Latino Muslims

By Belia Ortega
Extra News
August 5, 2004

Another Face of Islam — The Peña family are part of a small but growing movement of Latino Muslims in Chicago. It is said that there are between 25,000 and 40,000 Latino Muslims in the US.

At a time when young Latino generations are increasingly becoming less traditional and religious, Ricardo “Rashid” Peña has found his place as a Muslim.

He doesn’t drink or eat pork and is not supposed to dance, but does slip in a salsa or merengue every now and then. After all, he is Puerto Rican and Mexican.

“We’re not supposed to dance but I do. I’m not a perfect person,” he says.

He chuckles and adds that he has not eaten his mom’s “chuletas” in a long time “They were good,” he laughs.

From Catholic to Muslim

Peña, 30, an IT consultant, converted from Catholicism to Islam nine years ago. He had been on a quest for God since he was 18 years old. He needed to know whether he was right in what he was practicing. A friend, Danny Aristazabe, introduced him to Islam.

“When my brother and I first converted, me and my brother, we told our parents and we had a big fight from 9pm to 4am in the morning,” said Peña.

Practicing Catholics, his parents José and Carmen thought their sons were getting involved in some sort of cult. However, after the initial reaction of shock they accepted it.

About five years later his sister Christina and her husband also converted.

After his conversion, Peña took the Muslim name “Rashid”. His wife Diana, who is a Mexican-American, also has the Muslim name of “Amani”.

Changing Religions, Not Cultures

Islam has a long history in Hispanic culture. Muslim Moors ruled Spain from the 700s to the 1400s. Many Spanish words come from Arabic including “Ojala” which literally means “Allah wills that” in Arabic.

Being a Latino Muslim is a rarity in the Chicago area. Peña says it’s hard to find Latino Muslims in Chicago, but through the Chicago Association of Latino-American Muslims organization he is increasingly connecting and networking. The group estimates that there are between 200 and 500 Latino Muslims in Chicago.

Peña is often questioned about conflicts between the Latino culture and Islam. He quickly clears any misconceptions of restrictions and says that he does not do anything cultural that is against Islam. Within the Islam community, he claims, there is no racial division.

His wife Diana, 31, says that Islam is a universal religion open to all races and ethnicities.

“Islam accepts all cultures,” she said. “Culture is separate from religion.”

“Women are put on pedestal in Islam”

There are social aspects of Islam that are misunderstood such as the treatment of women.

Peña’s wife points out that in Islam women are put on a pedestal.

“People have this idea that Muslim women are submissive to men but in reality they are only submissive to God,” she said.

She says Islam liberated her from the machismo in the Latino culture.

“I can go to school, work and get to keep my money,” she said.

She is not forced to have children to populate the Islam religion and she does not have to tolerate polygamy. That is not encouraged in Islam but is practiced by about one percent of the Muslim population.

“When a woman gets married she is able to stipulate in the marriage agreement that she will not permit for her husband to have a second wife,” she said.

Her husband Ricardo said that there are misconceptions about the headscarves or “hijabs” that women wear.

“A woman having to cover her head is due to a man’s weaknesses,” he said. “In Islam the family unit is extremely important.”

He adds that a woman dressing modestly is a simple solution to a big sociological problem. Rules are geared to avoid temptation.

“No Place in Islam for Terrorism”

It’s unfortunate that one of the world’s most well-known Latino Muslims (from Chicago) is José Padilla, the alleged plotter of US attacks who once lived in Humboldt Park and Logan Square.

Peña says a common misconception is the idea that all Muslims are terrorists.

“There is absolutely no place in Islam for that [terrorism],” said Peña. “There are 1.2 billion Muslims in this world and if Islam teaches hate you would have a [proportionate amount] of those people acting in hate.”

“The Department of Homeland Security has 5 million Muslims listed as suspect. That means 99.6 percent of Muslims are peaceful,” he added. “You have not even half of a percent of Muslims in this world that are up to no good.”

Converts in Chicago

Peña has most recently been trying to educate the Latino community about Islam. He set up a booth at the Puerto Rican Festival in Humboldt Park and at the Fiesta del Sol last weekend.

With the help of other members of the Chicago Association of Latino-American Muslims, they try to persuade people that Islam is not an aggressive religion and that only God converts people.

“Our goal is to promote a better understanding of Islam,” said Peña.

The invitational organization will soon set up an office in the Downtown Islamic Center on State Street. They hold “jumah” or weekly Friday prayers at this site.

“The office is going to be a place to have a base. After that our goals are just to propagate information,” he said.

The group also hopes to be involved in the Latino community and join any efforts that benefit the community.

“Islam is definitely going to be something that continues to grow because it’s a very well rounded religion,” said Peña.

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