By Margaret Ramirez
July 8, 2009
Inside the Parkway Ballroom on Chicago’s South Side, a small crowd of young Latino Muslims is grooving to hip-hop beats, bonded by background and religious beliefs.
Soon hip-hop singer Liza Garza takes the stage, a striking blend of Muslim and Latina. Her head is wrapped in a violet kerchief, a denim jacket covers a lime green peasant dress and purple leg warmers slouch around her green Nikes.
Then Liza sings in Spanish, crying out a heartbreaking ballad of unity, love and pain. For some, these are the emotions of Latino Muslims: “Lágrimas de sangre lloro y, por eso, canto de amor,” she sings. “Para mi gente, [el] color no importa, porque todos [los] hermanos duelen de algo (sic), y por ellos (sic) que siempre encuentran pena, pero nunca lloran una lágrima.”
(I cry blood tears and that’s why I sing about love. For my people, color does not matter because all brothers hurt, they always find pain although they never shed a tear.)
In the crowd, Naadhera Rodriguez, 31, feels the connection. She’s a Mexican-American who left behind her clubbing days for a Muslim lifestyle where she found a new sisterhood.
Hazel Gomez feels it, too. A 24-year-old graduate student raised by her Puerto Rican grandparents, Hazel converted to Islam in high school, leaving her Catholic abuelo in tears. “In high school, I remember seeing Muslim girls fasting during Ramadan and I couldn’t believe how happy they were. I wanted to have that happiness in my life,” she said. “I felt my heart being drawn to it.”
Beyond Chicago and across the U.S., more Latinos like Hazel and Naadhera are increasingly converting to Islam, changing the face of Muslim America. Through conversion, Latinos are also discovering the link between hip-hop culture and the Muslim faith that several rappers and artists have embraced. [SEE SIDEBAR BELOW]
There are no firm numbers on the Latino Muslim community, however religion scholars estimate there are more than 70,000 Latino Muslims in the U.S.
The majority of all converts to Islam are African-Americans. However, Latino Muslims have emerged as a rising phenomenon. Among Hispanic Muslims, the majority of converts are college-educated women between 20 and 30 years old.
“Today, you can find Latinos in almost every mosque throughout the United States,” said Juan Galvan, a Latino Muslim in Florida and founder of the Latino American Dawah Organization.
As the Latino Muslim community grows especially in Chicago, New York, Miami and Los Angeles, many have begun carving out a culture for themselves that fuses Latino traditions with their newfound Muslim faith. To celebrate the end of Ramadan known as Eid al-Fitr, Latino Muslims now plan big Eid fiestas with tamales, arroz con habichuelas and piñatas. (This year, the holy month of Ramadan begins Aug. 21 and ends Sept. 21.) Off the menu: pernil, cerveza and shots of tequila, due to Islam’s prohibition of pork and alcohol.
“We’re not your typical Muslims,” said Rebecca Barrientes Abuqaoud, who is originally from Lima, Peru, and converted in Chicago. “We were raised in a different culture with different traditions, and sometimes those Latino traditions clash with our new faith.”
But for Latino Muslims, the spiritual journey can be painful as many confront disapproval and hostility from family members with little knowledge of Islam beyond fundamentalism and terrorism. Other Latino Muslims often find themselves alone and isolated after conversion, feeling lost in a mosque of unfamiliar faces and a new world of lilting Arabic prayers. Latina women who decide to cover their heads with the hijab face a tough time explaining their new beliefs to family and friends.
When Hazel Gomez walked through her heavily Puerto Rican Humboldt Park neighborhood with a hijab for the first time, she was taunted and given dirty looks. “As soon as I walked out, I would get la mirada de muerte,” she said — “the look of death.”
Sara Gazi, 39, who converted three years ago after marrying a Pakistani, said her mother ridiculed her veil. “My mother looked at me and said: ‘¡Ayyy, mira quién llegó! ¡La Virgen María! … Look who just arrived! The Virgin Mary!’ ” she said.
To provide support, some early Latino Muslim converts formed networks where new Muslims could find friends and ask questions about the religion. One of the first groups established in 1997 was LADO, which maintains a Web site and has a presence in nearly every major U.S. city.
In Chicago, Rebecca Barrientes Abuqaoud formed a Latina Muslim women’s network in 2001 that started Islamic classes in Spanish and holds an annual women’s gathering. For younger Muslims, the Inner-City Muslim Action Network (IMAN) holds a monthly Community Café gathering, with music and spoken-word performances, that has become a hot social scene for Muslims of all ethnicities, especially African-Americans and Latinos. Liza Garza’s performance at a Community Café in April drew dozens of Latino Muslims.
Most Latinos who convert to Islam come from Roman Catholic roots and have piercing questions about their faith. Many speak negatively about the church hierarchy and say they seek a more direct relationship to God. Latino Catholics are also attracted by the fact that Muslims believe in the Virgin Mary and accept Jesus as a prophet.
Muslim rapper Hamza Perez said some Latino men are initially drawn to the revolutionary and spiritual aspects that resemble those of Che Guevara and Jesus Christ. “When you put those two characteristics together, you come up with a character similar to the Prophet Muhammad,” he said.
Other Latino converts trace their ancestry back to the early 8th century when Muslims ruled Spain. They see their conversion as a return to their original faith, and for that reason prefer the term “reverts” instead of “converts.”
DIRECT CONNECTION TO GOD
For Hazel Gomez, the connection stemmed from a fairly conservative upbringing and emphasis on family that is embraced by both Latinos and Muslims.
Slender and soft-spoken, Hazel was raised in a strict Catholic home by her Puerto Rican grandparents, yet she always had questions about the church. In high school, while many teenagers started dating and drinking, she became friends with a group of Muslim girls who were also raised in conservative homes.
Hazel said she felt comfortable with them. As she learned about Islam, she found answers. “Confession was one of the things I never understood. How does a priest have power to forgive you?” she asked. “In Islam, they prayed and there was a direct connection to God.”
Her decision to convert was sealed after she had a life-changing dream where she saw herself in a mosque praying. Shortly after, she took the shahadah, the declaration of faith that is recited upon conversion to Islam. On April 13, 2003, Hazel said: “I testify that there is no god but Allah and I testify that Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah.”
But the sheik who was with her at the time added one line at the end of the shahadah. He asked her to say that she also believed in Jesus and the Virgin Mary. “I cried when he said that because I felt like I didn’t change that much about my beliefs. It was an affirmation that I still believed in Jesus, but in the proper way,” she said.
Liza Garza, 30, the songer and poet who has appeared on HBO’s Def Poetry Jam, was raised in Flint, Mich., as a Jehovah’s Witness. She began questioning her faith after the death of a loved one. She said one of the first things that attracted her to Islam was learning the Arabic word bismillah, which means “in the name of Allah.” Liza found consolation and beauty in how Islam placed God in every aspect of her life.
“When I learned this word, it was like magic to me. Bismillah!” Liza said. “So, I kiss my husband in the name of God. I begin my poems in the name of God. I dress in the name of God. It made God a part of my life as if my Lord was visible at all points.”
Though many Latinos find comfort after conversion, there is also loneliness. “New converts feel alone. That’s very typical,” said Shafiq Muhammad, a LADO co-founder formerly known as Juan Alvarado. “One of the most common questions from converts is if there is a Hispanic mosque, and there isn’t.”
“There are some Latinos who have been Muslim for 10 years and never been to a mosque because it’s just so lonely,” Muhammad said.
Latino Muslims trade stories about going to the mosque for Friday Jummah prayers and seeking out other Muslims in a desperate search for friendship. The women said they look hard for the slightest hint of a face that looks Latina.
“You feel like you’re the only one in the world,” said Vilma Lopez, a native of the Dominican Republic who converted in New York City. “I would stand in the corner of the mosque and listen for anyone speaking Spanish. If I did, I would grab them and say, ‘Yes!’ ”
Those feelings of isolation are sometimes compounded by family reaction to the conversion. Because Catholicism and Hispanic culture are so tightly woven, some relatives see conversion as abandonment of their heritage.
Hazel Gomez was terrified of what her grandparents would do when they found out she converted. Would they hit her? Would they throw her out of the house? Her grandfather’s reaction surprised her. “My grandmother was convinced it was a phase. My grandfather … well, he just sat down and started crying,” she said. “And even though that hurt, I knew they still loved me.”
After Sara Gazi told her family that she converted, her mother screamed in sadness about never being able to see her granddaughters in a white Communion dress. “She just kept crying and talking about their First Communion. She couldn’t understand why I was depriving them of that,” Sara said. “It was hard.”
Latina Muslims like Gazi who have married men from Middle Eastern or South Asian countries face the unique hardship of double disapproval from both families. In addition to her own family’s concerns, she said her husband’s family rejected her because she is not Pakistani and also because she is divorced.
“They don’t accept me as their daughter-in-law,” she said. “That makes it even harder for my side of the family to accept conversion.”
Tensions within families often continue as new Muslim beliefs conflict with long-held Latino traditions. Naadhera Rodriguez said she avoids bringing her children to some Latino family gatherings, especially Christmas and Easter, because she doesn’t want to confuse them.
“My mom thinks they’re missing out,” Naadhera said. “But I’m still getting my family comfortable with being Muslim. I want to focus on what they can do before talking about what they can’t.”
While some families struggle with tensions, others say their conversion has sparked interest in Islam among other members of their family. “It’s not only about an individual converting. It’s about entire families embracing Islam. This helps to explain how the Latino Muslim community grew so quickly within a few years,” Galvan said.
In her family, Hazel Gomez said her cousin and sister are intrigued by the ways religion has impacted her life and are asking questions about converting to Islam. Even so, Hazel said she’s not pushing. “I just want them to meet more people, so they know it’s not just me,” she said.
THE HUMANITY OF ISLAM
In one of the opening scenes of the recently released documentary “New Muslim Cool,” Latino Muslim hip-hop artist Hamza Perez cooks chicken with his brother, Suliman.
”You got the adobo?” Suliman asks.
“Yeah,” Hamza answers.
Then, Hamza smiles and gives his fellow Muslims a lesson in Puerto Rican cooking. “This is for all you Arabs and Pakistanis, African-Americans, we’re teaching you the secret of Boricua Halal cooking.”
“New Muslim Cool” tells the provocative story of Hamza Perez — a former drug dealer who converted to Islam — and chronicles his struggles to build a Muslim community in Pittsburgh. By focusing on Perez, filmmaker Jennifer Maytorena Taylor sheds needed light on two major movements shaping today’s Muslim culture: the link between hip-hop and Islam and the growth of Latino Muslims.
The film takes an unexpected twist when his mosque is raided by the FBI and he must confront the realities of being Muslim in America. After the raid, Perez undergoes a spiritual transformation and deepening of his faith.
“At first … I had a real revolutionary mentality,” Perez said. “That’s not what Islam is about. Islam is not about revolution. Islam is about revival, reviving the spirit inside, reviving the spirit of God in the community.”
Perez said he hopes the film enlightens Latinos who know little about Islam. “I just want them to see the humanity of Islam, that we are just like regular people,” he said. “As a Latino, I haven’t abandoned my adobo and sofrito and my white rice and beans con huevo frito (fried egg) on top. We’re just regular people and this is just about a relationship between me and God.”
For more information on the film, visit www.newmuslimcool.com.