Latino Muslims Search for Identity, Community in the Bronx

By Elizabeth Barber
Norwood News
December 3, 2012

In Masjid Annasr’s prayer space on a Saturday afternoon, Zaynab al-Samat is in a minority of one. A slight woman dressed in a pale purple abaya and matching hijab, she is the only Hispanic supplicant at this roomy northwest Bronx mosque that almost exclusively serves a local West African population.

Al-Samat, a native of the Dominican Republic, converted to Islam in 2010 after a long period of faith exploration as she became increasingly dissatisfied with the Catholic Church. Now, she says she has found a welcoming home here at Masjid Annasr, one of several West African mosques in Morris Heights, a majority-Hispanic area increasingly dotted with Ghanaian groceries offering Halal cuts of goat meat.

Still, al-Samat says that she hopes to eventually pray at a Latino mosque, a niche that doesn’t exist here in the Bronx. Though she is deeply involved at Masjid Annasr, managing religious classes for children and painting henna on holidays, what she lacks here is a Latino Muslim community in which to weave together her Latino culture and a faith that some Hispanics “think is for Arabs only,” she said.

Even as the number of Latino converts is on the rise, Hispanic Muslims say the population is still invisible in the Bronx – more a collection of individuals finding homes at other ethnic mosques than a cohesive group with spaces and customs to call their own. In the absence of a defined Latino Muslim community, there has been little organized debate here on what it means to be both Hispanic and Muslim. Building a duel identity, then, is a piecemeal process of synergizing Hispanic culture and an adopted faith.

Estimating the size of the Latino Muslim population is difficult, since the U.S. Census Bureau does not collect information on religious demographics. According to The Islamic Society of North America, there are roughly 40,000 Latino Muslims in the U.S., while other academic studies put the number as low as 25,000 and as high as 75,000.

“I hear exaggerated numbers of how many we are, but I just don’t buy it,” said Ramon Ocasio, a stationmaster at Grand Central who converted to Islam in 1973 as a university student. “I don’t see them anywhere.”

The last time Ocasio felt a sense of Latino Muslim community was when he and other recent Puerto Rican converts founded Alianza Islamica, a Hispanic Muslim organization that rode the energy of the Latino nationalist politics that sizzled in Spanish Harlem a decade earlier.

Alianza Islamica, founded in 1985, sought to build a uniquely Latino identity within Islam, Ocasio said. Operating out of a small, Spanish Harlem storefront before relocating to the south Bronx in the early 1990s, the group put on its own version of Muslim holiday festivities. At those celebrations, choreographed to conga rhythms, traditional Puerto Rican pork dishes were re-imagined with lamb substitutes, he said.

“We tried to express ourselves as Latinos and as Muslims at the same time,” Ocasio said. “We had to learn to adapt Islam to our culture. And we were the first to do it. We didn’t learn it from our parents.”

But Alianza Islamica shut down in 2003 after internal conflict amongst the leaders splinted its roughly 50 members. The closure left Ocasio “jaded” about the prospect of again uniting the community, he said, especially after a subsequent attempt to duplicate the group floundered.

He added that such an effort now faces the additional challenge of bringing together a group of converts who may primarily identify with a country of origin rather than as “Latino.” Alianza Islamica was entirely Puerto Rican and operated exclusively in English, he said.

Still, some converts are attempting to once again cultivate a community out of a scattered population.

Aisha Ahmed Hernandez is the founder of the Latin American Muslim Women’s Association, a south Bronx-based organization established in 2007. The group fields telephone calls from Latino Muslims looking for Islamic answers to their problems, be it turbulent marriages or troubled faith.

Hernandez also created a Facebook group, called “Muslims Who Speak Spanish,” that now counts almost 500 members, not all of whom live in New York. She established the group to get a sense of just how large the Latino Muslim population is and said she was surprised by the huge response.

Encouraged, she says she hopes that her still small-scale effort will blossom – drawing together a community in which Latino converts can negotiate a common identity and support each other through a conversion process that can roil family members.

In the meantime, Hernandez says she straddles two cultures. A frequenter of mostly African mosques like the one in which she converted more than 20 years ago, she still celebrates Catholic holidays with her Puerto Rican friends and family, she said.

“I do Easter egg hunts in my Muslim garb,” she said.

Back at Masjid Annasr, surrounded by West African girls in sparkly hijabs at work on their religious lessons, al-Samat said she knows only one other Latino Muslim, a coworker at her job in Brooklyn.

“They’re out there, but I just can’t find them,” she said. “I wish I could find out where they are.”

Editor’s note: A version of this article was originally published in the Nov. 29-Dec. 12 print edition of the Norwood News.

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