Latina Immigrants: The New Ambassadors of Islam
By Wendy Diaz
Tucked away in a quiet rural neighborhood in Somerset, New Jersey is the brown brick building that houses the New Jersey Chapter of the Islamic Center of North America's (ICNA) WhyIslam Project. Within its confines, in a second floor office with rose-colored walls, sits the administrative assistant and only female employee of the department, Nahela Morales.
In a long black garment and gray headscarf, Morales sits in front of a computer entering notes and taking phone calls from the program's hotline, 1-877-WhyIslam, a resource for individuals to ask questions about Islam. Morales, a Mexican immigrant and recent convert to Islam, is the national Spanish-language outreach coordinator for WhyIslam, a project of ICNA that disseminates Islamic information nationwide.
But Morales is also taking her teachings beyond the border: She recently led a trip to bring Islamic literature, food and clothing to Mexico.
Morales is part of a growing movement of immigrant Muslim converts from Latin America - many of whom are women -- who are now helping to bring the religion back to their home countries.
Latina Immigrant Women Finding a Place in Islam
According to WhyIslam's 2012 Annual Report, 19 percent of the 2,862 converts it assisted in 2011 were Latinos, and more than half of those (55 percent) were women. These statistics are based on data gathered from the 2,862 converts the organization worked with in 2011.
The 2011 U.S. Mosque Survey, which interviewed leaders at a sample of 524 mosques across the country, found that the number of new female converts to Islam had increased 8 percent since 2000, up from 32 percent to 41 percent. The report also found that Latinos accounted for 12 percent of all new converts to Islam in the United States in 2011, a six-percent increase over the year 2000.
Morales believes Latina immigrant women are drawn to Islam because of the sense of "belonging" they find within the Muslim community. "Many immigrants are here by themselves and when they come into the mosque and see faces smiling, they feel welcome," she says. "Islam teaches that a Muslim is a brother to another Muslim, and that brotherhood is very appealing."
Experts say the phenomenon of a growing number of Latino immigrants converting to Islam is due in part to migration trends.
Muslims and Latino immigrants are living side by side in urban neighborhoods across the country, in states such as California, Texas, Florida, New York, and Illinois, which according to data from the Migration Policy Institute host the largest number of immigrants from Latin America. Combined, these five states constituted 72.5 percent of the total foreign-born population from Latin America in the United States.
According to The American Mosque 2011 Report, these five states also have the highest number of mosques in the U.S., reflecting a growing Muslim presence there.
Wilfredo Ruiz, an attorney and political analyst on the Islamic world, as well as a Muslim chaplain, affirms that women are embracing Islam at a higher rate than men. A native of Puerto Rico, Ruiz converted to Islam in 2003 and currently resides in South Florida, where he works closely with various non-profit organizations including the American Muslim Association of North America (AMANA).
"More women than men convert, both in AMANA offices and in the mosques in Southern Florida," Ruiz says. Latina immigrants, he says, can feel exploited both in Latin America and the United States. The higher status afforded women in Islam and their modest dress, he believes, offers a sensible alternative.
"I have heard from Latina women saying that they seek protection, and they find [that] protection and respect in Islam," he says.
Juan Galvan, executive director of the Latino-American Dawah Association and author of Latino Muslims: Our Journeys to Islam, believes that Islam also may have a special appeal because it reveals to them what he calls a more profound understanding of monotheism.
"Most Latino Muslim converts have had personal experiences with Muslims that first drew them closer to Islam," he explains. "These Muslims may be their friends, acquaintances, classmates, coworkers, bosses, marriage partners, or others. By interacting with Muslims, a non-Muslim learns about Islamic monotheism for the first time."
Because Islam emphasizes God's, or Allah's, oneness, Galvan says, it presents Latinos with a unique alternative to traditional Christian theologies that accept the existence of holy deities - Jesus, the Holy Spirit, saints and miracle workers -- which are connected to, yet distinct, from God.
"While Protestantism may have fewer intermediaries than Catholicism, Latinos come to Islam because they believe in a concept of God that acknowledges Him as the Most Powerful and therefore, needs no son," says Galvan, who is himself a Mexican-American who converted to Islam in the summer of 2001.
Morales' path to Islam: Mexico to U.S. to Mexico
Morales found her own place in Islam after a turbulent past.
In 1979, Morales' mother risked crossing the border into the United States illegally and alone, leaving her infant daughter behind in Mexico under her grandmother's care. When Morales was 5 years old, she was finally reunited with her mother, who by that time had settled in Los Angeles. Mother and daughter gained amnesty under the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986. However, even as a U.S. citizen, Morales recalls feeling out of place.
"It was a very difficult adjustment since I did not speak English," says Morales. "I remember entering the school system and not being able to communicate with my teachers or peers. I wanted to go back home [to Mexico]."
Adding to her difficulties, Morales was the victim of years of neglect and abuse at home, and as a pre-teen she was removed from her mother's custody and placed in foster care and group homes, until ultimately she was able to settle on her own and finish college.
She moved to New York in 2001. Shortly after her relocation, the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks occurred at the World Trade Center. When news reports blamed Muslim extremists, Morales began to research Islam.
"I was watching the news and they were always showing [Muslim] people shouting 'Allahu-akbar,' God is great, so I thought, if your God is so great, why is he allowing you to kill people? If Muslims say Islam [is about] peace, then this doesn't make sense." She decided to find the answers herself and purchased a copy of the Quran, Islam's holy book. Morales also began befriending Muslim women on MySpace.
"They were so nice, and I became more curious. One of the Muslim women I met happened to be Puerto Rican, and she got in touch with someone in California that could send me an information package about Islam with books, a Quran, a prayer rug, and a hijab [headscarf]."
Morales continued to make contact with Muslims through the Internet and searched online for the closest mosque to her new home in North Bergen, New Jersey. She began visiting the mosque and eventually converted in 2003, and continues to be an active member of the North Hudson Islamic Educational Center, or NHIEC.
NHIEC is situated in a predominantly Hispanic neighborhood and 30 percent of its congregants are Latinos. The Latino influence is so great that the mosque offers simultaneous Spanish translation of its Friday sermons and Islamic studies classes, and even hosts an annual "Hispanic Muslim Day."
During one of her visits to the NHIEC mosque in 2009, a WhyIslam worker overheard Morales speaking Spanish and he asked her if she would be interested in a bilingual position with the company.
She has been working with them for more than three years, and recently led a campaign to deliver Islamic literature and audio, clothing, and toiletries to a needy Muslim community in Mexico City.
Morales' family members in Mexico, who are mostly Catholic, were not accepting of her decision to practice Islam or of her modest style of dress. They accused her of turning her back on her culture. However, in her most recent trip to her hometown of Cuernavaca, she took the opportunity to talk to them more about her religion.
"It is obvious that Islam is still very strange in Mexico," Morales said, "But it is also very clear that people want to learn about it." Since her visit she says her family has become more supportive.
Far from Home: Living as an undocumented Latina Muslim in Chicago
"Mexican Americans are the category of Latinos that make up the largest percentage of the Latino Muslim converts in the U.S.," says Juan Galvan. Since 9/11, Muslims and Latinos, especially Mexicans, have been affected by stricter immigration laws throughout the United States.
In Chicago, Illinois, Isabela Duarte, a Mexican immigrant and Muslim convert, lives in fear as a result. Duarte, who is now 30, has been in the United States since the age of 7, but she is still undocumented. Her family crossed the border and moved to Chicago in 1990. She was able to attend school as her parents worked.
When she finished high school, Duarte was left with no other choice but to work. "I figured that there was no possibility of furthering my education because I'd lack assistance due to my status," she explains. She landed an administrative position in a social services agency. However, as a result of the recession and state cuts, Duarte lost her job.
"That's when my real struggles began. I searched for jobs everywhere. Immigration laws became tougher; therefore most places of employment denied me any type of opportunity regardless of the experience I had." She settled for babysitting jobs, where she could be paid under the table.
In the winter of 2008, while her parents, who are still undocumented, faced foreclosure, unemployment, and a divorce, Duarte had an emotional breakdown. She began searching for a remedy for her stress, and after browsing the Internet and finding a YouTube video of Quran recitation, she decided to look into Islam. Her best friend, who was Puerto Rican, had already become a Muslim, and Duarte followed in her footsteps.
She attended the local Islamic center to openly declare her faith and was warmly received by the women in the mosque, who gave her scarves, books, and a copy of the Quran. Now as an immigrant and a Muslim, she continues to struggle with her status. "This is my home. Chicago has been my home and I don't recall any other," she says when asked about returning to Mexico. But she has found a community among other Latino Muslims, and participates regularly in events held by the Latino Muslims of Chicago, an Islamic group that serves the needs of Latinos.
Limited by her immigration status, however, her own local outreach efforts cannot expand beyond her immediate family so she reaches out to others through her Facebook page, where she posts information about Islam in the form of articles and videos.
Muslims Back Home
According to the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion and Public Life, over the next 20 years, the only region where the percentage increase in the number of Muslims will be greater than it was over the last 20 years is the Americas, largely due to immigration to the U.S. and Canada from South Asia, the Middle East and North Africa. In North and South America, the estimated Muslim population in 2010 was 5,256,000. This number is expected to more than double by the year 2030.
Liliana Anaya, a Muslim convert from Colombia and a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., is familiar with the trend. The mosque in her hometown, Barranquilla, Colombia, reports an average of four conversions a month.
Anaya's journey as a Latina immigrant in America began when she was in college. She entered the United States on a student visa and transferred to Rollins University in Orlando, Florida to study English and complete her undergraduate degree in political science and international relations.
Anaya converted to Islam in June 2002 after taking a course on theology. When a Muslim classmate told her that Jesus was not the son of God, she began reading the Quran and called a local mosque to find out more.
"I wanted to refute him and prove him wrong," she says. "It was more of an act of rebellion because in my mind, I never really believed Jesus was God's son. I thought he was just a special person who came with a message." After taking classes in the mosque and learning about Jesus' standing as a prophet in Islam, she declared her testimony of faith.
After finishing her undergraduate studies, Anaya attended American University to complete a Master's Degree in international peace and conflict resolution. She got a job at a non-profit organization offering mediation for criminal, district, and county court systems in northern Virginia. During this time, she met her husband, a Muslim convert from Argentina, and together they applied for U.S. citizenship.
While Anaya was expecting their first child, she decided to travel back to her country to give birth. After their arrival, she and her husband discovered the Othman bin Affan Mosque in Barranquilla, a small Muslim community that lacked adequate resources. Because Anaya's husband had earned a degree in Islamic Propagation from Umm Al Qura University in Saudi Arabia, they became involved in the mosque, organizing and teaching classes.
"I felt that Muslims in the states are already part of the fabric of the society," Anaya describes, "But here [in Colombia], we are in the baby steps. If I want something, I have to create it. If I want Islamic classes for my children, I have to create them."
Anaya and her husband are now in the process of establishing an Islamic school for the Muslims in Barranquilla, and both have renounced the possibility of settling in the U.S., due to their involvement with the mosque in Colombia.
"The Muslim community here needs us, so we can't move," Anaya says.
This story was made possible by a grant from Atlantic Philanthropies, and was produced as part of New America Media's Women Immigrants Fellowship Program.