Latino Muslim Community On The Rise In U.S.

By Jason Ma
USC Annenberg School of Journalism
March 2010

With last month’s premiere of El Clon — a Telemundo soap opera about a Muslim girl caught in a love triangle with a man and his genetically engineered clone — viewers curious about Islam will find a growing number of Latino Muslims at whom to direct their questions.

The show perpetuates some stereotypes of Islam, but Hjamil Martínez-Vázquez, an assistant professor of religion at Texas Christian University, thinks it will spark interest among Latinos and compel Latino Muslims to explain to family and friends what the telenovela gets wrong about their faith.

“[Islam] will be out there,” Martínez-Vázquez said in a phone interview.

It wouldn’t be the first time misconceptions create interest in Islam among Latinos. The religion has been growing rapidly in the Latino community since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, which prompted many to learn more about Islam beyond the negative media portrayals, he said.

As American Muslims have faced almost a decade of post-9/11 negative stereotyping, Latinos, subject to an anti-immigration backlash, have come to see them as a fellow “minoritized” community, he said.

“You share that common marginalization,” said Martínez-Vázquez, who wrote a book about Latino Muslims that was published in January.

In “Latina/o y Musulmán: The Construction of Latina/o Identity among Latina/o Muslims in the United States,” he says the Latino Muslim population is one of the fastest growing communities in the country. Definitive numbers aren’t available, but estimates range from 25,000 to 200,000. Martínez-Vázquez puts the number closer to 75,000 to 100,000.

Learning about Islam outside the mass media’s filter, some Latinos discovered they preferred it to the religion they grew up with, which was usually Roman Catholicism. Lorena Elkhalafawi, who grew up in Paraguay, was living in New York on 9/11.

“I wanted to know what these kind of people are,” she said. “I started searching.”

She was raised a Catholic, then later converted to Protestantism, she said. But she still had a lot of questions, including whom to pray to if Jesus Christ and God were both God. But instead of getting an explanation, she was told to just believe. Islam encouraged her to ask questions, and she preferred its teachings on the unity of God and Christ’s status as a prophet.

“It made more sense to me,” she said.

In 2002 Elkhalafawi became a Muslim. She moved to Southern California three years ago and attends the Masjid Omar ibn Al-Khattab every Sunday for meetings of the Los Angeles Latino Muslim Association, or LALMA.

The rational engagement that attracted her to Islam is something that other Latino Muslims cite. Many LALMA members appreciate the Quran as a guide for daily ethical behavior, said Jacqueline Hidalgo, a PhD candidate at Claremont Graduate University who studied LALMA meetings for six months and interviewed attendees.

“The Quran had teachings that were common sense,” Hidalgo said.

Latinas particularly have been drawn to Islam more than men, partly because of positive experiences they’ve had with Muslim men, Elkhalafawi said. She said she knows some Latinas who had bad experiences with overly macho Latino husbands and boyfriends and later met Muslim men who were more respectful toward them.

She’s married to an Egyptian man, whom she first met at an Islamic school during Eid, a Muslim holiday that marks the end of Ramadan. A friend introduced them to each other for professional reasons because he was an accountant and she was studying accounting, she said.

Elkhalafawi said the notion that Islam oppresses women comes from the cultural traditions of certain Muslim countries, not from Islam itself. The problem, she said, is when people get culture and religion mixed up.

Marta Felicitas Ramirez de Galedary, who started LALMA in 1999, said women consistently show up for Sunday afternoon meetings, which generally draw about 20 people — only three to four of whom are men.

She said Latinas are more religiously minded than the men are, regardless of the faith. As an example, she noted that Latina mothers tend be in charge of religious matters in the family.

“My mother is the one who took me to church,” said Galedary, who was raised a Roman Catholic.

Martínez-Vázquez said among the reasons why more Latinas are becoming Muslim is that some women marry Muslims and convert. But more important, he said, is that women are going to college and coming into contact with Muslim students. Latinas also are open to Islam because women lead many Latino Muslim groups around the country.

Latinas also meet Muslims in everyday encounters, like going to work, shopping, running into a neighbor, and picking up their kids at school and talking to a Muslim parent, Galedary said.

El Clon is a Spanish-language remake of a Brazilian soap opera that first aired in 2001. The Brazilian show was then dubbed in Spanish and aired a year later across the Spanish-speaking world. Because of the original show’s widespread popularity, the remake, which was produced specifically for Spanish speakers, was greatly anticipated.

Elkhalafawi remembered visiting relatives and friends in Paraguay several years ago after she became Muslim. People had been watching the dubbed version of the show and were curious about her new faith. She had to explain to some people that she doesn’t belly dance, which was a prominent feature on the show. But she was pleasantly surprised when others said to her, “salaam alaikum.”

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