The Latino Crescent: Latinos make a place for themselves in Muslim America

By Lyndsey Matthews
The Brooklyn Rail
September 5, 2009

Ponce de Leon Federal Bank, Pan Con Todo restaurant, and the Made In Colombia boutique line the sidewalk on Bergenline Avenue, which runs through the center of Union City, New Jersey. Flags from Puerto Rico, Mexico, and the Dominican Republic hang proudly in storefronts. Miniature Honduran flags dangle from the rear view mirrors of cars parked on the thoroughfare. More than 60 percent of Union City’s population is Latino. You don’t have to speak English to live here.

Just off Bergenline, there is a stately columned building that used to house the city’s Cuban community center, once a popular venue for traditional Hispanic celebrations like quinceañeras, the 15th birthday parties of Latina girls. Late one Sunday afternoon, three young women wearing traditional Muslim hijabs, or headscarves, stand on the steps of what for the past 17 years has been the Islamic Educational Center of North Hudson.

Another woman wearing a hijab rushes up the stairs of the mosque frantically murmuring to herself, “Empanadas, empanadas, empanadas!” as if to remind herself to pick up the savory Latino pastries for the crowd waiting inside. “Empanadas!” Shinoa Matos, one of the three women on the steps, responds excitedly. “I’m very hungry,” she says as her attention turns towards the inside of the building. The Sixth Annual Hispanic Muslim Day event is about to begin.

Unlike churches and synagogues, mosques do not keep rosters of their worshipers. Where one goes to pray is more fluid in the Islamic tradition. Matos estimates that of the thousands of people who pray at the Union City mosque in any given week, more than 100 are Latino. “Just like how there are Albanian mosques in Albanian neighborhoods,” she explained, “we are a Latino mosque because we are in a Latino neighborhood.” Islam, however, discourages differentiation among ethnic groups, she said, so Muslims try not to do it.

Inside the mosque the aromatic scent of steaming empanadas, spiced beef stuffed inside shells of puffed pastry, inundates the first floor auditorium. About a hundred people of various ages mingle around a dozen round tables covered with white plastic cloths and topped with cream-colored ceramic vases holding bouquets of purple silk pansies. Grandmothers coo over infants while a group of young men plug a laptop into the sound system and the Middle Eastern sounds of nasheed, a traditional form of Muslim music, begin to emanate. There are more women than men, and only a few women are not veiled. By what seems like an act of natural separation, the men sit on the left of the auditorium, the women on the right, with a few scattered in between.

Eventually Ramon Omar Abduraheem Ocasio comes to the front of the auditorium to give the keynote speech. He is a family man who found Islam in Harlem in the 1970s and reared his six children as Muslims. He describes what it was like in those days to be ostracized in the neighborhood’s mosques, which members of the Nation of Islam dominated.

Ocasio is one of the 44 million Latinos living in the United States who constitute the nation’s largest minority population, according to 2007 U.S. Census estimates. This, plus the rapid growth in the number of adherents to Islam in the United States, has given rise to the relatively new demographic of American Latino Muslims. In 1997, the American Muslim Council identified some 40,000 Hispanic Muslims in the country, a number that had swelled nine years later to a reported 200,000. A 2008 study by the Pew Forum on Religious and Public Life put the number of Latino Muslim U.S. residents at four percent of all Muslim U.S. residents. The figure represents a tiny minority within a tiny minority—just over half of one percent of the U.S. population—and a somewhat surprising one. Latinos have long been associated with the Roman Catholic church and more recently, the evangelical Christian traditions. All the same, it is not unusual for Americans to change
faith for another denomination, an entirely new religion or no religion at all. For example, of the nearly one in three Americans raised as Catholics, fewer than a quarter still consider themselves Catholic.

Although Islam has not permeated Latino culture to the extent it has black culture—24 percent of Muslim Americans are black—its influence is evident. The Spanish-language telenovela “El Clon” (The Clone) often has its characters discussing Islam and the prerequisites to become a Muslim. The appeal, Latinos who have converted say, comes from their search for a simpler and more intimate experience of God. They find the Muslim emphasis on family and conservative values familiar and beyond that, Latinos often share neighborhoods with black and immigrant Muslims, and in turn develop strong ties as neighbors, friends, and co-workers.

Diverse is the best description of Latino adherents to Islam in the United States. They include Ocasio and his children; his close friend Ibrahim Gonzalez who co-founded one of the nation’s first Latino Muslim organizations with Ocasio; Hamza Perez, an ex-drug dealer who performs in the Muslim hip-hop group Mujahadeen Team, and young mothers like Matos and Fatimah Vargas. They and many others tell of hard-won but growing acceptance, not only by non-Latino Muslims but by their own non-Muslim family members as well.

The pale blue balloons floating on strings above a dozen or so round tables scattered about the room matched Alex Robayo’s baby-blue collared shirt. As the Hispanic Muslim Day emcee, he spoke in both Spanish and English and mostly directed his remarks to the non-Muslims in the crowd.

“Are there any Catholics in the room?” he asked. A young dark-haired woman with a copy of El Coran, the Qu’ran in Spanish, resting on the table in front of her, quietly raised her hand and cringed slightly under the attention turning her direction.

Repeatedly, Robayo stressed the similarities between Christianity and Islam—the belief in one God, and the many common prophets, including Jesus. Many converts say that they find the Christian idea of the Trinity complicated and that the monotheistic simplicity of the Islamic concept of tawheed—the “one true oneness of God”—has great appeal.

“You may say in Spanish ‘dios,’ in English ‘God,’ in Arabic ‘Allah,’” Robayo told the crowd. “Is dios and God different?”

“Dios es grande,” he said.

Robayo shared a story about his mother, a Roman Catholic, whom he picks up after Mass most weeks. While there, he admires the beauty of the statues of Jesus and the saints, but appreciates that in Islam there are no images. Robayo likes the notion of a direct, unmediated conversation with God that Islam promotes, a straightforward approach that appeals to many Islam converts.

Robayo is followed by a series of six speakers, punctuated by a martial arts demonstration with swords—“ninjitsu”—from Puerto Rican Muslim Yusef Ali Abdullah and his students. Speaker Yusef Calderon talked movingly of his commitment to Islam. “There was something so unique and simple with this faith,” he said, highlighting the straightforwardness of the Muslim act of prayer. “This simplicity,” he said, “is what brought me to the way of happiness.”

Ocasio spoke last, telling the story of his Muslim declaration of faith, shahada, at the 125th Street mosque in Harlem back in 1973, along with his friend Ibrahim Gonzalez when they were teenagers. He recalled how lonely their path to happiness was at a time when Puerto Ricans were not so warmly welcomed in the Harlem mosques dominated by non-Latinos. The two friends learned never to greet each other in Spanish. It was as if, as Gonzalez said later, these Muslims had a right to “decide what the rules are.”

“We were so embracive of our Latino roots that some interpreted it as being separatist,” he said. “We were baffled that in such a multi-cultural environment that people would object to us speaking Spanish.” According to Ocasio both he and Gonzalez found it difficult to embrace their Hispanic background and practice their new religion at the same time. Gonzalez not only had problems at the mosque, but at home. His parents greeted his conversion “with some curiosity,” but his mother was always more open to his decision than his father. Eventually, his parents came around and he and Ocasio found more acceptance at a mosque in Newark, where other Hispanics were already worshipping. That encounter led Ocasio and Gonzalez to found the Alianza Islamica in 1975 in their own East Harlem neighborhood with a few other friends. It became one of the United States’ first Latino Muslim organizations and a place, Gonzalez said, that “drew our hearts

They helped form the Alianza to venerate the historical precedence of the Moors, Muslims from northern Africa, in Spain from the 8th to 15th centuries. Gonzalez explained the cultural attachment of the Spanish Caribbean both to Africa and Spain through the Moorish influence. Even parts of the Spanish language derive from Arabic. “We’ve dug a little deeper into our roots,” Gonzalez said. The Alianza teaches Latinos about Islam without any of its typical Middle-Eastern cultural attachments with a goal of educating Latinos about Spain’s Muslim past—“a part of their history that many have not learned,” Gonzalez said.

The imam of the Union City mosque is Muhammad al-Hayek. He is not a Latino but often emphasizes to Latino worshippers how Islam can be seen as “reclaiming your original state.” Like the members of Alianza, al-Hayek uses the term “reverted,” instead of “converted.” “That’s better for Islam,” he said, smiling kindly.

Today the friends feel no need to be apologetic about speaking Spanish in the mosques in which they worship. “I know that I’m doing nothing wrong,” Gonzalez said. The Alianza no longer has a physical address and its activity slowly faded away around 2005. A new generation of Latino Muslims have taken over from their parents and now organizes events through Google groups, calling itself the Tri-State Latino Muslim Organization. Its founder is one of Ocasio’s sons.

Conversion to Islam is also taking place in the projects and in prison. Before Hamza Perez discovered Islam, he dealt drugs in the projects of Worcester, Massachusetts and had no use for religion. These days he performs with his older brother, Suliman, in the Muslim hip-hop group M-Team. M-Team is short for Mujahideen Team, which in Arabic stands for “someone who struggles in the cause for God.” As musicians, the brothers deftly blend musical influences from their Puerto Rican background with their Muslim identity, creating hip-hop that focuses on poverty, injustice and race. As Hamza explains it, a mujahid is not only a holy warrior engaged in jihad. “You can be a mujahid against drugs and alcohol. You can be a mujahid to speak out for truth.”

“Music is a struggle. Hip-hop is a struggle,” Hamza said, speaking of the extravagant lifestyle typically associated with mainstream hip-hop culture. “You can’t just do it for glamour or for showing off or being in love with the sound of your own voice.” Instead, Hamza and his brother use their music to promote a positive Muslim message.

Hamza was not always a devout Muslim. Hamza and Suliman, who is two years older, grew up in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park neighborhood until they moved to Puerto Rico in 1984 to live with their grandmother. “We [were] getting into trouble at an early age in New York so my mom wanted to get us out,” Hamza said.

The brothers were raised around Christianity in a family that was religious, but never as devout as Hamza is today. His parents “were kind of ‘whatever’ with it,” Hamza said, remembering that his mother only attended Catholic services every once in awhile.

When Hamza was 12 years old, he returned from Puerto Rico to live with his mother, who had moved to Plumley Village, a public housing project built in 1972 in downtown Worcester. At age 15, he found himself hooked on heroin-laced marijuana and was bouncing back and forth between Massachusetts and Puerto Rico. By the time he was 16, he was dealing drugs in Plumley Village with a crew of young dealers. Within a year, he could afford his own apartment. “It still never made us happy. No matter how much money we had, no matter how much drugs we used. It still never made us happy,” he said. In 1998, his roommate and drug-dealing partner, Louis Jijon, a member of the Latin Kings gang, went missing.

“Word in the projects was that he got kidnapped by some Arabs—we were laughing about it,” Hamza recalls, until one day he saw a Muslim man standing outside of a store.

“Yo, you know my friend named Lou?” Hamza asked the man.

“No,” he replied. “I know Luqman.”

Although Hamza took it as a joke, he soon saw Louis walking towards him dressed in white. “He became Muslim,” Hamza said. “He was my crime partner—just seeing him with his life changed like that had a big impact on me.”

Influenced by his friend’s conversion, Perez soon performed his own shahada. Eventually many members of Hamza’s family converted to Islam as well, including his aunt, cousin, Suliman and his wife and his wife’s brother. Another 55 or so people from Plumley Village did the same. “It was like a chain-reaction,” Hamza said.

After he converted, Hamza quit dealing and doing drugs “cold turkey.” To signal his transformation, he returned to all his familiar haunts dressed in traditional Muslim garb and passed out Muslim information. Although Hamza and Suliman’s legal names remain Jason and Juan, they adopted Muslim names to cement their new identities.

What drew Hamza to Islam he said, was the way it allowed him to adhere to Islamic laws and while preserving his own Puerto Rican culture. “Everybody has their own Islamic flavor—Africans with their colorful garments, Saudis with their all-white garb.”

Before their conversion, the brothers rapped in another politically conscious hip-hop group called FOESL, an acronym for the “Force of the Educated Slave.” They performed locally in Massachusetts and self-released an album called “Planet of the Apes.” Eventually, the group became M-Team, which has reached a wider audience through the support of their label, Remarkable Current, a Muslim hip-hop imprint based in California.

While the brothers devote a significant part of their lives to their music, they often view it as secondary to their duties serving their community. After Hamza’s conversion, he began working with at-risk youth—a group he has always identified with—through a self-designed social service curriculum called the SHEHU Program (Services Helping to Empower and Heal Urban communities). The acronym means “teacher” or “leader” in many Muslim communities, and is another word for sheik. The brothers gained experience for creating these programs when they were younger and worked with youth at various summer camps.

In 2004, they moved to Pittsburgh when SHEHU caught the attention of the Sankore Institute of Islamic African Studies and its directors asked the brothers to run some of the programs in their community. The Sankore Institute is an independent school with teachers based all over the United States. Its Pittsburgh headquarters houses its main project: collecting, translating and preserving rare and fragile African manuscripts. The school has collected and digitized more than 2,000 of them. Pittsburgh has “one of the highest murder rates in west Pennsylvania,” according to Hamza. The Institute now acts as the intellectual branch of SHEHU.

Hamza runs his life skills programs for teens of all religious backgrounds in schools, YMCAs, and Boys and Girls Clubs, teaching them about anger management and healthy relationships using the traditional curriculums from the translated manuscripts. SHEHU also has a prison outreach program three days a week in which some 90 inmates participate.

As an offshoot of SHEHU, Hamza’s own experience as a drug dealer led him to found the 30 Below program with his old friend from the projects, Luqman Salaam. It specializes in drug dealing prevention. Named after the hierarchical nature of drug-dealing operations, the program discourages the glorification of drug dealing rappers and gangsters and hopes to guide them along a better path.

Before Fatimah Vargas discovered Islam in the years before 9/11 she said she “did not know the difference between a Muslim and a Hindu.” Born into a Dominican family in New Jersey with the name Marleny, Vargas was a single mother by the time she turned 18. A group of former Pakistani co-workers provided her first exposure to Islam. “Their character amazed me,” she recalls, because they did not look at the scantily clad women going to the beach during the hot New York summers. Eventually she checked out a copy of the Qu’ran at the public library and read it in secret in the middle of the night. When she read the first few lines she said she knew immediately, “This is it.”

When she told her brother, “He was very upset,” she said. Her mother noticed a change in her daughter when Vargas started dressing more conservatively but did not initially understand why. “I used to dress very inappropriate—to say the least,” Vargas said. These days she conceals her hair behind a hijab and the only skin she shows is her delicate hands and face. Eventually she told her parents about her conversion. “That was horrible,” she remembers. Her parents had preconceived misconceptions about Islam and her mother warned that if she converted she would become a terrorist and marry Osama bin Laden. “I couldn’t hurt a roach, how could I kill a human?” Vargas protested. When she married her husband, a Puerto Rican Muslim, she did not get her parents’ approval.

Ocasio’s wife, Faiza Ocasio, encountered similar resistance from her family when she first converted. Her mother was angry and continued to serve her pork dishes, even though her new religion restricted her from eating the meat.

When September 11 occurred, Vargas knew that it wouldn’t help others accept her new religion. She struggled to convince others that being Muslim was something very different than being a terrorist. These days, her parents have accepted her choice to be Muslim, which she thinks is the best thing that could have ever happened. They are actively involved in her life now, as she and her husband rear their three children, ages 9, 8, and 4, as Muslims.

The Ocasios’ six children, like Vargas’, are a rare sector—just 10 percent—of the Latino community in the United States, in that they were were born and raised as Muslims. In New York, this community has also reached a third generation: there are five Ocasio grandchildren who will also grow up in the Muslim faith. Though the Ocasios struggled to embrace their Latino culture in the African-American dominated mosques of the 1970s, their children’s experience growing up as Latino Muslims have few vestiges of the dual-identity conflict their parents experienced. They are proud of both their heritages.

The Ocasio children range in age from 15 to 33. They are practicing Muslims who grew up in New York’s Black Muslim world. They attended the Al Madrasa al Islamiya, a predominantly African American Muslim school in Brooklyn, where their mother teaches, until they went to high school. Sultana, 29, the third daughter of the Ocasio children, described her desire to assimilate as a Latino Muslim minority. “I always wished I was darker,” she said of her childhood. She wanted to fit in with her African-American classmates who were part of a culture where the mantra “Black is beautiful” was revered. “I wanted to be more black,” she remembers. “Hip-hop was cooler than rock ‘n roll.”

Many of Sultanas childhood classmates and friends called their dads “abby,” a slang term for father in Arabic. One time she tried calling her father this. “You call me papi,” he shot back, reminding Sultana that his family did not need to change who they were as Puerto Ricans because they were Muslim too.

Though Sultana felt different from her black counterparts in grammar school, she encountered a whole new sense of not belonging when she joined the Muslim Student Association at Baruch College, from which she graduated with a degree in political science and sociology in 2008. There she went through a culture shock interacting directly with Arab and Pakistani classmates who were often more reserved than her “more colorful” Latino friends. Many of her peers assumed she was Egyptian “until I opened my mouth,” she said. She had to adjust once more to being a minority within a minority. But despite the initial confusion, her experiences with non-Latino Muslims in no way mirror those of her father at mosques in the 1970s.

Many West Africans “transform” themselves, Sultana said, to symbolize their adherence to the faith, dressing in traditional Arabic dress. They’re adopting cultural traits, not religious ones though, Sultana pointed out. It is important to her family to separate religion from culture. They do not need to be one and the same. “Being Puerto Rican is important to me, but not as important as being Muslim,” Sultana said.

Today Sultana works in the Bronx for the Muslim Women’s Institute for Research and Development, coordinating ESL classes. The Institute also runs a halal food pantry open to the entire community, in addition to many other services. Working in social services runs in the family. Her mother used to be a social worker in the Islamic Family Services before she became a teacher.

Sultana also has experienced bewilderment from non-Muslim Latinos about her religion. When some Puerto Rican immigrants find out that Sultana is both Puerto Rican and Muslim, they ask her, “Why in the world are you Muslim?” she said. They find her choice radical, but she tells them, “I like this—this is something I feel is right.”

Though the Latino Muslim community shows continued potential for growth as evidenced by new leadership, and increasing acceptance within their ethnic and religious communities, their numbers remain just “sprinkles,” in Sultana’s words, in many Islamic communities. “There’s no Puerto-Rican Malcolm X,” Sultana said, unsure of how or if her people will ever become a unified group within the faith.

As evening falls over the Sixth Annual Hispanic Muslim day and Imam al-Hayek brings his remarks to an end, someone approaches him to tell him that a middle-aged woman who goes by Angela wishes to declare shahada. Angela became interested in Islam when her son converted. She likes how Islam affected him and his behavior, she says. He’s become a man now. Prepared to assert her new faith publicly Angela comes to the front of the room and recites in Arabic, “Ash-Hadu AnLa Ilaha Illa-Allah Wa Ash-Hadu Anna Muhammadan Rasul-Allah”. In English, it means “I witness that there is no god but God and I witness that Muhammad is the Messenger of God.” As she finishes, the entire room erupts joyously in unison, “Allah Akbar,” “God is great.” And their community increases by one more.

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