Catholic Latinos Converting to Islam

By Benjamin Peim
NYU Journalism
March 22, 2009

There are about 200,000 Latino Muslims in the country, and that number may be growing.

When Milagros Ali immigrated to the U.S. from her native Peru in 2002, she never would have thought that six years later she’d be a Muslim.

“I never thought I’d convert,” she said while taking a break from a Quran class at the North Hudson Islamic Educational Center, a mosque in Union City, N.J. “I went to Catholic school — priests and nuns were all over the place.”

But in April 2008 the 32-year-old declared the shahada, the declaration of belief a person must make to become a Muslim, which translates into English as, “There is no god but Allah and Muhammad is the messenger of Allah.”

And Ali’s is not an isolated case.

She’s one of a growing number of Latinos in the U.S. who have converted to Islam. Figures aren’t exact as the Census does not collect religious data, but according to the American Muslims Council, there are about 200,000 Latino Muslims in the country, and anecdotal evidence suggests that number is growing.

Ali recently married a Muslim and decided to convert so they could one day raise their children as Muslims. But she has yet to get used to the hijab.

“I only wear the hijab when I come here (to the mosque),” she said. “After 32 years without one, wearing it feels weird.”

To learn more about her new religion, she attends Quran class once a week at the mosque in Union City, a heavily Latino city a stone’s throw from the Holland Tunnel. The mosque has between 4,000 and 5,000 members, and congregants estimate that over 500 are Latino. To cater to the Spanish speakers, the mosque also organizes a weekly Quran class in Spanish and does outreach on Bergenline Avenue, the city’s main thoroughfare.

Alex Robayo, a convert and mosque member, was first drawn to Islam over a decade ago while studying engineering at Stevens Institute of Technology in nearby Hoboken. He was raised Catholic and had been active in church youth groups but, after befriending a Pakistani classmate, became curious about Islam.

“A lot of the questions I had about Christianity,” he said, referring to issues with the trinity, and the divinity of Jesus, “Islam kind of answered for me.”

For many Latino Muslims, conversion brings with it the worry of how to break the news to their family and friends. Catholicism has deep roots in Latin American culture and many view other religions guardedly. In fact, many of those interviewed for this article said they were reluctant to tell those close to them about their conversion.

After Robayo converted, he was hesitant to tell his family. Although they have since grown to accept it, when his family first learned of the conversion, Robayo said they felt ashamed. Instead of his mother telling her friends at church that her son was a Muslim, she told them he had opted to be evangelical.

“It’s like, if you work as a garbage man and your mom tells everybody you do something else,” he said.

But Robayo is proud of his faith and makes sure to pray five times a day.

“I’ll pray in the middle of the park, wherever I have to,” he said.

Today Nylka Vargas, 34, wears a white hijab that completely covers her hair. But she said that 13 years ago, when she first converted to Islam, she was a “closet Muslim.”

“It took me some time to work up to tell my family,” she said while taking a break from studying the Quran at the Union City mosque. “I didn’t want to hurt their feelings, so I pretended I was still Catholic.”

When she eventually told them they thought she was rejecting her culture. “Only five years ago did they understand this was my religion,” she said.

When her friends saw her wearing the hijab, they’d ask her if she was “becoming an Arab.” She’d say no, and then explain to them her new religion.

According to Professor Hjamil Martínez-Vázquez of Texas Christian University’s Department of Religion, this isn’t just a fad.

“It’s going to continue,” said Professor Martínez-Vázquez, who’s currently writing a book about Latino Muslims in the U.S. He explained that, after Sept. 11, there was a surge in converts as Latinos started reading about Islam for the first time. Many thought it answered recurring questions about Catholicism.

Uruguayan-born Javier Graviz, 26, of Union City, wears a kufi and sports an unruly brown beard. He converted to Islam while in his late teens, and though he’s never had problems on the street for being Muslim, he knows others who have been called “Bin Laden” while walking down Bergenline Avenue.

His family was skeptical when he first converted but didn’t give him too many problems.

“They were like, ‘What are you getting into?’ My mom thought it was a cult. But I see other Latino families give their kids more trouble about it,” Graviz said. “Now my mom’s a convert, too.”

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