By Mansur Mirovalev
April 2, 2004
Santiago Robledo radiates self-confidence: His handshake is firm, and his English is exact. The only thing that makes Robledo look unusual is the untrimmed, and slightly messy beard that he started growing several months ago. To him his beard symbolizes his religion.
Robledo is Muslim. He stays away from pork and alcohol, studies Arabic and goes to the Mosque at least once a week.
Islam teaches that all religions originally had the same essential message: To submit to the will of God and to worship only him. For this reason, Islam is not a new religion but is the same divinely revealed Ultimate Truth that God revealed to all prophets, including Noah, Abraham, Moses, and Jesus.
“I do my best to pray five times a day, though it’s hard,” says Robledo. Robledo, 24, is a second generation Mexican American. His parents moved to the United States more than 20 years ago and are now living in San Jose. Robledo said that his interest in Islam began in high school when he was learning about the political situation in the Middle East. Robledo eventually bought an English translation of the Quran, the Holy Book of Muslims.
To his surprise, Robledo discovered that Muslims considered Abraham, Moses, and Jesus prophets and revered the Old Testament. He kept reading the Quran and attended a meeting of Muslims several years later.
“I saw Muslims of American, African and Asian origin communicating freely and with mutual respect,” says Robledo. “I saw an aged man with a long white beard and deep wise eyes who looked like a real Biblical prophet. I sat there and started to feel a power growing inside of me. When that man asked if I had questions about Islam, I just jumped up and said, ‘I want to convert!'”
Robledo is one of many Hispanic Americans who converted to Islam.
It is estimated that there are at least 55,000 Hispanic Muslims in the United States, and the numbers are multiplying daily, says Khadijah Rivera. Rivera, 53, converted to Islam in 1983, and is a member of the Propagación Islámica para la Educación y Devoción de Ala’el Divino (PIEDAD), which translates to: Islamic Advocacy for Education and Devotion for Divine Allah. PIEDAD is the first Hispanic Muslim organization in the United States that was founded in 1987 in Miami, Florida.
The U.S. Census Bureau is not allowed to collect information about religion, therefore no official data on the number of Hispanic Muslims is available, according to independent researcher Daniel Pipes in the article titled “How Many Muslims Live in the United States?” published in the New York Post on October 29, 2001.
In 2000, Howard Fienberg of The Christian Science Monitor concluded that the overall number of Muslims in the United States was 2 million. The American Muslim Council, an advocacy group in Alexandria, Virginia, argues that the estimate is more than 7 million, of which 25,000 are Hispanics.
About 20 percent of American Muslims live in California, with more than 100,000 living in the Silicon Valley, according to researcher Abdul Malik Mujahid of Allied Media, a multicultural marketing and advertising agency. “I was very well acquainted with the East Coast Hispanic Muslim community including Maryland, Virginia and New York, where there are masses [of Hispanic Muslims],” says Nicole Ballivian, a filmmaker and member of the Los Angeles Latino Muslim Association. “Then I came to Los Angeles and found the Mosques spilling with Hispanic Muslims.”
The first small gathering of Bay Area Hispanic Muslims was held in 2002, says Kathy Espinoza, who converted that same year. Espinoza says there were about 15 people at the gathering who now regularly meet for study sessions on Muslim culture.
Espinoza, 24, graduated from San Jose State University and is a social worker. She has brown hair, braided in a single long braid and wears a shirt with an Arabic phrase in calligraphy followed with its English translation: Mohammed is the last Messenger of God.
“I got into Islam through two Muslim friends of mine,” Espinoza says. “I remember telling them ‘I don’t think I’ll ever become a Muslim,’ but eventually I got interested in knowing more about Islam. For me, it encompassed Judaism and Christianity (we have the same prophets) and that made it comfortable for me to become Muslim.”
To Naila Jumanah, who converted in the summer of 2003, embracing Islam was a rational decision, as she had a great dilemma understanding the concept of the Catholic Trinity. Jumanah is 23 years old and graduated from Loyola Marymount University, a Jesuit university in Marymount, California.
Most Hispanic converts were Catholic and had difficulty with the church hierarchy, believing in original sin, the divinity of Christ, and the Trinity, says Juan Galvan, vice-president of the Latino American Dawah Organization (LADO).
Families and friends of Hispanic Muslims react differently to their
conversion to Islam.”When I told my father, he laughed, thinking I was not serious. In about nine months, seeing that I remained strong about my decision, he congratulated me on my new religion,” says Robledo.
The transition wasn’t as easy for others.
“For my family it was not much of a shock, but it was definitely a disappointment. All they knew about Islam was what they saw on TV, which is not a very good portrayal, says Espinoza.
Families of Hispanic Muslims have become comfortable with the idea of converting to Islam over time.
“My parents went crazy,” says Ballivian. “But it’s been 10 years since, and my mom has been Muslim for five years now.”
While some family members are more accepting of converting to Islam, others continue to stereotype.
“I sometimes feel alienated from the Hispanic community, because there are many things I cannot participate in as a Muslim. My mother, who is very religious, accepts my decision, while my younger brother thinks I am a terrorist and a traitor,” Jumanah says.
The tragedy of 9/11 and events in the Middle East that followed it affected the lives and attitudes of Hispanic Muslims.
“Before 9/11 I had spent much time defending Islam,” says Espinoza. “Lately I have not even addressed it too much, because you just get tired of constant defense.”
Some Muslims in America feel discriminated and feel like there will be fewer opportunities for them in the future, says Susana Macias, a human resources officer from Los Angeles.
“I call it the 9/11 phenomenon,” says Macias, who is referring to the rise of Islamic converts due to parts of the world being introduced to the religion for the first time.
As the number of Hispanic Muslims grew, they began to form their own organizations.
Five converts founded the Los Angeles Latino Muslims Association (LALMA) in 1999 as a study group. Eventually they launched an introductory program about Islam in Spanish and plan to establish Luz del Islam Publishing to provide low cost and high quality books to Latino Muslims. The first book will be a new translation of the Quran into Spanish.
The Latino American Dawah Organization (LADO), founded in 1997 by a handful of converts in New York, now claims that there are thousands of members in 10 states. LADO runs a web site that states that they want to encourage communication among Muslims and non-Muslims to eliminate common misunderstandings about Islam and “help spread the beauty of Islam among Hispanics.”
“In Islam, you are not supposed to proselytize,” says Espinoza. “You practice, you do the best you can, and when other people see that, their hearts will be led to Islam.”
Even though Muslims say they do not try to persuade people to convert, they feel that Islam could provide positive experiences for more Americans. “I believe there is a big future for Islam that will actually benefit America economically, socially and politically,” says Rivera.
“Inshallah! God willing!”