Latino Muslims Balance 2 Cultures

By Teresa Puente
The Chicago Tribune
December 22, 2001

Converts face cultural challenges from family and
friends while staying true to their newfound faith

As he has for many years, Ricardo “Rashid” Pena will join his family for Christmas Eve dinner. He will eat the turkey, and Puerto Rican rice without sausage, but he will skip one of his favorites, the pork-filled pasteles, akin to tamales. A former Roman Catholic who converted to Islam six years ago, Pena also has given up the after-dinner tradition of drinking tequila shots with his uncle. And he does his best to refrain from dancing to salsa and merengue music. Because he practices Islam, Pena doesn’t dance, drink or eat pork. But he joins his Puerto Rican mother and Mexican father for their holiday celebration out of respect.

Experts say the number of Muslims of Latino descent is small, but growing. Just as some Latinos have left the Catholic faith for Evangelical churches, others are choosing Islam. The faith is one of the fastest growing religions in the country, driven by immigration and conversion. About 85 percent of the at least 6 million Muslims in the United States are Middle Eastern, South Asian or African-American, in nearly equal proportions. It’s hard to quantify how many Muslims are Latinos. But signs of their growing presence include Spanish-language translations of the Koran as well as other Spanish-language religious materials and videos sold in Muslim stores.

When Pena joins his parents for dinner Monday, he will not be the only one at the table to have changed his religion. Two of his siblings, his fiance and his brother-in-law also have converted to Islam in recent years.

Some Latinos turn to Islam after they become frustrated with what they perceive as contradictions in the Catholic Church, said Aminah McCloud, an associate professor of Islamic studies at DePaul University. Others may feel their culture is not completely welcomed by the church. “People start questioning: `Who am I? What does this mean?'” McCloud said. “When they turn to Islam, everything just rings true.”

`An answer for everything’

Pena said he had been looking for God and had studied many religions without finding answers. Then a friend, Danny Aristizabal, talked to him about Islam, and after careful study of the Koran, he decided to convert. “There’s an answer for everything in Islam,” said Pena, 27, a Web site designer who lives with his parents in their Sauganash home.

Some Muslims say they hope one result of the tragic events of Sept. 11 will be a greater awareness of the diversity of Islam, which has followers around the world. The faith has a long presence in Latin America, dating back to Spain, which has had a Muslim history for centuries.

Many Muslims from the Middle East also have migrated to Latin America, and some of their descendants later moved to the U.S. They and converts have formed Latino Muslim associations in New York and Los Angeles and even started a Hispanic Muslim Web site based in Texas. Some Hispanic Muslims in Chicago also have held informal gatherings.

Argument in the family

But converting often presents a cultural challenge for Latinos, especially when they try to explain their choice to family and others. When Pena and his brother, Marco, told their parents, it turned into an argument. “It ended up being a fight that started at 9 p.m. and lasted until 4:30 in the morning,” said Pena, who adopted the Muslim name of Rashid.

His sister, Cristina Figueroa, 29, didn’t want to talk about it. “I don’t want to hear about your freaky cult,” she recalled telling her brothers. But Figueroa would eventually think differently. Four years ago, she also embraced Islam. Her husband, Victor Figueroa, 39, whose father was a Pentecostal pastor, also converted, as has Ricardo Pena’s fiance, Diana “Amani” Cruz, 28, who was raised Mormon and Catholic.

The changes have made family gatherings a delicate balancing act. On Christmas Eve, Pena and his two siblings skip mass with their parents. They don’t pray or say grace at the dinner table. But they do exchange gifts in a grab bag. “We feel that as Muslims we can give and receive gifts at any time of the year, so why not at a time when our family exchanges them?” Pena said. Dealing with their conversion wasn’t easy for their parents. Carmen and Jose Pena did not want to talk publicly about it. “Islam has never been an easy issue to address within our family,” Pena said. “The issue of Islam is generally avoided unless communication about Islam occurs between those of us who are Muslim.”

Figueroa said his parents, especially his Pentecostal father, also had a hard time accepting the change. His father associated Muslims with terrorists, his son said. “He called us “Mohammedans,” Figueroa recalled. But his Catholic mother, who goes to mass on Fridays and Sundays and to prayer groups, has been more accepting. She always encouraged her son to pray, and as a Muslim, Figueroa prays five times a day. Still, it was a decision he came to slowly. His wife converted almost two years before he did.

“There was a fear I would be shunned by my family,” said Figueroa, who attends the Muslim Community Center and lives with his family on the Northwest Side. He decided to convert after a powerful dream. “Allah spoke to me and told me I have to change,” Figueroa said, choking with emotion.

Disparaging comments

Some Hispanics outside their family have reacted negatively to their conversion. When Cristina Figueroa wears a head scarf, or hijab, she notices that some people look at her differently. Once at a Mexican restaurant, a Mexican man made disparaging comments in front of her in Spanish, not realizing she could understand. After several minutes, Figueroa told the man in Spanish, “I think I’m more Mexican than you are, and I’ve given you no reason to disrespect me.” Figueroa was once a single mother and used to go out and party.

Becoming depressed, she turned toward her Catholic faith. But it did not bring her any solace. Turning to Islam–after reading about it and talking with her brother–was a comfort. “I was looking for God and to live the right type of life with morals. It’s been a life change, a personal change,” said Figueroa, who like many modern Muslim women doesn’t wear the hijab all the time. “I still consider myself Hispanic. I haven’t changed cultures, but I have changed my behavior.” Divorced with two children, Cruz converted shortly after she met her future husband, Pena, two years ago.

On Fridays, she takes a break from her downtown job as an administrative assistant and puts on her white beaded hijab to pray at the Downtown Islamic Center. Recently, Cruz leaned forward in prayer at the center, concentrating intently and touching her head to the ground. When she sat up, she wiped tears from her eyes. “When I’m praying, there’s a lot of peace,” Cruz said. “It’s a beautiful feeling.”

Welcomed as a family

The Figueroas now work for a phone card company where all of the employees are Muslim except one. Their boss is Palestinian and his family migrated to South America more than a century ago, eventually settling in Puerto Rico before coming to the U.S. In the office, where American flag posters decorate a few windows, Ayyad Yassin speaks with customers on the phone in Arabic, then asks Cristina Figueroa, the office manager, questions in Spanish.

The Figueroas, Pena and Cruz said Muslims have welcomed them as family. “I looked at it as joining a larger brotherhood,” Pena said. “We don’t look at each other as Mexicans, or Arabs. We look at each other as Muslims.”

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