By Krystal DeJesus
With the hustle and bustle of a vibrant Latino community around them a small group of Muslims sit in a cramped room inside their Union City, NJ mosque brainstorming ways to reach out to their Latino neighbors for the annual Hispanic Muslim Day event. How will they teach people about Islam? Who is going to speak in Spanish? What kind of foods should be prepared? And who will handle the decorations?
The North Hudson Islamic Education Center in Union City, New Jersey has become home to one of the largest and most active Latino Muslim communities on the east coast. Those active within the Union City mosque estimate that there are at least 100 Latino Muslims attending the mosque for daily prayers and events. According to the Latino American Dawah Organization, New York was once the main area for Latino Muslims but with time the community broke apart and a community in Union City, NJ continued to grow into what is now one of the most well known Muslim communities in the tri-state area with a large percentage of Latinos.
The Latino Muslim population at the Union City mosque is not the only Muslim community noticing a rise in Latino Muslims. In Long Island, NY, members within the Muslim community are also noticing an increase in those of a Latino or Hispanic background showing an interest in Islam.
“I definitely see an increased interest from the Latino community,” said Ferozan Noori, coordinator of a support group for recent converts to Islam, at the Islamic Center of Long Island in Westbury. “At least four or five are Latino out of the 20 people on my list.”
At Masjid Darul Qur’an in Bay Shore, NY, Imam Abdul Jabbar admits that he also notices more Latinos in the mosque and attending congregational prayers.
“We have at least four or five members that are from Latin America,” Jabar said. “They bring a different dynamic than the American convert.”
According to the Council for American-Islamic Relations, a nonprofit civil rights and advocacy group for Islamic civil liberties, there have been no formal studies done to record the number of Latino Muslims in the U.S. Estimates range from as low as 25,000 to as high as 200,000, according to the Latino American Dawah Organization, which attributes the numbers to two separate studies – 1997 and 2006 respectively – done by the American Muslim Council, a Washington advocacy group which has since closed down.
“Unfortunately we do not have exact figures, I know the LLAMO [League of Latino American Muslim Organizations] is trying to obtain some type of census, but my guess would be well over 40,000,” said Nahela Alexandra Morales, administrative assistant for Why Islam, a nationwide outreach program to educate people about Islam.
With Latinos being the fastest growing ethnic group in the United States and Islam also being the fastest growing religion in the United States educational outreach programs about Islam, such as Why Islam, are trying to cater to the growing demographic of Latinos in the country.
“We offer a Q&A 24/7 on our hotline in Spanish,” said Nahela Morales, an administrative assistant for Why Islam. “We also carry 13 Spanish brochures and a few books to educate our Latino community. Why Islam answers their questions and fills the inner voids they have carried throughout their lives.”
Latino converts to Islam, Alan Rivera and Nylka Vargas, are among those who struggled with inner voids in their Catholic upbringing, including the belief in the trinity and Jesus being the son of God. When they learned of Islam’s strict adherence to one absolute God it peaked their interest in Islam and was the main reason why they converted.
“I had always felt this to be true,” said Nylka Vargas, 35, of Paterson, New Jersey, recalling the first time she learned of the Islamic belief in one God. “Everything else was secondary. Once I knew there was a religion that taught what I had always believed, and that there was a God that sent guides and messengers to humanity, everything fell into place.”
For Alan Rivera, 18, and a student at Stony Brook University, the belief in one God was also a leading reason why he chose to convert to Islam. Although his initial exposure to Islam was through his stepfather, Rivera admits that when he decided to convert to Islam it was his own decision and it was the belief in only one God that led to his decision.
“I never believed Jesus was the son of God,” Rivera said. “The belief in no god but God and that Jesus was just a prophet felt right. That just made sense.”
But for Morales, the initial interest in Islam didn’t come from religious beliefs; it was the attacks of 9/11 that initially got her interested in Islam.
“I moved to the east coast from the west coast the year the twin towers were attacked and the curiosity began after the attacks,” Morales said. “I began researching and it took several years until I completely understood, accepted and agreed to obey Allah [God] without questioning or trying to take from Islam what I liked or disregarded what was hard to change, such as the hijab [headscarf].”
For some converts to Islam the changes that must take place as they embrace a new way of life can lead to some significant struggles internally but also externally with family and the community. When one fully embraces an Islamic way of life it often means distancing oneself from family parties or community activities that were once commonplace since drinking, dancing, free mixing of men and women and even religious social gatherings, such as a Christening or Communion are not permissible in Islam.
“Much of what my family practices –birthdays, baptisms, mixed weddings, impermissible parties – are things I cannot participate in either fully or partially,” Vargas said. “Reverts [converts] may feel like they always have to make up with their non-Muslim family because the fun times are often impermissible to the revert.”
Although there may be differences between Latino culture and an Islamic way of life, for some, such as Juan Alvarado, the differences were not too drastic.
“You can’t drink, you can’t eat pork, but there are lots of things in Hispanic culture that relate to Islam, such as Hispanics being more conservative,” Alvarado said, recalling how his grandmother would also dress conservatively wrapping her head and covering her chest similar to the dress code of many Muslim women. “For 900 years Muslims ruled Spain and 500 years later there is an influence still there.”
Although there may be some similarities between Islamic culture and Latino culture Islam is still a foreign concept to many in the Latino community.
“In one of our meetings a Latina sister mentioned that Islam in her family is strange because no one knows Islam in South America,” Noori said. “No one even knows what Islam is until someone in the family converts.”
So with so much change and struggle why would someone covert to a religion and way of life that is so different from their culture, community and family traditions? For many it’s the belief in one God, the completion of the Catholic-Christian faith they were raised with but still left them feeling empty. For others, it’s an exposure to Islam through Muslim friends and neighbors, or as for Rivera, it was having a Muslim marry into the family that attracted them to Islam.
Most Latino Muslims still adhere to their cultural roots as long as their religion isn’t compromised. At the Union City mosque prayers may be in Arabic but in the halls it’s not uncommon to hear Spanish in the halls over the speakers and at their annual Hispanic Muslim Day event common cultural dishes are served with special preparations known as halal and without any alcohol and pork.
“It’s not so shocking nowadays when you hear a Latina Muslim speak her language in front of other Latinos,” Vargas said. “It still does raise an eyebrow but the power in numbers is helping familiarize others about the growing numbers of Latinos in Islam.”
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