By Rebecca Romani
September 7, 2011
The Arancibia family home sits on a small hillside in rural Bonita in southern San Diego County. Laughter rings out around the house where Spanish and English comfortably co-exist in an ever-growing family of married children, grandchildren and friends.
Despite appearances, the Arancibia’s are not your typical California Latino family. They’re Chilean, not Mexican, having fled Chile shortly after the fall of Allende. And they’re Christian, but not Catholic.
What sets them apart even more is one son – 38 year old Diego, a project coordinator with After School Assistance Provider (ASAP) – who converted to Islam 13 years ago.
Islam is the fastest growing religion in the U.S., with domestic conversion fueling that growth. California Latinos make up the bulk of the domestic conversions.
For Diego Arancibia, the move toward Islam was an evolving process.
“Out of high school, I read three books. “Rambo: First Blood,” “The Karate Kid,” and then, of course, “The Autobiography of Malcolm X,” but that was the one book that I didn’t want to put down. I said I wanted to be like this individual in the sense that someone who completely transform themselves and was able to make this huge impact on society,” Diego said.
A religions course on Islam in college resonated with him, but Diego said there was something deeper, more personal drawing him in: family history.
Like many Latinos, Diego’s grandfather came from Spain and the history of Spain and that of the occupying Arabs in Andalusia is deeply intertwined in Latino culture, from words like Alhambra to traditional social practices such as reverence of parents.
“Spain had the Moors there for 700 years and my father put this in our consciousness…that we come from this kind of great legacy and tradition,” Diego said.
In his last year of college, Diego decided to commit to his new faith and say the Shahada, the declaration of faith that a Muslim must make that states there is only one God and that Mohammed is his prophet.
“In my mind, I was already Muslim, and to say that in front of people was totally life-changing. I still remember that day,” Diego said.
According to Taha Hassane, Imam of the Islamic Center of San Diego, over 55 people come to the Center to convert every year.
“Most of them are young people, men and women, who were introduced to Islam by friends, by classmates, by neighbors,” he said.
Hassane said he finds Latinos to be very religious and that those who convert are attracted to something in the morals system and the worship structure of Islam. According to the Imam, Latino converts are often deeply committed to their new faith. However, conversion is not without its challenges.
“Basically, new converts face some challenges when they accept Islam,” Hassane said. “Accepting Islam for them is accepting another way of life that will affect their relationship with their friends, with their siblings, with their family members.”
Diego agreed. Although his family is very supportive of his conversion, initially there were a lot of questions and some friction.
“It did become heated, initially there was, what is this?” Diego said.
For 40 year old professor and poet, Adrian Arancibia, Diego’s older brother, Diego’s conversion came as a shock.
“Diego and I, we’re as close as brothers as you can get,” Adrian Arancibia said. “So that was really tough, and for me it was like really tough not being to be go out with him.”
Adrian Arancibia feared the days of listening to jazz and spoken word in bars and other places were over.
But Adrian Arancibia said both he and his family overcame their misgivings and misperceptions about Diego’s new religion by reading up on it.
“My family is really special in the sense that once we understood that he was going to be serious about conversion, I think it was really helpful that my mom, my father, they both picked up books and they started reading,” he said.
According to the Arancibia brothers, their mother, a teacher in the San Diego school system, and their father, a purchasing director, believe that information and dialog are important and support independent thinking and tolerance in their children.
However, the aftermath of 9/11 tested that tolerance and feeling of belonging for many Muslims.
“Initially there was this kind of ‘what’s going on, should I leave my house?’,” recalled Diego. “And having to apologize for something I had nothing to do with.”
But Imam Hassane says the events of 9/11 provided American Muslims with new opportunities to interact with American society.
“9/11 was a wake-up call for us as American Muslims. It showed us we should do a better job in terms of reaching out to our non-Muslim neighbors, our non-Muslim friends…I can tell you that 10 years after 9/11, the situation is totally different,” Hassane said.
Today, both Adrian and Diego Arancibia are married with children. Diego’s Somali-American wife, Hajjer, is also a practicing Muslim.
Holidays at the Arancibia house include both Christmas and New Year’s, as well as the Muslim festival of ‘Eid, celebrating the end of Ramadan, the month long fast.
“I thank God my family has been so accommodating, and understanding cause it was a growth process for all of us,” Diego said.
Adrian Arancibia said it is a growing process that has enriched their family.
“We may come from different backgrounds and religions, but we’re one family,” said Adrian Arancibia.
And in that sense, the Arancibias may well be the new face of California Latinos – ethnically and religiously diverse.