Latino Muslim community growing in Chicago
By Katie Drews
A rising number of Latinos in the Chicago area appear to be leaving their Christian roots and finding spirituality in Islam.
Alma Campos, president of Latino Muslims of Chicago, said when she first converted to Islam 11 years ago, Hispanic Muslims were few and far between.
"Now we hear about people accepting the faith very regularly," she said. "It surprises me how much it is growing in this community here. It's catching on pretty rapidly."
According to the Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago, there are about 400,000 Muslims in the Chicago area and roughly 30 percent are a mix of Latinos, Caucasians and other converts.
Campos said it is hard to estimate the true number of Latino Muslims because they are spread out across the Chicago region and difficult to find. Her organization, though, has increased to about 100 active members.
The growth is likely a result of more Latinos feeling disconnected from Christianity, which is typically why people convert to other faiths, according to Scott Alexander, director of the Catholic-Muslim Studies Program at the Catholic Theological Union.
"Some people can be born Catholic, but it doesn't mean anything. It doesn't mean they are practicing or that they take that seriously," he said.
That was the case for Campos, 36, who is of Mexican descent and grew up Roman Catholic.
"How did we become Catholic? There was no choice," she said. "At some point you have to question it and determine whether it's the right thing for you. I think this is something that people are doing more now."
For Campos, there were certain elements of Christianity that were hard to understand, such as the Holy Trinity. After researching Islam in her 20s, she realized there were many similarities between the two religions, which allowed for a smooth transition for her.
Campos' decision was initially difficult for her family, though, especially when she began wearing the hijab, the traditional headscarf worn by Muslim women.
"They are OK with it now; it did not take long for them to understand it," said the Morton Grove resident. "I took away a lot of the stereotypical thoughts of a Muslim woman."
Wesley Lebron, a Rockford resident of Puerto Rican descent (pictured above), also said that it was hard on his family when he chose to convert to Islam.
"Especially for Hispanics, we are very religious people, our culture is very strong and our family is very strong," said Lebron, 33. "Puerto Ricans are Christians, so initially it's like you are turning your back on your family."
Ultimately Lebron's family accepted his choice, realizing he changed his views on faith and not his cultural heritage.
"I still maintain my cultural identity," Lebron said. "I got my [Puerto Rican] flag hanging from my rear-view mirror on the car. I teach my kids Spanish. I'm going to maintain those things from my culture that are good and should not be turned away from."
Campos said people often don't realize that Islam is a universal religion that can be applied to any culture.
"Our religion is very beautiful and you can adopt it everywhere," she said.