Latino Muslims: Chicago
women deal with dual identity
By Giulia Lasagni
Medill Reports - Chicago
May 27, 2010
Every Sunday morning, a group of women meets at the Mosque Foundation in Bridgeview to study the
Quran. They are Muslim, of course, but also Latinas.
Most of them converted to Islam after growing unhappy with aspects of Catholicism and they found
a new identity in being Muslim while also retaining their ethnic traditions.
“I learned to respect myself through Islam,” said Magdalena Hanafi, a native of Mexico who is
married to an Egyptian man and converted 15 years ago.
Latino Muslims in Chicago are less visible and organized than in New York or in California, where
they have official groups and organizations, but they are nonetheless a community. Its members
are mainly women and they usually meet in informal settings, like private houses, or in mosques
that give them a space to organize social and religious activities.
According to a Pew Research report, 4 percent of the American Muslim population is of Hispanic
origins. There are a total of 1.4 million Muslims 18 years or older living in the United States,
according to the report.
James E. Jones, a professor of world religions at Manhattanville College, said there is a rich
historical connection between Spanish culture and Islam. “This history resonates for them
[Latinos],” he said.
Jones likened the conversion movement to the African American Islamic tradition; in both cultures
individuals are seeking an alternative positive identity. In addition to a spiritual attraction,
Jones said, some are attracted to “faith that posits the belief in one community.”
Latino converts usually have a Catholic background, from which they have gradually distanced
themselves, often out of dissatisfaction over specific religious practices or theological tenets.
Juliane Hammer, a professor of religious studies at George Mason University, said that
“something happens to Catholic identity that opens the door to considering other religious
Hazel Gomez is a community organizer at the Inner City Muslim Action Network, a non-profit social
service organization on the South Side She is of Puerto Rican and Mexican origin and she
converted to Islam when she was 18, after noticing a striking difference between the intensity of
the spiritual experience lived by her Muslim classmates and her own.
“I would see my friends happy that they were fasting,” Gomez said.
Catholicism, she said, didn’t provide her with a simple and structured way of life she was
“Catholicism wasn’t something I could live every day,” she said, adding that she appreciates the
ritual of prayer multiple times a day.
And she said she was dissatisfied with certain principles of Catholicism.
“There were certain things that didn’t sound right to me,” Gomez said.
Confession, she said, was hard to accept. “Telling your sins to another human being made no sense
to me,” she said.
The doctrine of the trinity, according to which God is composed of three persons – Father, Son
and Holy Spirit – is another part of Catholicism that many converts contest.
Ruth Saleh, a native of Mexico who has been a Muslim for more than 20 years, said that she had
long had doubts about this principle even before converting.
“That was something in the back of my mind when I was Catholic,” she said. “To believe that
there is only one God was the most reasonable explanation for me.”
The Muslim Latino community in Chicago
Although there isn’t any official data or studies on Latino Muslims in Chicago, members of the
community agree that they are mostly women and that they rely mainly on informal social networks,
since they lack a specific Latino worship place.
“Women are more active in the community,” said Rebecca Abuqaoud, a native of Mexico who came to
the United States when she was 21 and converted to Islam 12 years ago.
Men, she said, were more involved in the past, while now women are the ones who usually organize
social activities. Abuqaoud said that they have organized women-only events for 10 years. The
last one was held a couple of weeks ago and drew about 100 participants.
“I don’t know where the Latino men go,” Gomez said.
For her, women are more active because they need more support. “It’s so empowering to see so many
women,” she said.
Gomez, who is starting a Latino Muslim organization in Chicago with a couple of other women, said
that social events are key to bringing families together. At these events, she said, non-Muslim
family members realize: “’Hey, my daughter is not the only Latina Muslim there.”
Being Latino and a Muslim
Surprise and puzzlement are the most common reactions that Latino Muslims usually face when they
first convert to Islam.
“It’s a difficult experience,” professor Hammer said. “Somebody who converts questions everybody
else’s religious commitments.”
“My family thought this religion was only for Arabs and not for Mexicans,” Hanafi said.
With time, however, many Latina Muslims said their families have come to terms with their
decision and understand that their being Muslim can coexist with their Latino roots.
“My family didn’t like it in the beginning,” Saleh said. “Now they accept it.”
Gomez said that there is no contradiction in being a Latina and a Muslim; rather there is
“As a Latina Muslim I’ve grown more not only as a Muslim but as Latina and as someone who is
trying to contribute to society,” she said.
For Jennifer Maytorena Taylor, who directed “New Muslim Cool,” a documentary on Puerto Rican
American convert and rapper Hamza Pérez, Latinos who convert to Islam can be considered part of a
larger American cultural picture.
“Americans reinvent themselves quite a bit,” she said “It’s the basic idea of our national
New Muslim Cool
Latina Muslims: A profile
Latino Muslims in the United States
There is no official data on the exact number of Latino Muslims currently living in the United
States. However, according to a report by the Pew Research, 4 percent of Muslim Americans say
they are of Hispanic origin. This percent is higher – 10 percent – among American born Muslims.
The same report estimates the entire U.S. Muslim population at 1.4 million.
According to a report by Abbas Barzegar, published in 2003 by Harvard University’s "Pluralism
Project," the main Latino Muslims organizations in the United States are the following:
Alianza Islamica: Based in New York, Alianza was founded in 1975 by Puerto Ricans converts.
Latino American Dawah Organization(LADO): Based in New York, LADO has chapters around the country
and works toward promoting the circulation of information about Islam in Spanish
Los Angeles Latino Muslim Association (LALMA)
Progagacion Islamic para la Educacion e la Devocion a Ala’ el Divino (PIEDAD): Based in New York,
it focuses its outreach work on Latina women.
Latino Muslims connect on the Internet through websites and social networks. LADO’s website and
hispanicmuslims.com provide information to Latinos interested in knowing more about Islam.
Latino Muslims in Chicago do not currently have any specific organization but congregate in
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