'It's beautiful': How four Los Angeles Latinos found peace in Islam
By Walter Thompson-Hernández
Every Sunday, on the third floor of a beautifully ornamented mosque on the corner of Exposition and Vermont near downtown Los Angeles, a group of Muslim Latinos gathers to hear the teachings of the Quran in Spanish.
On a recent visit, four men and 10 women attended the class, which was designed especially for Latino converts. The lessons include a 20-minute dialogue centered on issues relevant to Latino Muslims and an Arabic lesson for those aiming to read the Quran in its original form. This week, a projector displayed an excerpt from a text by a Muslim scholar about the recent terrorist attack in San Bernardino.
The instructor began with a simple query: Para los musulmanes latinos, qué significa lo que pasó en San Bernardino? ("What does what happened in San Bernardino mean for Latino Muslims?") Her question was followed by a few minutes of silence-a calmness that teetered between deep rumination and reluctance to speak.
One person finally spoke up: a woman who had been accompanied to the mosque by her two infant children.
"It hurt my heart to see that," she explained in Spanish as she slowly lingered on each word and made eye contact with everyone seated around the table. "This means that people will continue to confuse Muslim extremists for all Muslims. The Quran does not teach you to kill."
The entire group shook their heads in agreement. Another participant, Ramiro, a first-generation Mexican immigrant from the state of Jalisco, empathized with her comment. "Islam has nothing to do with the heinous acts that have been committed," he said. "Islam teaches peace not violence."
The conversation went on for another 30 minutes and covered a wide range of topics. Ultimately, however, it seemed that the dialogue provided each person with a way to reconcile the anti-Islamic rhetoric they had been hearing in the media with the version of Islam he or she had chosen to embrace.
While the group exhibited a diverse set of views that stemmed from a multitude of experiences, the gender breakdown was far from balanced. There were far more women than men. Marta Galedary, the instructor, explained that some male converts couldn't make the weekly trip because of other commitments like family or work. But on average, there were more Latina converts because of intermarriage with Muslim men.
Part one of this series of Latino converts to Islam dealt with the experiences of Latinas. For part two, I met with the Latino men in attendance that week, as well as two other affiliated men outside of the mosque, for some insight into some of the unique experiences that have come to define their lives as Latino Muslim converts.
The four men have distinct backgrounds. Ramiro and Julio, whom I met at the Quran class, are first-generation immigrants. The other interviewees, Alejandro and Jose, whom I met the following week, are the sons of Mexican immigrants. Alejandro converted to Islam while doing a 10-year stint in federal prison. Jose converted after learning about Islam as a student in a criminal studies program at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan, New York.
At the outset of the interviews, I felt compelled to ask one of the most pressing questions of our day: Why Islam? Islam is considered one of the fastest- growing religions in the United States with approximately 2.6 million members. One Muslim organization, whyislam.org, estimates there are approximately 200,000 Muslim Latinos in the U.S., and that the number is growing.
But after learning more about the value and meanings these converts had placed on their religious faith, I quickly learned that the answer to my question was rooted perhaps not in the concise response that I had been seeking, but rather in the inescapable realization that their path to religious and spiritual clarity was more about the process of unpacking a larger and complex truth than being able to define it.
Prior to emigrating to the U.S. from Guatemala 15 years ago, Julio had never heard of Islam. His parents were devout Catholics and raised him in the same fashion. It was not until the terrorist attacks of 9/11 that Julio heard about the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad.
"I had never heard of Islam until 9/11," he shared with me. "When I heard about it, I was very intrigued. I began to seek out information about it and I asked Muslim people a lot of questions whenever I would see them. I quickly learned that the terrorists who were involved with 9/11 were not representative of Islam."
After learning more about Islamic traditions, Julio was drawn in deeper after hearing about the pain and torture that a historical figure in the Quran named Bilal had underwent because of his unwavering dedication to the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad. According to the Quran, Bilal was burned with hot rods, tied with ropes, and was forced to lay in the desert without food or water.
"I was very curious to learn more after I read about Bilal," Julio said as his voice softened and began to slightly tear up. "His story made me cry. I couldn't believe what happened to him. He was one of the first Muslims and he suffered a lot because of it. After reading about Bilal, I began to read the Quran more and more."
But Julio was not ready to take his shahada (conversion process) until he had a vision while on vacation with a group of friends in Hawaii.
"I had a dream where I was speaking in Arabic," he recalled. "I was by the ocean and I was praying in Arabic. It was marvelous. When I got back to L.A., I went to a mosque and described the event to the Imam and the following Friday I went and did my shahada."
Yet much of the peace that Julio claims to have found has not been reciprocated by his friends and family.
Many of his friends, he recalled, "left him" when they found out he had converted to Islam. Others said that he would become a terrorist after converting. But fortunately for Julio, many of these people, today, have, according to him, "come a long way" and changed their views about him and Islam.
Still, Julio understands that while his loved ones have learned to embrace his Muslim identity, society still has a long way to go.
"I think it will be tough for us because we're Latinos and we're Muslim. And people like Donald Trump are making it very hard for us. If we're not already under surveillance, we will for sure be in the future. A lot of us are new to this country, and new people are often the ones who suffer the most. It's going to be tough for us, but things will get better, I hope."
Jose was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, to two first-generation Mexican immigrants. He is a recent graduate of the John Jay School of Criminal Justice in New York and currently works at a telephone company in Fontana, California.
It was during a course as an undergrad that he learned about Islam and its relationship to social justice.
"As a justice studies major, you look at different forms of justice in the history of the world. Islam was one of them, and it just stuck out," he said. "I was on a personal search to find something that would define me as a person and find something that would make me better."
Jose converted to Islam four years ago and firmly believes that Islam allows him to interweave his other social and cultural identities in a way that does not detract from Muslim values.
"Sometimes I'm a kid from Brooklyn just rapping and talking about the world through rap, but other times I'm a Muslim. I like my cross trainers. I like my ranchero hat. I can wear that. It's who I am. I'm very Mexican and Muslim."
But for Jose, being a Muslim in the U.S. continues to present him with challenges he believes are tied to the history of this country.
He also spoke about what Donald Trump's comments about Muslims and Mexican immigrants meant to him.
"When I see Donald trump, I see America. That's history. As a Latino Muslim I have two targets on my back-two very ugly big ones. I don't mind it. But when I see Trump, I see America."
While Jose felt that the U.S. needed to rethink its relationship to Latinos and Muslims, he also believed that some changes needed to be made within the Muslim community to help Latinos integrate with their Muslim neighbors.
"A lot of Muslims who immigrate come over with their culture and their people and they establish themselves. They have a great understanding of collective wealth and are able to move up in society. As a Latino Muslim, we don't have that. It's just us. We have to figure out how to create a collective body."
But the intra-Islamic struggles for Latinos did not end there, he said.
"It's very difficult as a Latino Muslim to integrate into everyday society, because our cultures are different than most Muslim cultures. Ask a Latino Muslim how easy it is for them to get married. Everyone loves you as a convert until you want to marry someone's daughter. Then it's not cool anymore. Then you're not as cool as you were about an hour ago."
Most Latino converts with immigrant backgrounds knew little about Islam prior to arriving in the U.S. But Ramiro's path to the religion began years before setting foot in Los Angeles.
Born and raised in small town outside of Guadalajara, Jalisco, Ramiro began his education in a Catholic seminary school, but always had questions that the Catholic Church could not answer.
"In Mexico I learned about Islam. I wanted to know who Muslims were, but I didn't know a lot. I was studying in Mexico in a Catholic seminary. I would ask questions about the Catholic Church. I wasn't satisfied with the responses that I was getting. I wanted more explanations."
His questions would be answered after immigrating to Los Angeles in 1986 and deciding to convert to Islam in the early 2000s.
"I did my shahada for six to eight months," he said. "I studied and asked a lot of questions because I knew once I would do it it would be a big commitment that I would have to make."
Unlike a lot of other Latino converts, Ramiro's family was accepting of his conversion to Islam, but he was questioned by some of his friends.
"My mother told me that I was an adult and that she respected my choice. But my friends at work said that I was being brainwashed by becoming a Muslim. I told them that I was, in fact, being brainwashed - that I was being brainwashed into being a good person and that my love for human beings was being confirmed."
Ramiro's Muslim education primarily occurred in Los Angeles. But he also earned a scholarship to study the Quran at an Egyptian University, which brought challenges, because he felt like he was racially profiled upon re-entering the U.S.
"I went to Egypt to study the Quran in a university," he explained. "I was away for a few weeks and when I got back to the Los Angeles airport they saw that I had a Saudi visa, one from Egypt, and one from Turkey. They asked me all types of questions and I was detained for hours at the airport, which wasn't fair."
Ramiro also believes that mass shootings in Paris and in San Bernardino bring about unwarranted discrimination for Muslims who practice peace and compassion.
"I feel for the people who died in Paris and for the people who died in San Bernardino because they are human beings. But ISIS and Al-Qaeda and these other groups are a very small percentage of Muslims. In Mexico, thousands of people have died because of the drug war and all those deaths have been caused by Catholics and Christians but you don't hear people going around saying that all Catholics and Christians are bad."
But despite these challenges, for Ramiro, being a Latino Muslim comes with an enormous sense of pride.
"I'm very proud. I was born a Mexican, which was a huge blessing. But being a Muslim is another thing. That's been a bigger blessing."
Alejandro's journey to Islam was slightly different than the other interviewees. Born to Mexican immigrant parents in West Covina, California, Alejandro converted to Islam as an inmate in a federal prison where he was doing a 10-year sentence.
Before converting to Islam, he was "in and out of prison," but found peace after taking his shahada.
"I had just entered prison and got ten years to life," he explained to me as his wife and son looked on. "I needed something that gave me peace. At that moment, I started seeking the bible but it wasn't helping. One day a brother named Ahmed read the Quran to me and I started to tear up. That same night I came back to their prayer and I took my shahada. The moment I said the prayer, I felt like something picked me up and embraced me. And from that point on I have not stopped my path."
Alejandro's experiences in prison would also be the catalyst for the Latino Muslim advocacy work that he continues to do with Latino muslims in prisons throughout Southern California.
But because prisons are often segregated by race, most of the Latino population in prison rejected his Muslim identity and his affinity for his African American Muslim brothers.
"The majority of Muslims in prison are black. They [Latinos] didn't like the fact that I would pray with my black brothers. They didn't like the fact that I would eat with my black brothers. But I told them that they were brothers and they have my back. They didn't like that so I started fighting the Chicanos after that all the time. I constantly fought until one day one of the shot callers talked to me and told me that they would let me be because he respected what I was doing and then it stopped."
When asked about what the future looks like for Latino Muslims, Alejandro responded by reflecting on his personal transformation.
"Drugs, cartels, gangs. I came out and had a change of heart because of god. That's what being a Muslim is all about. It's beautiful. Making sure my wife and child are good. What matters is where I'm going and keeping on the right path. And the good things I do for people. That's what drives me. Allah has embedded a lot of work for me."