Latino Muslims: The Changing Face of Islam in America

By Samantha Sanchez and Juan Galvan
Islamic Horizons Magazine
July/August 1423/2002, Pp 22-30.

The face of Islam is changing in the U.S. as more and more people revert. While there have always been record numbers of African American and Caucasian American reverts, the Muslim community is becoming even more diverse. In recent years, the number of Latino revert has increased significantly. Estimated reports claim that 40,000 Latino Muslims live in the U.S.

Latino Muslims have been gaining media attention. Headlines such as “A New Minority Makes Itself Known: Hispanic Muslims” and “Hispanos musulmanes de Nueva York” are just a few that signify that America is realizing what Latino Muslims have known for quite a while…that we exist! While it may still seem strange for the Muslim community to hear about us, the general public in such places as New York, Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, and Miami is becoming more aware of this fact thanks to organizations supporting the Latino Muslim community.

The need for da’wah to Latinos is evident when we look at the relevant statistics. According to Dr. Ihsan Bagby’s “The Mosque In America: A National Portrait” (CAIR. April 2001, the average number of American reverts per mosque is approximately16 per year. He estimates an annual national growth of 20,000 reverts: 63% African-American, 27% White, and 6% Hispanic. According to the 2000 U.S. Census (U.S. Census. Ethnic and Hispanic Statistics Branch. “U.S. Hispanic Population: 2000.”, 75% of Americans are White, 12% are Hispanic, and 12% are African-American. The low Hispanic reversion rate deserves our attention.

The U.S Census Bureau classifies Hispanics into five categories: Mexican, Central and South American, Puerto Rican, Cuban, and other Hispanics. A Census Bureau study states that the Mexican-American population nearly doubled between 1970 and 1980, nearly doubled again by 1990, and…doubled by 2000! Considerable immigration and a birth rate higher than the rest of the population are the primary factors for this. The U.S. Latino population is expected to grow to 63 million by 2030, and 88 million by 2050. By then, one-quarter of all Americans will be Latino! Latinos are changing the face of America, and so da’wah directed at them is necessary. The correlation between Latinos as the fastest growing population and Islam as the fastest growing religion deserves our attention.

Who are the Latinos? The terms Latino and Hispanic are used interchangeably. In March 2000, 32.8 million Hispanics lived in the U.S. According to the 2000 Census, Mexican-Americans (21.7 million) comprise the majority, followed by Central and South Americans (4.7 million), Puerto Ricans (3 million), Cubans (1.3 million), and other Hispanics (2.1 million). Mexican-Americans make up about 66 percent of the U.S. Hispanic population.

The Hispanic population is younger and has fewer elderly than the non-Hispanic White population. Half of all Hispanics are under 26; more than one-third are under 18. Among Hispanics, Mexican-Americans have the largest proportion of people under age 18 (38%). However, Cuban-Americans have the largest proportion of people aged 65 or over (21%). Hispanic households are more likely than non-Hispanic White households to be headed by a single female. Among Hispanic households, Puerto Ricans have the largest proportion of single female-headed households.

The educational attainment of Hispanics lags behind non-Hispanic Whites. Among Hispanics, Mexican-Americans 25 years and older have the lowest proportion of people with a high school diploma or more. Cubans 25 years and older have the highest proportion of Hispanics with a bachelor’s degree or more. Hispanics are more likely to be unemployed compared to non-Hispanic Whites. Service workers, transportation, and precision production, craft, and repair were the most common occupations among employed Hispanics. Hispanics are more likely to be living in poverty than non-Hispanic Whites.

Approximately 16.4 million (or half) of the Hispanic population lives inside the central cities of metropolitan areas. About 45% of the Hispanic population lives in the West and 33% in the South. Hispanics are concentrated in several states. In 1990, nearly 9 out of 10 Hispanics lived in California, Texas, New York, Florida, Illinois, Arizona, New Jersey, New Mexico, Colorado, and Massachusetts-in that order. Half of all Latinos live in California or Texas.

We must consider such demographic trends when designing da’wah programs. These programs must target the major cities of the states listed above. All Muslims should struggle to eliminate problems within the Latino community.

Who is a Latino Muslim? Sounds easy enough, right? Well, maybe not. First, the word Latino encompasses all people with a Latin American heritage, whether they are from the U.S. or Latin and South America. They may also speak various languages, including but not limited to Spanish, Portuguese, English, Aymara, Nahuatl, and Quechua.

It is also hard to define Muslim. Latino Muslims here and abroad follow all Islamic madhahib and sects, and so there are Shi’as, Sunnis, Sufis, and so on. Most Latino Muslims are Sunni. But not all Latino Muslims are reverts, for some are second- and third-generation Muslims or are born Muslim in their home countries.

Much research about Latino Muslims is needed. Various estimates have claimed anywhere from 25,000 to 75,000 Latino Muslims. Perhaps the most accurate estimate is 40,000. More research is needed to find accurate numbers and reversion rates over the last 30 years among all Hispanic groups. We would also like to know what percentage of Latino Muslims are Mexican, Central and South American, Puerto Rican, Cuban, and other Hispanics. Much demographic information about Latino Muslims is needed such as age, gender, state, and education/income levels.

According to Bagby, most American reverts are men (68%) compared to women (32%). The typical revert is an African-American male. From our own observations, most Latino Muslims are college-educated, between the ages of 20 and 30, and female.

Although a mosque’s ethnic diversity does not coincide with high reversion rates, the largest mosques have the best reversion rates. Larger mosques are more likely to be found in largely populated Muslim cities. Within these cities, Muslims have greater interaction with non-Muslims. The resulting interaction most likely positively influences reversion rates. New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, San Antonio, Phoenix, and Miami have the largest Hispanic populations. Not surprisingly, we find most Latino Muslims and higher Latino reversion rates within these metropolitan cities.

Why do Latinos revert? Religious conversion remains a personal choice. Samantha Sanchez, in the first research conducted on Latino Muslims, states that most reverts were seeking a new religious orientation. But some were doing this more actively than others. In her study, 25% reverted as a result of personal exploration (actively seeking a new faith) and had considered other religions before Islam, such as various Protestant sects, Judaism, Hinduism, and Buddhism. For many Latinos, embracing Islam took between 3 to 12 years. While conversions to Christianity are typically emotional, reversions to Islam are primarily intellectual.

For the most part, most new Latino Muslims were not practicing their former faith (73% of them were Catholic) before reversion. This helps prove the relationship before between Latinos and Catholicism, which is the major part of their ethnic culture. Lewis Rambo, a scholar of conversion, says that “a person who is deeply attached to a family that is uniformly committed to a certain religious orientation is less likely to convert to a new option unless there are compelling forces to counteract the power of the family.”

In Sanchez’s study, many Latino converts stated that Islam offers a sense of spirituality that they did not find in their former religious affiliation. First, they expressed some dislikes with the Catholic Church that led them to seek a new faith, such as the concentration on Jesus (especially as the Son of God), Christianity’s polytheistic nature (worshipping Mary and saints), and the idea of the Trinity. Moreover, many Latinos claimed that they disagreed with papal infallibility and the Church hierarchy. A few claimed that their families were not religious, and that attending Mass was not incumbent upon them, which led them to seek out their own faith. Surprisingly, Latino women are coming to Islam in larger numbers. They also claim that Islam offers a perspective on women that they have long sought after.

When we look under the surface, Islamic monotheism (tawhid) is generally the guiding factor for reversion. Consider the following quotes by Latino Muslims from newspaper articles about Latino Muslims:
– Mercedes Zeenni (Los Angeles): “I was Catholic. But from the start, it seemed that Islam gave more answers to my questions, was more direct, without mysteries, and making it easier for me to understand what it meant to believe in God.”
– Nicole Ballivian (Los Angeles): “I remember getting in trouble in Catholic school for debating things like the concept of original sin at a really young age. When I actually studied Islam, it made it all simple.”
– Vita Rivera (Miami) said: “I always wanted to read the Bible and learn more, but it was all about the catechism. You just have to believe it, not understand it. For me, Islam gave me answers, made sense.”
– Mariam Montalvo (Los Angeles): “With Islam, it was so pure. I found there were no intermediaries. Everything goes straight to God.”
– Abdulhadi Bazurto (Fresno, CA): “Ask a child, and he will tell you that God is one. Period. Ask a theologian how many gods there are and he will have you going in circles.”
– Guadalupe Martinez (Houston): “When we find Islam, we don’t have to waste energy. It’s like if I call the operator to get a number, I waste energy. But with Islam, I have the number. I get connected directly to God.”
– Domy Garcia (Los Angeles): “Viewing Jesus as a prophet and a political leader, and not a God, made more sense to me.”
– Aminah Martinez (Virginia): “As I got older, I felt there were too many distractions in the church. Islam, to me, was a more direct faith where I felt a strong sense of belonging.”
– Ali Medina (California): “Before I had no direction in my life, I was ruining my life, and I had left school in the eleventh grade.”
– Ricardo Pena (Chicago): “I looked at it as joining a larger brotherhood. We don’t look at each other as Mexicans or Arabs. We look at each other as Muslims.”
– Sumayyah Ikhil (New York City): “We are all Muslim under one faith, one God.”

In Sanchez’s study, 76% of the Latinos reverted due to da’wah. Dr. Larry Poston (Islamic Da’wah in the West: Muslim Missionary Activity and the Dynamics of Conversion to Islam. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992) defines da’wah as missionary activity. Dr. John L. Esposito (Islam: The Straight Path. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991) more accurately identifies what most Latino Muslims experience. Most Latino Muslims received da’wah only after a little personal exploration. As a result of a sparked interest, they sought out people who could answer their questions, and Muslims responded by sharing information and donating time and literature. Esposito states that this is how Muslims propagate their faith. Da’wah came in many forms: reverted Muslim family and friends, love relationships, and total strangers. People, places, and events are all significant factors that affect a Latino’s decision to embrace Islam.

According to Yahiya Emerick (How to Tell Others About Islam. New York: International Books and Tapes Supply, 1996, 98-99), the Latino community presents a special challenge, for Latinos are left to network for themselves. First, most Muslims do not speak Spanish. Second, most Muslims are unaware of the size and importance of Latinos. Efforts have been made to rectify this by printing Spanish-language material. Many Latino Muslims have formed their own organizations to meet the needs of Latinos interested in Islam. Emerick points out that the major problem is that a very large, significant group is not being served effectively.

Almost all Latino Muslims looked into several religions before Islam probably because they knew nothing about Islam prior to that point. Many stated that they knew no Muslims before reverting. Although some Latino Muslims stumble onto Islam or actively research it on their own, most embrace Islam through da’wah. Thus, da’wah work is very important for this community.

What can we learn from reverts? The general Muslim community is still awakening to the concern for da’wah to the Latino Muslim community. Unfortunately, the larger community remains unprepared to serve and support the Latino community’s growing numbers. Some, but thankfully not many, Latinos have complained that they are not well received in some masajid due to a particular ethnic makeup. However, the major point of contention is that da’wah committees and imams are ill-trained to meet their needs, especially for those who need more information, speak little English, or need some type of support.

In the community’s defense, however, Latino Muslims have only recently (in large numbers) begun to express their needs and help masajid at large learn more about our community. Years ago only a handful of people were doing this work; now we have several organizations. ISNA helped create a Latino Coordinating Committee to foster communication between organizations and the national Muslim community. Latino Muslims desperately need help from the general Muslim community to ensure that da’wah activities continue.

How you can help. The Latino Muslim population is quite diverse, but its basic needs help create a unified community. The Muslim community at large can help foster relations with the Latino Muslim community, as well as with its outreach and da’wah, in the following ways:
– Greater interaction between Muslims and Latinos.
– All masajid should have information about local Latino Muslims and national Latino Muslim information and support organizations.
– Masajid should have basic materials in Spanish and other languages readily available, including Qur’ans, books, cassettes, and instructional CDs.
– Masajid should identify Spanish-speaking Muslims (not necessarily Latino) if needed to train Latinos how to pray, read the Qur’an, and teach them about Islam in general.
– Da’wah committees should work with local Latino Muslims to ensure more effective da’wah.
– Da’wah should be available in Spanish or in other languages, depending on the community.
– Local communities should create forums to discuss matters of importance to Latino Muslims and Latinos in general.
– Muslims and Latino Muslims should participate in interfaith dialogues at churches, primarily Catholic Churches.
– Muslims and Latino Muslims should volunteer to aid Latinos within heavily populated Latino neighborhoods and schools.
– Donate time, money, or materials to local organizations and masajid for the purposes listed above.

© 2002 Islamic Horizons, Islamic Society of North America. ISNA Link.