Las Cruces woman juggles Hispanic, Muslim cultures

By Michael Johnson
Las Cruces Sun-News
June 9, 2010

LAS CRUCES – Daisy Maldonado doesn’t particularly like it when people make assumptions about her.

Maldonado, a student at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces, grew up in El Paso and enjoys many things young college students do these days, such as hanging out with friends, going to the movies and shopping.

She still enjoys those activities, but her circle of friends has considerably diminished because of a life decision she made about five years ago.

Maldonado, who grew up in a Christian home, converted to Islam.

”Because I wear a scarf, people assume a lot of different things about me,” she said while visiting the Islamic Center in Las Cruces. ”People assume I’m foreign. People always think I’m Arab, which I am not. I’m Hispanic.”

Many stereotypes come with being a Muslim woman in the United States, particularly one who was raised as a Christian and converted to Islam.

”People think I don’t speak English and that I’m some oppressed woman,” she said. ”I made the decision to put on this scarf. Nobody told me to do it.

There is no one in my family who is Muslim who told me to put on this scarf.”

Going out in public isn’t particularly easy for Maldonado because she wears the traditional scarf required of Muslim women.

”When I go out and see people the store, the park or wherever most of my experience is I feel like men pity me,” she said. ”From women, it’s the opposite. I can’t explain it … they don’t like it or like what they think I represent. They don’t want to engage with me at all. It’s an odd experience for me because I grew up in this area.”

Maldonado’s tight circle of friends now includes fellow Muslims whom she visits regularly at the Islamic Center. She faithfully practices Islam in every facet of her life, including prayer five times a day. When Maldonado prays, she always faces eastward in the direction of Mecca, Islam’s holy city.

Maldonado didn’t take the decision to convert to Islam lightly. She thought about how it would affect her life, as well as the lives of her friends and family. Ultimately, Maldonado decided to base the decision on her wants and needs.

”I did the research myself and made the decision,” she said, without further explanation.

Maldonado’s family in El Paso wasn’t too thrilled with her decision.

”They weren’t happy at all,” she said. ”I was raised in a Christian family and they didn’t take to it at all. They’re still not happy with it.”

Maldonado said her decision hasn’t affected her relationship with family, but said there is a noticeable difference in how she’s treated.

”They don’t voice it every time I have an interaction with them, but when I go to visit, it’s ‘Oh, can Daisy eat the meat?’ or they’ll say, ‘Daisy can’t have alcohol anymore.’ They play around,” she said. ”They’ll do things to point out the fact that I’m not engaging in those activities anymore.

”From my perspective, it’s a positive thing that I don’t drink alcohol or eat meat. For them, it’s the opposite … like I’ve given up a part of myself.”

Maldonado’s friend, Nabeeh Hasan, who grew up in Detroit and is a graduate student at NMSU, agreed.

”Sometimes you just have to joke back. It’s a give-and-take. If you let them rub you the wrong way, they see that and they’ll pick at it,” he said. ”A lot of it is that people just don’t really understand why the practices that we have are so important. To them, it’s a joke … it’s just something I do.”

Maldonado also doesn’t like how she and her Muslim friends, who practice what she calls ”true Islam,” are lumped into the same category as terrorists.

”One aspect of Islam that people don’t understand and since I was once a Christian, you’ll get this when I say it is it’s Jesus-like,” Maldonado said. ”As Christians, you’re supposed to behave like Jesus. What was Jesus’ example? He was kind, forbearing and forgiving. He forgave his enemies and he prayed for them.”

”I remember, very clearly, my mother saying to me while I was growing up to forgive your enemies and pray for them,” she continued. ”Guess what? Islam teaches us the same thing. Islam also says that if you’re a Muslim and your family is not, you must continue to treat them with kindness and respect.

Maldonado especially dislikes the term ”radical Islam.”

”People who engage in those activities supposedly say that it’s something Islam propagates,” she said. ”That is completely false because it doesn’t.”

Becoming a Muslim has changed Maldonado’s religious beliefs, but she still considers herself to be the same person, even though she looks different than other American women her age.

”Before I wore the scarf, my life was very different,” she said. ”It’s interesting now, even on campus, how I get treated differently and how people think I’m a nun or a holy person. People think I’m always in my house praying.

”Even though I’m not foreign, I feel foreign in Las Cruces. I feel foreign in my own country.”

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