Who are Latino Muslims?

By Juan Galvan

Islamic Horizons Magazine
July/August 1429/2008, Pp 26-30.

Any discussion of Latino Muslims is tri-dimensional: Latinos, Muslims and Latino Muslims. Who are Latinos? Who are Muslims? Who are Latino Muslims? Disagreements abound about the meaning of each dimension. However, attempts to answer these questions lead to others and, consequently, a better understanding of Latino Muslims.

The first large-scale conversions of Hispanics occurred in the 1960s and 1970s, when many Spanish-language Muslim groups began to emerge and the Black Muslim movement was at its height. In 1997, the American Muslim Council counted approximately 40,000 Hispanic Muslims; in 2006, it counted 200,000. This number is far more accurate, because it takes into account the growth of Islam among Latinos since 1997, and especially since 9/11. The exact number of Latino Muslims living in America, however, is unknown because the Census Bureau does not collect information about religion.

Today, with Latinos present in almost every American mosque, Islam and Latinos no longer seem to be an odd combination. In fact, New York City, Chicago, Miami, Houston, Los Angeles, and other metropolises with large Muslim populations also have large Latino Muslim communities, for the latter’s size generally corresponds to the particular area’s overall Muslim population. Therefore, not surprisingly, Dallas and Houston have the largest Latino Muslim population in Texas. At least 100 Latinos are affiliated with one particular Dallas mosque, although it is likely that their overall number in the area is much higher.

In Texas and California, the majority of Latino Muslims are Mexican or Central American; on the East Coast, they are mostly Puerto Rican or Dominican. This coincides with the Latino population’s dispersion in the country. Texas seems to have fewer Latino Muslims than California and New York, perhaps because its Muslim community is younger and smaller than that of many other states.

Hjamil A. Martinez-Vazquez, a Texas Christian University religion professor who is writing a book about Latino Muslims, states: “The fastest-growing religion in the world is Islam … The fastest-growing group in this country is Latinos. There is no way you cannot see the relationship with it.”

The terms Latino and Hispanic denote an ethnicity, not a race, and are essentially synonymous; however, many Latinos prefer the term Latino. For example, people who live in Mexico or Venezuela generally do not refer to themselves as Latino or Hispanic, whereas many Latino migrants to Canada, England, and elsewhere from America maintain their ethnicity as Latino and/or Hispanic. Latinos can be black, white, and brown. Some limit Latino and Hispanic to immigrants or their descendants from Spanish-speaking countries. However, many include all immigrants or descendants of immigrants from Latin America in their definition of Latino, thereby including Portuguese-speaking Brazilian Muslims. More than 6 million immigrant and native convert Latino Muslims live throughout Latin America, over 700,000 in Argentina and over 1.5 million in Brazil alone.

The Buenos Aires, Argentina-based Organización Islámica Para América Latina (OIPAL: the Islamic Organization of Latin America [IOLA]), is the continent’s largest and most active Muslim organization.

Representatives of at least thirty-five organizations attend the annual meeting of the heads of Islamic associations and cultural centers in Latin America and the Caribbean to discuss fostering Islamic values and education in Latin America along with other common interests. This meeting is sponsored by the Islamic Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (ISESCO) of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) and the Organización Latinoamericana para la Difusión del Islam (OLPADI: the Latin American Organization for Islamic Propagation [LAOIP]).

Entering Islam: Latino Muslims’ level of Spanish and English proficiency generally depends on where and how long they have lived in America. For example, those in southern California and southern Texas often have less command of English than those in northern California and northern Texas. Many second and third-generation Latinos may know little or no Spanish. Of course, recent immigrants usually have less command of English. A large percentage of new American Latinos come from – and will continue to come from – immigration. This is yet another reason for the growing number of Spanish-speaking Muslims.

Ronaldo Cruz (executive director, Secretariat for Hispanic Affairs of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops) told the “New York Times” ( 2 Jan. 2002) that he cannot fathom what attracts recent Latino immigrants to Islam. Offering his view, Dr. Ihsan Bagby (professor of Islamic studies, University of Kentucky) told Sherri Day of the “St. Petersburg Times” (9 Feb. 2008): “It’s a natural process of Hispanics who are dissatisfied with the church in their own spirituality, their own level of morality and are looking for answers outside of their own traditional kind of religious traditions. Beyond that, Islam is a fairly conservative culture that probably dovetails very well with Hispanic culture.”

Most Latino converts are former Catholics who had difficulty with the church hierarchy, which has no counterpart in Islam, and the concepts of Original Sin and the Holy Trinity. When we look under the surface, Islamic monotheism (tawhid) is generally the guiding factor in conversion, for it brings people closer to God by providing them with a better understanding of their Creator.

While the community’s growth has created excitement among Muslims, it has created anxiety among some non-Muslims, many of whom have negative images of Islam, Muslims, and Latinos. The greatest opposition usually comes from other (non-Muslim) Latinos, who seem to be angrier than others about the community’s growth. Due to such misconceptions, many Latinos sincerely believe that Islam is not good for their community; that non-Roman Catholic Latinos are somehow un-Latino, brainwashed, or traitors; and that Islam is a phase some Latinos go through, something that someone must be born into, or for foreigners.

Although most Latino families are to some degree accepting when a family member expresses an interest in Islam or converts, some stories are heart wrenching. Some avoid converting, fearing ostracism; others have been kicked out of their homes and suffered physical and psychological abuse. Latinos who do convert change their lives in ways that family members may consider too restrictive, such as refusing to drink alcohol.

Catholicism is so ingrained in the Latino community that converting to Islam is “sort of like changing out of being Hispanic,” Samantha Sanchez, a Muslim who has written extensively about the Latino Muslim community, told the “New York Times” (2 Jan. 2002). If a hundred years from now most American Latinos are Muslim, the typical Latino would consider Islam as inseparable from Latino culture. Today’s Latino culture could become tomorrow’s Latino Muslim culture. Since Latino Muslims are a young community, defining Latino Muslim culture remains difficult. Islam sets the framework and direction that the culture takes, which means rejecting some old ways, accepting some new ways, and adapting when necessary.

Like most Americans, most Latinos do not know what Islam is. Upon being told of my conversion, my father asked: “¿Qué es eso?” (What is that?). I responded: “It’s a religion.” Then, after telling him a little about it, he said: “¿Cómo los árabes?” (Like the Arabs?). From the beginning of my journey in Islam, I learned that my family might be among the least knowledgeable about Islam. Many misconceptions persist. For example, one of my sisters asked: “Don’t you still love Jesus? How could you do this to the Virgin Mary?” I replied: “I still love Jesus. We believe he’s a prophet. There is also a chapter called ‘Mary’ in the Qur’an.” Muslims and Christians both honor the Virgin Mary. When accused of worshipping “Allah,” I say we worship “Dios.” God, Dios, and Allah mean the same thing.

Sherri Day stated that in the Tampa Bay area, the thirty-member PIEDAD (Propagación Islámica para la Educación y la Devoción a Alá el Divino) group holds monthly meetings in each other’s homes. The women turn to each other for advice on navigating conflicts with non-Muslim family members, listen to mini-lectures about Islam, pray, eat, and dance. Vice President Jill Finney, a thirty-four-year-old white woman who left the Assemblies of God for Islam in 2006, told Day that her family still does not accept her conversion. A city urban planner, she said: “Arab sisters, Palestinian sisters, have no clue of what I’m going through. But (Hispanics) know, because they’ve been through it. We really have become like family or sisters to each other.”

Many Latinos are amazed to learn that Spain was Muslim for over 700 years. Latinos today are still influenced by Islamic Spain. For example, thousands of Spanish words are derived from Arabic. Although Islam’s historical presence in Spain may spark a Latino’s interest in Islam, this interest would simply be the beginning of a long journey toward greater knowledge about Islam. Most Latino converts had personal experiences with Muslim coworkers, classmates, marriage partners, friends, acquaintances, or others that drew them closer to Islam. Most Latinas became Muslim before they were married.

Conversion to Islam is more acceptable among African-Americans because of people like Malcolm X or Muhammad Ali. At present, Latino Muslims do not have many role models; however, role models are bound to emerge. Many Muslims anxiously wait for great Latino Muslim leaders and their wonderful organizations, along with their great activities. Latino Muslims are educating the next generation to become stronger. In a few generations, Latino Muslim scholars will be found in most major American cities.

According to the 2000 census, 32.8 million Hispanics live in America. In fact, there are now more Latinos than African-Americans. The Latino population is expected to grow to 63 million by 2030 and to 88 million by 2050. The conversion rate among Latinos is lower than that among Whites and African-Americans. “The Mosque in America: A National Portrait” (Council on American-Islamic Relations in cooperation with the Hartford Institute of Religious Research: 2000) estimated an annual growth of 20,000 converts nationally each year. Of these, 63% are African-American, 27% are White, and 6% are Hispanic. Of the 6 million American Muslims, Latinos represent only 0.6 percent (40,000) of the Muslim American population.

A leading barrier is the lack of access to Spanish-language Islamic literature, whether in print, audio, or audiovisual form. Many Latinos only know Spanish: most Muslims do not know Spanish. Since people are often more interested in Islam when it comes from people like themselves, Latino Muslims can help the larger Latino community change its negative perception about Islam. As more Latinos embrace Islam, there will be more conversions from the general American population. Latino Muslims spark a curiosity about Islam: Why are Latinos converting? What is it about this religion? Many Americans have come to know about Islam through Latino Muslims, because it is difficult to discuss Latino Muslims without discussing their religion. Latino Muslims are showing non-Muslims that Islam is a universal religion for all people, from all places, and for all times.

Latinos are politically, socially, and economically influential in America. Given that they can influence lawmakers, it is only logical that Muslims want more Latinos to support Muslim causes. Many Muslim American organizations are only now beginning to grasp this reality. However, they have yet to understand why the number of Latino Muslims and the conversion rate are both low.

Promoting Islam to Latinos is largely about fulfilling needs: providing help with food and shelter or Spanish-language Islamic literature for a da’awah table. Mosques should have such materials readily available as well as identify Spanish-speaking (but not necessarily Latino) Muslims to train Latinos how to pray, recite the Qur’an, and teach them about Islam in general. Mosque da’awah committees should work with local Latino Muslims to ensure more effective outreach efforts; local communities should discuss matters of importance to their Latino Muslim members and Latinos in general; and Muslims and Latino Muslims should participate in interfaith dialogues at churches, primarily at Catholic churches, and volunteer to help Latinos living in heavily populated Latino neighborhoods and schools. Moreover, all mosques should have information about local Latino Muslims and national Latino Muslim organizations.

The problems found in Latino families may be similar or even the same as those in other communities. For example, Latino immigrants may be accustomed to a large supportive family that can help them. However, this changes when they come to America, for significant common values found at home are questioned and assailed; they may find themselves with a small family, if any, which has to cope with a high level of stress; and may confront family-related problems they never imagined before. Many Latinos leave Christianity because they see it as a large part of the problem. Islam’s emphasis on the family institution is one of its most attractive features for Latinos, many of whom are amazed to see the similarities between Muslim and Latino culture in this respect. Latinos, who love family and religion, see in Islam a way to return the family to its proper place in society.

Interestingly, Latinas are more willing to convert than Latinos, many of whom are too afraid to change. According to Samantha Sanchez’s research, most converts are college-educated, between the ages of 20 and 30, and female. By far, the vast majority of Latino Muslims are Sunni. According to LADO’s ongoing SLM project, most Latinos Muslims are married and have more than one child. As is true of most Latino families, Latino Muslim families are traditionally larger than their American counterparts, which helps explain the community’s rapid growth. It is not only about individuals converting, it is about entire families embracing Islam.

According to the SLM project, more than 90 percent of Latino Muslims are converts. Some immigrants, however, come to America as Muslims, while others may have been Muslim for several generations. A Muslim’s ancestors may have come from the Middle East. For example, a Latino Muslim may have Egyptian grandparents who immigrated to Venezuela and Venezuelan parents who moved to America when their children were young.

Are Puerto Rican-Americans more likely to convert than other Latinos? Some argue that Puerto Rican-American Muslims have received greater media visibility, but no particular category of Latinos initiated the interest in Islam among Latinos. It might be safe to say that Puerto Rican Americans initiated this interest in areas where they dominate, as in New York and New Jersey. However, Mexican-Americans initiated it in the Southwest. The growth of Islam among Latinos began as a local, rather than a national, phenomenon. Those most responsible for developing the current community were the converts’ African-American or immigrant Muslim neighbors, friends, and coworkers.

Prison Conversions: Several Latino Muslim prisoners have shared their stories. They find prison culture very difficult, because they have to endure the treatment of prison guards and other prisoners who believe that only African-Americans are Muslim. Thus it is hard for many to maintain their Islamic identity. They also face discrimination for their refusal to eat pork. One Latino prisoner stated that the Black Muslims at his prison think that Chicanos (a term specific to Mexican-Americans, often loosely used for all Latinos) cannot be Muslim. Furthermore, Latino prisoners are generally reluctant to embrace Islam, because inmates usually segregate themselves along racial lines and many fear possible repercussions from other Latino prisoners.

Latino Muslim inmates, the least represented and powerful group, unheard and largely ignored by all, are among America’s most discriminated-against Muslims. How well they are treated generally depends on how many other Muslims they know. Even so, many incarcerated Latinos come to Islam because a great deal of Islamic literature is available, thanks to the persistent efforts of African-American Muslim prisoners. As the Latino Muslim community has grown, more Latino Muslim inmates have become active in calling other prisoners to Islam, and Latino conversions have become more acceptable within the prison community.

Most information on Latino Muslims comes from Latino Muslim organizations instead of academia, which has essentially ignored them. For example, Latino Muslims are rarely mentioned in books about Muslim Americans. However, several newspapers and magazines have written on this growing community. A quick internet search for “Latino Muslims” will reveal hundreds of relevant articles. Both http://latinodawah.org and http://hispanicmuslims.com are very comprehensive websites.

LADO’s survey of Latino Muslims in America is ongoing, because the relevant statistics are difficult to find. The complete results, including the breakdown of specific numbers and percentages, will be released as a report. Among them are the following: there are more Latina than Latino Muslims, 60 percent of all Latino Muslims who completed the survey in 2006 were women, California has the most Latino Muslims, Mexican Americans represent the community’s largest percentage, and most Latino Muslims were born in America. However, immigrants make up a significant percentage of the community.

Although few Americans know much about Latino Muslims, the media seems to be fascinated with this particular community. Many believe that this interest is largely the result of the media’s sense of responsibility to report on a little known but interesting subject. Furthermore, the media wants to report on the Latino community’s growing religious diversity. Americans love stories about diversity, and Latino Muslims, who are often asked to comment on current events affecting Latinos and Muslims, certainly feed this interest. Currently, most of this media coverage occurs around the time of Muslim holidays and Latino Muslim events. Even though Latino Muslims do not fit the many negative and false stereotypes traditionally associated with the “typical” Latino, these still appear in the media and elsewhere.

Latino Muslims are happy that their existence is finally being recognized. Many non-Muslims are confused by the existence of this community, which the media and academia pretty much ignored until about seven years ago. To be a Latino Muslim is no longer “strange.” We grow united. We grow together. Crecemos Unidos. Crecemos Juntos.

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