Muslims expand the boundaries of Latino identity

By Hector Luis Alamo, Jr.
Being Latino
December 17, 2012

Just when you thought you knew what being Latino is all about:
“America has always been recognised for its diversity, and is seen as a country composed of minorities who intersect with one another on a regular basis.

As a result, the steadily growing number of Latino Muslims in the United States is inevitable. According to Reuters, 2.6 million people practice Islam, one of the fastest growing religions in our country, and Hispanics, another rapidly growing group, currently comprise 17 per cent of the total US population. Of course these two populations would eventually begin to intersect, and what may at first feel like an uncommon link, seems almost natural.

When asked about her Mexican family’s reaction to her conversion, [Marta] Khadija says, ‘My mother thought I had joined some sort of cult.’ But she soon came around after speaking to her priest who reassured her that her daughter was on the right path.”

What I love about this story – besides it being written by my friend and fellow Chicago-getter, Erika L. Sánchez – is that it highlights the greatest open secret about the Latino community: its diversity.

As Latinos, we constantly come in contact with other Latinos who would otherwise be utterly unlike ourselves if it weren’t for the fact that our ancestors traveled from somewhere south of the United States and north of Antarctica. Some of our ancestors were negritos from the Antilles and the Central American coastline who spoke with an almost Jamaican-accented Spanish; others were blanquitos from the Southern Cone who spoke a sing-song Spanish.

No matter where our pasts lie, we’re still 100 percent puro Latino. (I call this an open secret because in the minds of many non-Latinos, whites are white, blacks are black, and it’s baffling to conceive that such people could be anything else. But we Latinos know better.)

So when I came across Erika’s piece on Latino Muslims, I didn’t even bat an eye.

Being Latino is like being just one ingredient in a complex stew that’s half a century in the making. If you tell me there’s cumin and tumeric simmering with me, I say, sure, why not? I assumed there was everything but the kitchen sink thrown together in this pot. Latino diversity doesn’t shock me.

Erika ends her piece by reminding us that, “as Americans, we need to make space in our minds for these new communities.” Another excellent point. Imagine the most unique person conceivable, and there are likely thousands, if not tens of thousands of people just like them in this country. America is so diverse that most Americans are still coming to terms with its sheer diversity.

But along with America altogether, Latinos must also “make space” within our own community for a broader definition of what it means to be Latino. Latino is neither a color – black, white, brown – nor a religious experience – Christian, Muslim, atheist – but color and religion are part of the Latino character, among a vast array of other traits, histories and experiences.

As a category, the word Latino attempts to define a boundary between one, monolithic group and all other groups. Yet, in considering how divergent our group actually is, it’s difficult to know for sure where the line exists, or if there’s even a line there to begin with.

In the end, it’s rather easy to list what Latino is; the difficulty lies in naming what Latino is not.

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