By Alex Alvarez
September 18, 2009
(Forgive our pun. Please.) We often discuss religion and Latinos on this site in terms of crippling Catholic and Jewish guilt, and sometimes touch upon the rise in Latino Evangelical Christians, but rarely do we mention the other People of the Book. Since we’re currently in the midst of Ramadan, we thought we’d explore what it means to be a Latino Muslim in the U.S.
Turns out, according to various articles on the trend towards conversion to Islam among Latinos, being Muslim and Latino isn’t so different at all from being Latino and anything else. An example:
Another woman wearing a hijab rushes up the stairs of the mosque frantically murmuring to herself, “Empanadas, empanadas, empanadas!” as if to remind herself to pick up the savory Latino pastries for the crowd waiting inside. “Empanadas!” Shinoa Matos, one of the three women on the steps, responds excitedly. “I’m very hungry,” she says as her attention turns towards the inside of the building. The Sixth Annual Hispanic Muslim Day event is about to begin.
Girl, we feel that. These women attend mosque in Union City, New Jersey, at The North Hudson Islamic Educational Center, a building which once served as a Cuban community center.
According to a 2008 survey by the Pew Forum on Religious and Public Life, Latino Muslims make up 4% of all Muslim U.S. residents and this number is expected to grow with time as more and more Latinos convert (or revert, as the belief goes) to Islam and raise their children in the religion as well.
Hearing the different reversion stories of Latino Muslims works to really drive home the idea that Latino identity is both something that connects different people despite race, creed and location while at once allowing us, as individuals, to pursue different faiths and schools of thought. One such story is that of Mexican Houston resident Patricia El-Kassir. El-Kassir reverted at age 15, effectively becoming part of the tiny community of Latino Muslims. She eventually journeyed to Lebanon, where she met her now husband. When explaining their heritage to the couple’s children, she focuses on the diverse – yet complimentary – aspects of their background and religion:
They are American. Their mom is Mexican. Their dad is Lebanese. They are Muslims. They get the best of everything, I tell them.
This isn’t to say, of course, that living as a member of a minority within a minority is always easy or accepted. Juliette Oliva Enchassi is a Latina Muslimah who comes face to face with others’ preconceived notions either of what a Latina should believe in or where a woman who dons a hijab must come from. She is often mistaken for the Arabic interpreter at the Texas hospital where she works, although she is the Spanish translator. She’s also experienced something that’s likely common for any Latino who doesn’t fit the stereotype of a Hispanic, yet lives in a predominantly Latino neighborhood – viejas talking smack about you in Spanish.
There exists, of course, a long history of Hispanics interacting with and becoming part of the Muslim world. At various points in time between 711 and 1492, parts of current day Spain was occupied by Arab and North African Muslims who gave the Iberian Peninsula the name “Al-Andalus.” The impact that occupation had over Spain is present in architecture, music, food – and the Spanish language. Some examples of Spanish words derived from Arabic include: aceite (olive oil), alfombra (carpet), azafrán (saffron), guitarra (guitar), fulano (so-and-so) [Ed. note: Where would Cubans be without this word?], jirafa (giraffe), limón (lemon), marfil (marble), rincón (corner), taza (cup), zanahoria (carrot) and many, many more.
So while Latino Muslims are “new,” as with many trends that occur in the United States, they have a long history. Americans always think they came up with everything, forgetting that civilization was clearly forged in Cuba. ANyway: As Eid ul-Fitr approaches and everyone gets to chow down on halal enchiladas or ropa vieja, keep in mind that Latinos are a varied bunch, united in our undying love of empanadas and yelling in public.