab descent. Why didn’t she raise her hand?
The next day, the newspaper article disappointed me. Of all the data collected, only a fraction was reflected in the article. Many comments were used to construct a simple view about Latino Muslims. The article was about “family vs. Islam” rather than about the tapestry of Islamic life experience by Latino converts/reverts. The tone of the article also felt very accusatory. Who are these Latino Muslims anyway?
Furthermore, the article did what others have done in the past: it made Islam look alien. People have practiced Islam for hundreds of years around the world including North America. The article treated everything as if Islam had just appeared on American soil a few years ago. Also, the article gave an impression that Latino Muslims practice Islam differently than other Muslims. I guess the article was not on the same page as this Latino Muslim.
While the interview was rather typical, I was most pleased that it was an educational moment for all of us. We, Latino Muslims, had a chance to express ourselves publicly about our experience in Islam. Non-Muslims had the chance to learn about the existence of Latino Muslims. Also, non-Latino Muslims had the chance to learn about the existence of Latino Muslims. Many of my non-Latino friends read the article and found it interesting, as Latinos are increasingly embracing Islam. We have had much discussion about creating more interfaith dialogues and dawah efforts to educate the Latino community about Islam. This is what I love about Islam: education, community, and a real sense of “familia.”
After the interview, I finally got to meet and talk with Juan. I thought he would be much older. Our group chatted and went to lunch. It was nice to talk with fellow Muslims about being “the only Latinos” in the mosque. We really bonded over our common experience as Latinos in the US and in Islam.
One sister commented to me that she did not know what it meant to be a Latino Muslim. She knows what it means to be a Latina, and she knows what it means to be a Muslimah. However, she felt like herself. She could not think of any significant experience that separates one reality from the other. She was just being herself and trying to be the person Allah (swt) wants her to be.
After having lunch, we decided to go together to the rally being held nearby. The rally was organized by many of my friends in the Denver Muslim community. I also knew a majority of the speakers. It was great to hear us speak out and defend the Muslim Americans from the attacks of the critics of Islam. It was done in a tasteful and respectful way, offering dialogue and understanding.
While at the rally, one of my friends who is a Shurah member of the Colorado Muslim Society (CMS) told me and Juan that he was interviewed for the article about Latino Muslims. I couldn’t believe that the reporter asked him, “Are Latinos allowed to attend the CMS’ mosque?” I laughed out loud. And, I laughed again. I then imagined some guard at the door of the mosque checking for Muslim I.D. cards. My imagination went a step further, and I pictured some advanced starship sensors attached to the mosque scanning the DNA of those who wish to enter. Only those with “ethnically Muslim” DNA could enter the mosque; I laughed again out loud.
My friend told the reporter that everyone is always welcome to attend the mosque. Once again, I am amazed at how much Americans do not know about other faiths, especially Islam. Such experiences really push me to consider doing more dawah to educate my community about Islam.
The Latino group parted ways after the rally. I was able to catch a ride with Juan back to his hotel. We ended the busy day with a soda at the hotel restaurant. We chatted about what it means to be Muslim in the Latino community as well as in the American ‘umma. It was great to meet Latino Muslims in Denver and confirm that I was not the only one.
I think I will close with my latest experience of being an American Muslim. The US has a history of discrimination to the point of ridiculousness. I was watching a news program about al-adan (the call the prayer); US people were protesting the call to prayer in their town. They claimed they were being preached to! The call to prayer is in Arabic. I doubt the average US citizen from “Middle America” understands Classical Arabic. I sat back and laughed. We have to listen to Christmas songs blaring for two months and sit through the other holidays, and yet somehow, our call to prayer bothers them? I thought this “controversy” was insane, but it revealed the need for more Dawah in the US.
Latino Muslims have made a place for themselves in the American Muslim community. We bring a unique culture to the ‘umma that has historical ties to Islam. We also bring a unique American experience, as immigrants and native peoples. Our cultural tie to Roman Catholicism is another part of our unique perspective (and the faith we are all assumed to be a part of). We come to Islam usually after a journey of difficulty with Christianity. Islam answers our questions and meets our spiritual needs. Once we find Islam, we are welcomed by our brothers and sisters. The Muslim community in the United States has opened its arms to Latino Muslims. I expect that more Latinos will be coming to the faith as we continue our Dawah efforts and share our experiences with Islam.