Latino-Muslims Share Experiences at Dar-Al-Hijrah Event

By Farkhunda Ali
Muslim Link Paper
May 18, 2007

Fernando Saravia, at age 23, made the most difficult decision in his life. He left his family’s traditional Catholic values and converted to Islam right before the events of 9/11.

Saravia told the Muslim Link the first time he heard the recitation of the Quran, “it touched my heart.”

When he hit 20, Saravia began to question many aspects of his religion and started taking his life more seriously. He took on a full time position at Northup & Grumman. He started contemplating more about the status of women is Western society.

“My mentality was beginning to change. I began to realize respect for one’s self, for one’s lord and for the woman, is the most important thing,” said Saravia.

He began to learn more about Islam and the status of women form his older brother who had already left Catholicism in 2000.

Fernando Saravia and Daniel Saravia both wanted to fill an “empty gap” in their life. The Saravia brothers told the Muslim Link they had reached a point in their life at an early age where they wanted to be “satisfied,” and “feel like they have a purpose in life.”

“At one point in your life, you may feel really low, and you want to turn to your creator. I did not agree with the idea of confessing my sins to the priest. My brother and I started learning more about Islam. After hearing the Quranic recitation, for the first time, this brought peace to our hearts, and tranquility to our eyes,” said Daniel Saravia.

Islam to the Saravias has become a growing tradition. So far, out of the seven members of the family, four siblings have accepted Islam. The Muslim family members are continuously giving Dawah to the one sibling and their parents who are still uncomfortable with leaving their long-rooted Catholic beliefs behind.

In 2001, both brothers, who come from a Bolivian background, took a U-turn in their lives and willingly accepted Islam. They say respect for “self” and “family values” were their main points of interests which attracted their family to Islam.

“I wanted to have a direct connection with my lord and I wanted to maintain close family ties,” added Daniel Saravia.

Dar Al-Hijrah Islamic Center in Falls Church, Virginia held its first “Hispanic Muslim Day” to share the experiences of Hispanic Muslims with the public and to invite the non-Muslim Hispanics to Islam.

A panel of Hispanic Muslim women and men discussed their experiences in Islam. All lectures were conducted in Spanish and translated into English.

The all day event attracted an estimate of 100 Latin Americans from Northern Virginia. Dar Al-Hijrah offered an international cuisine for lunch, catering to the likes of the Latin-American culture.

The event’s special guest Imam Muhammad Isa Garcia flew from Argentina to attend the event. In Imam Garcia’s presence, four area Latin Americans took their Shahada during the event after hearing the inspirational stories of some of the Latino Muslims.

All day long, Muslims at Dar Al-Hijrah eagerly anticipated visits from their Hispanic neighbors. The event was facilitated Spanish translators and distributed Islamic literature in Spanish.

“I learned about Islam from friends at work. They asked me to come to the Masjid. I’ve been taking the Sunday classes at Dar Al-Hijrah. I came to Islam because I find Islam teaches more respect for women,” Maria Tizon, resident of Falls Church, Virginia who took her Shahada at the event.

Although the exact number is difficult to find, Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) estimates there are 40,000 Hispanic Muslims in the US. The largest communities of Latino Muslims are in Florida, California, New Jersey, New York, and Texas, where there is a high population of Latin-Americans.

It is a mixture of two seemingly comparable communities. In growing numbers, Hispanics, the country’s fastest-growing ethnic group, are finding new faith in Islam, the nation’s fastest-growing religion.

Moved by what many say is a close-knit religious environment and a faith that provides a more complete, intimate connection with God, they are replacing their traditional Catholic values with Islamic practices.

Many converts say their life transformation to Islam was “smooth.” Like Muslims, Hispanics believe in a close family bond, where mothers are given the ultimate respect. In addition, most Hispanics value the union of a marriage and encourage having children.

Latin Muslims may be different from the rest of the American Muslim population due to their different language, but overall they are able to work together on common social issues.

“We have been [making] overtures to our Hispanic neighbors for years. Together, we’ve raised concerns for affordable housing, equal treatment for our children in the school systems, and day laborers,” said Imam Johari Abdul-Malik, outreach coordinator at Dar Al-Hijrah.

On the social front, non-Muslim Hispanics have received continuous exposure to Islam through making awareness on mutual concerns for both minority communities-the erosion of civil liberties.

“Those anti-immigration legislations are used against Hispanics and Muslims,” added Imam Johari.

Falls Church Hispanic Muslims commented they were always exposed to Muslims at their workplace, in their schools, at community meetings, and in the courtrooms. In the public school systems, Hispanic mothers share the same concerns as immigrant Muslim mothers.

“Muslims always respected me. They never made fun of my accent. They always tried to understand me. Our children always get along well in school. When my children play with my Muslim neighbors, I feel my children are in a safe place,” said Anna Rodriguez, a Catholic Salvadorian in Falls Church, Virginia.

According to Imam Johari, there are 1 billion Muslims worldwide, and there are 1 billion Catholics worldwide. “Latin Americans are the most rapidly growing Muslims in America.”

Many of the converts say they are choosing Islam because they feel the religion gives them greater direct contact with God, without saints and a rigid church hierarchy. Some also point to what they see as a closer-knit community, similar to their cultural values of keeping near relations with extended family.

“As a Catholic, I was looking for answers to many of my questions. I come from a good family which instilled the similar values in me as a child as Islam. However, Islam gave me the answers to everything, answers I couldn’t find in the Catholic Church,” said Ariana Ramirez, 23, wife of Fernando Saravia, who transformed her journey to Islam six months ago.

Among Latin Americans, different aspects of the Islamic doctrine are presenting solutions to their life-long questions.

“I was attracted to Islam after learning about the miracles of the Quran. I like the Islamic family values which were consistent with my family’s traditions. I come from a non-practicing Christian background, so it made my transformation a lot easier,” said Tiffany Ballve, 26, and Argentinean-American, and a member of the All Dulles Area Muslim Society (ADAMS) in Sterling, Virginia.

The volunteers at Dar Al-Hijrah worked hard to make this event a success. The environment was filled with hospitality where each visiting member was personally greeted and referred to either a Spanish speaking brother or a sister.

“One thing I learned from this gathering is there are so many non-Hispanic Muslims married to Hispanics. Latin American Muslims are not easily identifiable because they resemble North Africans and Arabs,” concluded Imam Johari. “This event allowed for those Latino Muslims who are usually scattered over the DC Area to come together and make each other known.”

Muslim Link Paper link