Latino Muslims seek answers

By Martin Ricard
The Oakland Tribune
August 22, 2006

Group meets in Hayward to discuss how to reconcile two cultures

HAYWARD — On a sunny afternoon, a dozen people file into the prayer hall at Zaytuna Institute, a Muslim teaching center in downtown Hayward.

But they have not showed up to learn about the Prophet Muhammad, Islam or the Arabic language. They are gathered to enjoy fellowship with one another and discuss what it means to be a Latino Muslim in the Bay Area.

Murabit Benavidez, a lanky Mexican-American wearing a long gray tunic, said he has been pondering the duality since college, but most recently since he returned from studying in Syria. He grew up in Fremont immersed in Latino culture but, lately, he has been trying to reconcile the two cultures since he converted to Islam seven years ago.

“Am I still a Chicano?” he asked. “We have this Islamic identity and, being Latino, we have this Catholic background. I’m not Christian anymore, but am I still Latino? We’re redefining what Latino is.”

A small group of Latino Muslims — mostly college students and young professionals coming from Silicon Valley — have been meeting recently at Zaytuna to support one another in their new conversion and educate one another on their Latino connections to Islamic culture.

For those such as Benavidez’ brother, Justin, who have fully embraced both cultures, Islamic culture always has been a part of Latino identity but has not always been recognized.

“You can find a lot of similarities within the two cultures. Take the language, for example,” said Justin, 32, who cited a passage in Carlos Fuentes’ “The Buried Mirror,” which says that one-quarter of all Spanish words are of Arab origin.

For others, who have not yet found that balance, it has been like making a spiritual jump into their new identities.

“We’re kind of breaking that paradigm,” he said. “And this is like laying the groundwork, making history as we go along. It’s part of the journey.”

Latino Muslim groups have been sprouting up all over the country, attempting to find cultural balance in their lives — in some instances, choosing religion over cultural roots. But this fledgling group says its identity will be focused on finding connections with Islamic Spain, which until the 15th century was ruled by Muslims but has since influenced other civilizations, especially those in Latin America, Benavidez said.

There are an estimated 40,000 to 70,000 Latino Muslims in the U.S. and about 1,000 reside in Southern California. There are no statistics available for the Bay Area.

The group has identified about 100 Latino Muslims in the Bay Area and has been meeting under a generic name. But Justin Benavidez said they hope to become a nonprofit and will change the name.

Until last week, they were meeting at Muhajireen Masjid, a local mosque mainly made up of Afghan immigrant congregants.

But renovations on the building have caused the group to search for a new meeting place. Thus, Zaytuna.

Walter Gomez, 29, whose roots are in El Salvador, said Zaytuna has been a perfect fit, not only for its intellectual focus but also for its adherence to the core values of Islam which, in essence, takes on the culture of the place it goes.

The word “zaytuna” — which respectively mean olive and oil in Spanish — also has meaning for Gomez as well. It is a reference to aceituna or aceite, both mean oil in Spanish, and the light of God, a well-known and highly-interpreted passage in the Quran.

The Sunday gatherings bring from two to 20 people, Gomez said, and the group even hopes to attract non-Muslims.

“For us, it’s not about the numbers,” he said. “Just coming together.”

On Sunday, Justin Benavidez was ending his lecture on how, toward the end of Islamic rule in Spain, many Spanish leaders believed their past with Muslims prevented the country from becoming as great as other European powers. Now, he said, Spain is beginning to reclaim and embrace that past.

Through the group’s gatherings, he hopes to see all Latino Muslims in the Bay Area fully immersed in a quest to forge a new identity that embraces both their Latino and Muslim cultures — but also one that sheds the labeling by the outside world that often perpetuates a chasm between both cultures.

“It’s important for us to have a link to something,” he said in an interview. “We have a history, and we can trace it through Spain.”

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