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Latina Muslims: The Choices They Make

By Ramin Ganeshram
Catalina Magazine
Nov-Dec 2002. pp 26-28.

You can say 27-year-old Zulayka Martinez was a typical Latina. As the child of a strictly religious family, she went to Catholic youth groups and could name all of her saints. She even dreamt of becoming a nun one day. Then, at age 22, while at a Catholic retreat, her life changed forever. She converted to Islam.

"I brought a Quran that a Muslim coworker had given me to the retreat." Martinez explains. "I read it during the times of silence and reflection. It spoke to my heart, which made me very confused about my faith in my own religion."

The anxious young woman did what good Catholic girls do: she confessed to her priest. He promptly told her, "I've read the Quran. I'm not saying Muslims are bad people, but I'm assuring you that our faith is correct and theirs is not."

His response only fed her curiosity. She began to ask Muslim classmates for increasingly more information, while reading any material she could find about the religion. After a few more years of studying, she took the plunge and followed in the footsteps of thousands of Latinas. She took her Shahada - the Muslim oath of conversion.

Martinez's story may sound unusual, but it's not. Groups like Latino American Dawah Organization (LADO), founded in 1997 to aid Islamic conversion in Hispanic communities, and the Islamic Association of North America (ISNA) estimate the number of Latino Muslims in the United States at around 50,000. With mosques and missionary groups in almost every Central and South American country, there is strong belief among Muslims that the number will rise substantially.

According to ISNA spokesperson, Dr. Syeed Sayed, women generally convert to Islam more often than men. The main question to ask then is "Why?"

A large proportion of Latina converts are women like Zulayka Martinez, who pinpoint their initial exploration of Islam not to outside influences but to an extreme dissatisfaction with the teachings of the Catholic Church. Scandals and bureaucratic hierarchy are blamed for the Catholic Church's more than 100,000 defections yearly, in just the United States alone.

"Even when I was a Catholic, I rarely agreed with the Church," says Marlene Lillo-Smith. "I don't agree with priestly power, or the fact that the Pope is one of the richest men in the world - that is obscene."

For this 41-year-old Chilena, who became Muslim two years ago, the lack of intermediaries between God and the Muslim faithful was very attractive in her new religion.

Samantha Sanchez, 25, a LADO cofounder who converted to Islam in 1997, has conducted studies about how Hispanics come to this faith. "Seventy-five percent of Latino Muslims came through personal exploration. These people were going out to explore everything from Buddhism to Wicca and settled upon Islam," says Sanchez.

...For 38-year-old Dyeanna Luna, conversion meant the end of her marriage, losing her three daughters and many friends. Her Mexican parents feel she is going to hell and her brothers call her "the wife of Bin Laden."

Still, Luna has persisted -even convincing her employer, Southwest Airlines, to allow her to wear hijab while doing her job as a ticket counter agent.

"I will admit that it made a lot of customers a bit nervous, especially after September 11th, but it is important to me to follow my faith,' she says. "The people who really know me know I am a good person and don't make me feel bad about my decision."

...Khadija (Vita) Rivera, who started a group called Piedad in 1988 to ease Latinas' transition to Islam, says the phenomenon of young Latinas who hide their Muslim lives because of fear of family is common.

Rivera says Latina Muslims face a strong belief by family, friends and society that they are being forced or tricked into participating in an oppressive religion. They condemn exposure to Muslims living in America, or convince themselves that the women accepted Islam to please a Muslim boyfriend or husband. "The Spanish public can't fathom that we would convert without marrying a Muslim man, but they should know better than anyone that Latina women are not going to let themselves be oppressed - we would yell and scream," says the 51-year-old native New Yorker and Muslim convert of 20 years who now lives in Miami.

Many of the Latinas said their families are so against conversion because they fear their girls will give up their Hispanic culture by adopting Muslim names, or wearing Arab or South Asian clothing. Yet, changes in dress, eating habits, and behavior do not mean one's Hispanic heritage is being lost, the new converts say. "I really think it is American and Latino society that oppresses women, and Latinas in particular, by pressuring us to be J-Lo and Carmen Miranda wannabes," says LADO's Sanchez. " I think that Islam is the answer, because it takes away stereotypical Latina-ness. You are Latina because you are, not because you dress in a provocative way."

"Are we, as a community, really equating being Latina only with eating pork, drinking liquor, and being a coqueta?" she asks. "If so, then we have a pretty sad self image." Familial and social pressures aren't the only ones some Latina Muslims deal with. They also feel pressures from their new, chosen communities. "A lot of Arab and Indian Muslims don't realize that Islam is not only for them, it's for everyone," says Lucy Chapa, 32. "I feel more comfortable around other Latino Muslims."

Dyeanna Luna has also felt unwanted and is grateful for groups like Ramirez' and LADO that help her through the difficult times.

"Things definitely have been very hard since I've accepted Islam. I've had problems from all sides: my family, friends, and even `ethnic' Muslims," says Luna. "But, God tells us you must choose who you love more: God or mankind. And Islam has helped me see that I love God more."

Catalina Magazine link