By Christopher Patrick Nelson
Silicon Valley DeBug
August 19th, 2004
On Friday August 19th, 2004, the Muslim Community Association mosque held an event showcasing Latino Muslims. For those who don’t know, a mosque is a house of prayer similar to a Catholic cathedral, Christian church, or Jewish synagogue. Muslims worship the same God as Catholics, Christians, and Jews, but instead of saying Prophet Jesus was God’s child by Mary, they say that Prophet Jesus was His Messenger, the same as Prophet Moses and Prophet Muhammad. (Peace be upon them all.) Decorated in multicolored serapes and dishes of ornamental beans, the presentation began at 8:25 with an introduction which quickly moved into a presentation by Brother Daniel Islam, a Mexican convert who showed slides and displayed by charts how Latinos numbered in the U.S. The place was packed. He was quick to point out that surveys numbering Latinos in California didn’t count illegal immigrants, and so Latinos had probably overtaken the Caucasian population some years before it was officially announced.
He was followed by a poetry reading from Sister Lilliania Villalvazo, a Mexican-American who had embraced Islam five years earlier as a teenager. Our tables had chips and salsa, of course, but sweet bread that could have come from your neighborhood panaderia as well. Sister Kathy Umaya Espinoza, a Mexican convert from three years before and a San Jose State University student well-known to the De-Bug staff, gave a presentation, “A Photo Journey into the Lives of Latino Muslims,” which was one of the highlights. Having traveled in Mexico, she was able to narrate one of her more interesting slides – the Yucatan ruin known as Mecca. It was called Mecca because that is the name of the city housing the holiest site in Islam, the cube-shaped temple called the Kabbah which all Muslims face when praying.
This particular Mexican ruin is not a pyramid, unlike the other ruins, but a cube on the earth’s 25th parallel, exactly where the Kabbah is in Mecca, Arabia is. This led some commentators to believe pre-Columbian Mexicans practiced some sort of Abrahamic religion there. (Prophet Abraham was not a Jew or a Christian, but he worshipped God alone, and Prophet Moses, Prophet Jesus, and Prophet Muhammad were his descendants, peace be upon them all.) This was all well and good, but the most exciting part of the evening for me was when Sister Susan Barrientos gave her story of how she came to Islam at 9:25. Before she spoke they served lovely yellow chicken enchiladas conforming to Islamic dietary laws, yucca, (South American potatoes that taste like cotton) Jamaica, (rose hips tea, which tastes like a fruit juice) and horchata. (cinammon flavored rice milk)
Sister Susan began with the memory of how when she turned 15, the church wouldn’t perform her quinsenerra (coming-of-age party) because her family hadn’t gotten her confirmation done, which she explained was very expensive. She went on to say that this made her think the Church was all about money, which sent her on a quest for a religion that felt right. She tried everything from Hari Krishna to Punk Rock, but she kept believing in One God. When she learned about Islam, she wanted to go all the way and wear the headscarf Muslim women do, but she thought she should wear it for a couple of months on campus before converting to get used to it. But, she said she noticed “something really horrible” would happen to her when she took it off – like the time a lesbian hit on her. (Everybody in the audience laughed.)
When she wore it, though, nice things would happen, like when police would open the door for her, which she liked. Once she embraced Islam, something like 10 of her relatives did as well Ð including her father, who used to drink with the village priests in Bolivia, and so didn’t take religion seriously. Her sister becoming Muslim was a strange and wonderful story in itself. Once, Sister Susan told us, she returned from traveling overseas with her husband to find that, to her joy, her sister had immigrated from Bolivia to America. But this was not all. Her sister reported having had repeated dreams of Sister Susan taking her to mosques and telling her about Islam.
So, when she came to the U.S., the first thing she wanted to do was see the Muslim houses of prayer. Within a month she accepted Islam. Sister Kathy Espinoza closed the evening with one of her typically soaring poems about her inner history having its climax in Islam, and everyone listened like Luke with Master Yoda. We were directed to the fliers for the Baja Fresh taqueria, and told that we should present those fliers when we eat there, a certain amount of our bill would be donated to the mosque. Then every Mexican and Maghribi one of us got up to do the night prayer, bowing our heads down to the ground before God like we always do.