By Yasmin Essa
March/April 2010, pp. 62-67
My interview with Sr. Nylka Vargas, P.I.E.D.A.D National Coordinator.
I would like to thank Sister Nancy from NJ for inspiring me to essentially include articles catered towards Latino Muslims and therefore reaching out to LADO for this interview.
For those who don’t know, what is the LADO network?
The Latino American Dawah Organization is generally referred to as simply LADO, the LADO Group, or the LADO Network for simplicity’s sake. LADO is generally a group of Muslims, who are mostly Latino, who work to accomplish the LADO mission, which is to promote Islam within the Latino community. The links provided at the end of the interview should be a good starting point toward understanding more about LADO and Latino Muslims.
How did you first get involved with LADO?
I first learned of LADO through an online search. I was looking for other Latino Muslims in the country at that time. I didn’t really know any. I found LADO in 2004. They had a well-established reputation for helping Latino Americans connect through a very active group (email@example.com), as well as their strong online presence (www.latinodawah.org). Thereafter, and as my own dawah involvement grew, I became one of the NJ contacts.
As you have shared with me, you are the coordinator for the PIEDAD sisters dawah organization. Please tell us more about that, including it’s birth, growth, etc.
I joined PIEDAD leadership as the NJ/NYC Coordinator in 2007. Since our founder Khadijah Rivera’s passing, may Allah have mercy on her, on November 22, 2009, I’ve taken the National Coordinator role until all chapters regroup, insha’Allah.
Sister Khadijah founded PIEDAD in 1988 in NYC. Literally, PIEDAD means “Taqwa, piety or God-fearing.” In its acronym form it reads “Propagación Islámica para la Educación y la Devoción a Aláh el Divino” (Islamic dawah to educate and worship Allah the Most High). Our first seminar was at a club where we brought food and invited our extended non-Muslim families. The founders of PIEDAD were not all Spanish-speaking. In fact, we had a Kashmiri sister and a Pakistani sister who understood the importance of da’awah to Latinos. Although we are known for our numerous seminars with speakers like Imam Siraj Wahhaj, Mohammed Nasim, Dr. Thomas Irving, Dr. Omar Kasule, and others, the truth is that these events were never as productive as our one-on-one da’awah. It was this personalization of the deen that assisted us. Here we could speak freely and clearly use the dua that releases our tongue so that we may be understood.
PIEDAD began as da’awah directed to the overlooked Hispanic women in NYC. It has continued its specialization to that intimate group without keeping others from assistance and participation. Working with women was especially rewarding because we come from the same place. Our first step has always been to form sincere and deep friendships that allow mistakes and are non-judgmental. Secondly, to teach only what we are sure is correct and for deeper questions always have a sheikh or imam available for advice. Our religious advisor to date is Imam Ali Siddiqui of California. Third, and most important is to assure the new Muslimah that Islam is for everyone and that we are not to separate ourselves from any other Muslims as “only Hispanic Muslims.” And last but not least, to seek Islamic knowledge for the rest of their lives and never be satisfied with their comprehension but to have the thirst of learning in their hearts solely for the pleasure of Almighty Allah, SWT.
After a sister learns to make salat and has an elementary understanding of Islam, she is directed to the nearest Islamic center to continue her studies and she is referred to books that she can study to further her knowledge. If a sister wishes to go further in order to serve Allah SWT she may want to join us in da’awah and for that we do Daiyett training. It is basically a continuation of their studies in Islam and the practice of the deen in the service of Allah SWT.
What has LADO/PIEDAD accomplished?
– Alhamdulillah, much has been done over the years. Here are some of our accomplishments thus far:
PIEDAD (1990) hosted a program at Columbia University, another at Imam Siraj Wahhaj’s Masjid Al-Taqwa and another with Mohammed Nasim of ICNA.
– Five PIEDAD chapters pulled together to buy an 800 toll-free number, 1-800-44-ALLAH (which serves GA, NY, FL, IL, and NJ).
– Distribution of thousands of books and pamphlets to correctional facilities and Islamic organizations.
– PIEDAD Chicago had as the 1st Hispanic Muslim conference guest speaker Jamal Badawi.
– PIEDAD sent representatives to ISNA for a conference which featured Latino Muslims (see the coverage here: http://piedad-latinodawah.blogspot.com/2008/08/one-god-one-people-one-belief-isna-2001.html).
– PIEDAD held Telemundo interviews following 9-11 to demystify Islam to the Latinos of Miami and also on the “Christina Show” (also put out by Telemundo).
– PIEDAD representative Khadijah Rivera was nominated to attend the Second Annual Latino Islamic Congress in Spain.
– PIEDAD helped to bring Imam Ali Siddique from California in 2006-2007 to the Islamic Society of Tampa Bay. He spoke on the need to do da’awah to Hispanics (see the coverage here: http://piedad-latinodawah.blogspot.com/2007/06/islam-spreading-rapidly-among-latinos.html).
– Project Downtown: For three years PIEDAD has partnered with PD to bring food and friendship to the homeless of Tampa Bay. At times we cooked “arroz con pollo” (rice with chicken) to give them that Hispanic flair.
– Hope: PIEDAD volunteers with this inter-faith civic organization.
– Tampa Bay Muslim Alliance: PIEDAD volunteers at the Annual Islamic Charity Festival.
– Prayer Vigil/Purple Hijab Day (February 13-16): PIEDAD joins the campaign organized nationally by the Baytul Salaam Network.
– Islamic Studies: This is a sisters-only halaqa held by PIEDAD. It gives classes at the masjid in English and Spanish. In addition, we have a New Muslimah support group.
What are the future goals for LADO and PIEDAD?
Most definitely, our future goals are to continue with our foundational mission statement: da’awah to women and the overlooked Hispanic population, leadership training for our sisters, and community services. We’re also aiming to reach a larger audience, build our online presence, and seek non-profit status to expand our projects.
In your opinion, what struggles do Latino Muslim women face that other Muslim women may not encounter?
Not much is different from Latina Muslims and other Muslim women reverts. Some struggles reported and observed are sisters not having a support network, access to the Islamic tools and resources of bilingual books, introductory classes at the masjid, and that pertaining to our new Muslimah identitities. Alhamdulillah, we learn from day one that we’re on equal footing in our worship/ibadah to Allah. That’s empowering information. However, the flip side to that, one I particularly struggled with in my early years of reversion, is misunderstanding or failure to grasp the gender-role differentiation as an equitable one. In our cultures, our “madres” (mothers) and “abuelas” (grandmothers) were quite boisterous, outgoing and strong-willed in their acceptable traditions. We must learn, as Latina Muslims, to be strong-willed, boisterous and independent within the limits imposed by Allah. Further, educating our new sisters about equitability of the gender-role differentiation, wisdom of the “qawwamah” our men have over us, and true teachings of Islam is a first step.
I recently watched a nice YouTube educational broadcast put together by www.CasaIslamica.com from Houston, Texas, where the Latina Muslimah educator tackled with this issue in a matter of fact way. I enjoyed the show and commend them for airing the advice for all to benefit. So it returns to the issue of education and the Islamic toolbox, an issue facing all reverts, nevertheless a struggle. And with that comes the responsibility and importance of having more advanced Islamic books translated into Spanish. The struggle is disseminating that information through sister’s halaqas, masjid programs and the likes.
Another struggle is with our non-Muslim families. Muslimahs are often criticized, or blatantly rejected because of their new-found faith. The sisters may initially be torn between choosing to practice Islam and choosing the family. Islamophobia is as widespread in Latin America as it is in the US. When Latina Muslims get together, network, and form study groups, the cognitive dissonance of choosing between culture and Islam decreases. The relatedness factor Latina Muslims can give to another Latina-Muslim thus plays a major role in communicating the message that Islam is a way of life; and that leaving all the haraam of your upbringing is essential but eliminating your cultural identity altogether is not a prerequisite to being a faithful practicing Latina Muslimah.
There then follows the socio-economic issues. I’m being very general here, but many sisters that I’ve encountered come with numerous social issues and concerns: low income families, recently divorced, illegal status, unhealthy marriages, etc. More work is needed to link the spiritual component of Islam with the urgent needs facing our sisters (and brothers). This of course goes beyond all gender or ethnic labels. We constantly talk about how Islam is a “way of life,” and it most certainly is. Now, the struggle is to live it in our communities.
As we know, there is no nationalism in Islam. However, as human beings, we identify with those of our culture in certain instances. There is such a large community of Latino Muslimah women out there! However, many Latino women who are new to Islam often tell me that they feel alone and don’t realize this community until much later. What advice can you give to a Latino who has converted to Islam and feels this way?
I agree, as Muslims we’re inclusive of all races, ethnicities, etc. PIEDAD is keen on promoting this point. Truth is that we do identify with others with whom we share similar values and things in common with. We cannot overlook the very real Latino/Hispanic group identity. And in response to that need, PIEDAD started several programs. Within that group, identity is the language issue and sometimes the language barrier. That’s the relatedness factor that we share in common. We try to address that issue in our small halaqas, and in our discourse with sisters nationally. Insha’Allah, keeping at the forefront of the Islamic principles and standards, the cultural exchange that Latina sisters have is a natural one. I’d say it is even more important for those sisters estranged from their families, or new reverts feeling overwhelmed with what seems to be a total makeover. Once the hugs and kisses following a public shahaada dissipates, the true test of patience begins.
PIEDAD hopes to emulate the Ansari model. Social support is key. I wasn’t really part of the Muslim community when I reverted to Islam for various reasons. It wasn’t until I joined the Muslim community that it became much easier to practice my faith. My advice to a Latina Muslim who feels this way is that support is out there today, wal-hamdulillah!
If you have a question about Islam, you may dial toll-free 1-877-WhyIslam to talk with a Hispanic hotline associate.
Stay connected with PIEDAD events by joining firstname.lastname@example.org or email correspondence to email@example.com.
We’ll even help to connect you to sisters in your area, break the ice for you, or send you literature if you need it. Do not give up! Also, do not be judgmental. It may be that you had a negative experience at your local mosque or with another Muslim. For whatever reason you’ve analyzed the situation to be, remember that we’re all humans. Also, remember that you must take the risk of getting to know others and opening up too. Establish and keep Salat, read the Qur’an, and make plenty of duas. Ask Allah SWT for assistance constantly, for He listens to the dua of his servants.
How does Islam keeps you inspired?
The answer to that is simply by living Islam. Alhamdullilah, the Islamic faith is not a standard set of laws and prescriptions for us to adhere to and that‘s that! The Qur‘an and Hadith of the Prophet transcends time and if one is sincere they will benefit from reading and studying them. I‘m inspired through my prayers, going to the masjid, spending time with my husband, family and friends. On the flip side of the coin, I‘m inspired to participate and take action, when I see preventable hardships, wrongdoing, and outright injustices committed by others; Islam has the solution to these ailments. Belief that Allah is supporting this religion and supporting the true Muslims inspires me!
Tell us a little bit about yourself.
I reverted to Islam in 1995. My family is from Peru-Ecuador but I was born and raised in both NYC and NJ. I learned about Islam through some friends at college. At the time, I was already questioning the issue of trinity, god-son incarnate, the church and its practices. When I discovered Islam and realized how similar it was to my core beliefs and there was no questioning on whether to become Muslim. From there I took my shahaada, learned salat through books, and a few online resources that existed. Alhamdullilah there are so many available nowadays.
I‘m married to a Syrian brother. I work as a full-time mental health counselor at a day program for people with addictions disorders and severe mental illness diagnosis, with the professional ambition of becoming a psychologist in the near future. As for my Islamic pursuits, studying Qur‘an recitation and learning more about the deen takes precedence over all. I try to volunteer my time, give back to the community, and just offer a helping hand to those that may need it: PIEDAD, LADO, mosque‘s various programs and events.
As far as my typical day, I love my solitude: morning sip of coffee, admiring the beautiful pleasantries of nature, laughing at small nuances, trying out a new recipe, coordinating my outfits is a must, remembering my mother‘s indomitable spirit, and my husband‘s great sense of humor!
In this issue, the theme is desires. As we know, Islam advocates that we do everything within the halal boundaries rather than leading a hedonistic lifestyle. Can you elaborate on this from your point of view?
The halal boundaries and limits are there and clearly defined by Allah (swt) because he knows what‘s best for us. Although they are quite generous and not constricting as some may claim, I‘ll highlight an oft thought of desire: sexual pleasures. Left untamed, sexual desires can lead to serious personal and social consequences, i.e. from pornography, gender exploitation, to sexual assault. We‘ve seen that throughout time, mankind has regulated sexuality at some level, i.e. institution of marriage. In Islam, we‘re not left to guess or adapt to changing practices as do occur over time with man-made laws. What‘s halaal and permissible today will be halaal and permissible tomorrow. To me, that‘s comforting news. Desire in itself is not terrible. In fact, we‘re encouraged to marry and desire our spouses. In public however, Muslims, the very same desirous individuals, must ascribe to the hijab to preserve their modesty, chastity, and social harmony.
Likewise, desiring to have the fine riches and luxuries are quite alright in Islam, so long as we do not lose sight of our ultimate purpose in life, worshipping Allah SWT. Desiring to be in a position of power is halaal, so long as we are treating those under our authority with justice and fairness. Our religion keeps us in check. Our very action is a form of worship, Subhana’Allah!
Even in our food consumption habits, overeating can lead to Type II diabetes, coronary heart disease, high cholesterol, and selfishness. If we follow the tradition of the Prophet Muhammad (saw) in a standard meal sitting we should be consuming 1/3 food, 1/3 beverage, and 1/3 air! How many hungry mouths could we feed then indirectly or directly by the mere thought on cutting back on our consumption?
Thus, to lead a hedonistic lifestyle is to lead an unchecked lifestyle that not only has negative consequences to the self but also affects others. And, our Islamic faith is a comprehensive faith that does take into account the mundane and intrinsic nature of all creation. What a blessing indeed. Alhamdullilah.