Curiosity spawned by 9-11 leadssome Latinos to convert to Islam

By Hernán Rozemberg
Immigration Writer
San Antonio Express-News
January 25, 2005

Like most youngsters growing up around his West San Antonio neighborhood, Jesús Villarreal was raised Catholic. He went to church every Sunday, took Communion and attended catechism classes.

But he eventually strayed from the church, remaining in religious limbo for years until stumbling upon an unexpected answer — Islam.

Indeed, thousands of Latinos across the country — both U.S.-born and immigrants — have been converting to Islam since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks sparked massive U.S. societal interest in the religion and its billion followers worldwide.

No definitive research exists on the ethnic breakdown of the U.S. Muslim population, estimated by the Islamic Society of North America at 8 million to 10 million people. Most surveys identify African Americans as the largest group, but little is known about Latino conversion patterns.

“It’s a small religious phenomenon,” said Edwin Hernández, director of the Center for the Study of Latino Religion at the University of Notre Dame. “There’s a lot we don’t know. It’s on our radar screen.”

A 2001 study by the Council on American-Islamic Relations estimated 6 percent of 20,000 annual converts to Islam are Latinos. Studies variously list 25,000 to 75,000 Latino Muslims in the United States; most concur there are roughly 40,000.

What has become evident since the 9-11 attacks is the number of Latinos — especially women — converting to Islam is growing rapidly, particularly in cities with large Latino populations such as New York, Los Angeles, Houston and San Antonio.

“So much information about Islam was coming out after 9-11,” said Yousef Said, the imam, or leader, of the Islamic Center of San Antonio.

“People wanted to know for themselves what Islam was about, and when they heard the truth, they started believing in the religion,” Said said.

He estimated there are about 5,000 Muslims in San Antonio.

The growing Latino Muslim population remains in obscurity at the national level.

San Antonio resident Juan Galván became interested in Islam while attending the University of Texas at Austin. But he could not find much research on why people like him, a Mexican American who grew up in Lubbock, would turn to Islam — accepting not just a new religion, but a new way of life.

After becoming a Muslim, Galván made it his personal mission to inform the country about Latino Muslims. He’s now the vice president of the Latino American Dawah Organization, a nonprofit group formed in New York in 1997, and he’s also co-authoring a book on the topic.

Galván said he has found some answers. He now can clearly see why Latinos “revert” to Islam, a term widely used for people symbolically returning to Islam.

Followers believe everyone is born Muslim — and many Hispanic Muslims feel it applies directly to them, since the land of their ancestors, Spain, was under Islamic rule for nearly eight centuries before Christian kingdoms forced them out.

Ferdinand and Isabella ended Moorish rule altogether in 1492 and the Inquisition rooted out practitioners of both Islam and Judaism.

To Hispanic converts, many of whom privately doubted Jesus is the Son of God and questioned the concept of the Trinity, their new religion provided what Catholicism lacked. Many also have longed to dispense with a go-between when it comes to making spiritual connections.

“Can’t I just ask God for forgiveness myself? Why do I have to go through a priest?” asked San Antonio’s Villarreal, 27, a premedicine student at St. Philip’s College who became a Muslim three years ago. “There’s no intermediary in Islam — it’s purely monotheistic.”

Latinos come in contact with Islam through various avenues. Quite often it mirrors Villarreal’s case, whose curiosity — and anger — over the terrorist attacks drove him to Said’s mosque.

He returned every day for two weeks, holding lengthy, fascinating conversations with a man named Abdullah.

It was enough to convince Villarreal he was ready for shahadah, the imam-led declaration of faith to Islam that is in essence the conversion process.

San Antonio native Dorinda Garza Smith, also raised in a strict Catholic home, discovered Islam 12 years ago when she began talking to her then-sister-in-law’s Muslim husband. Garza later converted and has raised her four children under Islam.

What attracted her the most, she said, is that Islam obliges Muslim men to treat women with respect. In fact, most Latino converts are women, many citing the devotion of their Muslim husbands as the main reason they made the switch.

“We’re held on very high pedestals,” said Garza, 40, who is married to a Saudi.

She and other Latina Muslims dismissed criticism that Islam subjugates women to secondary roles, attributing discriminatory treatment to cultural traditions in some Middle Eastern countries. They point out that Islam’s holy book, the Koran, gives women rights equal to men.

Though most don’t regret converting, Latino Muslims recognize that juxtaposing their previous and current lives is no easy feat.

Garza, a veteran cabdriver, goes through a radical attitudinal shift when she’s hanging out with Spanish-speaking colleagues, compared with when she’s around Muslim drivers.

“It’s like having a split personality. You have to change depending on the background of the people,” said Garza, who said she faces continual questioning — even harassment — from customers about her hijab, or headscarf.

Converts face other obstacles.

Linguistic and cultural differences can be problematic, especially for immigrants who don’t speak English.

And although Islam unites people from a plethora of nations and cultures, they are capable of stereotyping each other.

Some “think all Latinos are promiscuous and incapable of becoming a ‘real’ Muslim,” Galván said.

The main challenge Latino Muslims face is at home.

Their families have a hard time accepting the dramatic lifestyle changes, from needing to pray five times daily to no longer consuming alcohol or pork. While some have tolerant relatives, many said their families harbor negative images of Islam and ask them why they support terrorism.

Iliana González, 28, who works for a Muslim advocacy group in Houston, said her Mexican parents — strict Catholics — refused to accept her conversion last year and still think she’s going through a confused phase.

They will not let her into their home if she’s wearing her headscarf. After numerous arguments, she decided to take it off when she visits them.

The ordeal continued in her own home, González said, where her 10-year-old daughter has questioned the change and does not intend to follow her mother’s example.

Yet despite the pressure, she remained steadfast with her decision, noting the revived faith and happiness being a Muslim has brought her.

Thus lies the crux of the Latino Muslim dilemma: Reconciling cultural tradition with religion innovation.

“I’m proud to be Latina and say I’m Muslim,” said Adilia Riaz, 32, who was born in El Salvador and brought to New York by her adoptive Puerto Rican father. She moved to San Antonio last year, converting to Islam in August.

Ironically, said Riaz, it wasn’t until she became a Muslim that she learned the significance of her own name — Adilia, she said, means “justice” in Arabic.

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