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Latinos & Islam Conversion

By Mailyn Salabarria
Greeley Tribune
July 8, 2006

Hugo Hernández put aside the saints, the host and the confessions. Nineteen years of Catholic religious traditions were left behind when he decided to convert to Islam.

A teacher and political science graduate, Hernández, 26, came to a turning point in his life during his freshman year of college in Denver.

Born and raised in a traditional Catholic Latino family from Evans, Hernández says he hasn't talked to his mother in the seven years since he converted.

"That's the toughest part ..." he said. "It's something that still hurts me and I know I won't be able to convince her, but I had to choose my own path."

He said when he was a child and even a teenager, while he lived with his parents in Evans, he followed all the rituals, traditions and ceremonies of the Catholic religion, including his first communion.

When he finished eight grade, the family moved to Denver and he started high school in a private Jesuit school. He said there were only a few minorities students in the school, and he spent long hours by himself, reading or studying at the library.

It was there, he said, that he had his first encounter with Islam. It came through a book about Islam that a friend lent him.

"I remember my mom saw it and she was pretty upset because, since I was little, she has always told me and my siblings the only thing we could never ever change was our religion," he said. "And I've always respected that a lot."

However, he said he never believed that much in the saints, nor the rituals in the Catholic church.

"I've always had many questions and I've never received an answer that convinced me 100 percent," he added. "I truly believe those things only take us away from God."

That closeness with God is what Hernández said he's found in Islam.

"When we pray," he says, "we do it directly to God; it's only me and him."

The first time he walked into a mosque, Hernández said that the experience impressed him so much he wrote out the details of his feelings.

"It was like if I just walked into my home." Only when he goes back to Tamaulipas, Mexico, to visit his relatives, has he felt something similar.

Hernández -- who still lives in Denver and works with an online education program -- dresses in casual clothes and wears the Muslim outfits only on special occasions.

Still, he has experienced stereotyping (and rejection) since he became a Muslim. Initially, he said he was called names like "Taliban", "Osama bin Laden" and terrorist.

"I think that's part of the ignorance that sometimes suffers our (Latino) community," he said. "I don't believe I know more that anyone else, but I have always asked myself why do we criticize something we don't know." Besides, there are good people and bad people in all religions, he added.

As long as he doesn't say anything about being a Muslim, Hernández says he is "just another in the crowd." When he mentions it, though, he says that's when he starts feeling all the eyes staring at him.

The father of two little girls being raised in Islam as well, Hernández is the head of a family in which Spanish, English or Arabic is spoken. They eat Mexican and American traditional meals, "always with the touch of Egypt," said Hernández.

But after marrying his wife -- a Muslim from Egypt -- Hernández said they lived the same situation with stereotypes and racism.

"People used to stare at her, because she always wears the traditional Egyptian and Muslim dresses, and they treated her really bad."

And even though it's true that he found a new path to his faith when he converted, Hernández says he still feels he is "like the black sheep of the family."

His family still doesn't fully accept his wife; that's why, he said, when you convert to Islam, "the first thing you have to do is educate your own family."

Despite stereotypes and his family rejection, Hernández said there hasn't been huge changes in his life since he converted, except now his has to pray five times a day.

That's why he said he summarizes his conversion as a return to the religion's roots and to a true relationship with God. "That's what I've always try to reach, the simplest relation with my faith."

In Northern Colorado

Latinos converting to Islam is not very common in Latino communities in northern Colorado. And there is almost no research showing the number of Muslims in the country, although the U.S. State Department has reported some trends that show Islam is one the fastest-growing religions in the nation.

The report also predicts that, by 2010, the Muslim population will be larger than Judaism and the second-largest religion in the U.S., after Christianity.

Shakir Mohammed, an outreach community coordinator from the Islamic Center of Fort Collins, 900 Peterson St., said there are a lot of people converting to Islam in the U.S., mainly minorities, but this is a phenomenon most commonly seen in metro areas, where minority populations are also larger.

In this area, he said he has heard about four or five Latinos who have converted, "and most of them are Latino women that have married Muslims."

"I also think it has to do with stereotypes, because people in big cities tend to be more open-minded to accept Muslims," he said. "In smaller cities like ours, it's not very accepted."

In 2001, the Council of American-Islam Relations reported that 6 percent of the converted in the U.S. were Latino.

With the Latino population being the fastest growing minority in the U.S. -- about 42 million people in 2005, according to the U.S. Census Bureau -- and the increasing popularity of Islam in the nation, the number of Latinos converting may also increase.

An African-American born and raised in New Jersey who has been living in Fort Collins for eight years, Mohammed believes after Sept. 11 an increasingly and more stable number of people have been converting to Islam. "I think all the negative propaganda in the media had made people doubt, so they start looking for more information regarding Islam."

He also said the aftermath of the terrorist attacks totally changed the way Muslims talk about their faith. They now have to provide more explanations about it, he added.

"First, you have to produce the quick response people need to calm down, like not all Muslims are terrorists," he explained. Later, he said they have to give more detailed explanations, which usually means giving more personal information.

William Woody, a UNC professor and specialist in religion interactions, said Latinos also may face double discrimination. "Ethnic discrimination exists in the U.S., and public association with Islam could be challenging, even before September 11, 2001," Woody said.

He added that Latinos may also face challenges in these communities because non-Latino Muslims and non-Muslim Latinos may have problems accepting Latino Muslims.

And Mohammed said the first thing they have to deal with is language barriers when they try to look for information about Islam in Spanish.

"For those that don't live in big metro areas or cities, it's also very hard to meet other Latino Muslims," he added. "And they also have to deal with the acceptance (or lack of it) from other member of the Hispanic community with a different faith."

According to him, once a Latino is part of the Muslim community, they might also have trouble finding a mentor to teach and guide them, step by step, to learn Islam.

"It's not easy for them to find someone that can understand their background and their culture ... someone who can really teach them how to apply the Islam in their daily life, and how to deal with those that are not Muslims."

Exodus from Catholicism

Even though it's still not considered an outstanding trend, conversions of Latinos to Islam and other faiths are worrying the Catholic Church in the U.S.

Latinos are traditionally Catholic, but the number of parishioners estimated to be leaving the church has made a lot of people think that there is an obvious exodus.

This trend was identified in 2003 in research by Hispanic Catholic Churches in American Public Life. The organization first pointed out that Latino Americans' religious affiliations change with every generation.

It estimated that about 70 percent of Latinos in the U.S. are Catholics, but within the second and third generations that percentage tends to decrease, while the number of Latinos going into non-Catholic religions increases.

Father Bernie Schmitz of Our Lady of Peace Catholic Church, 1311 3rd St., Greeley, said for a long time the church has been concerned that Latinos, when they arrive in the U.S., can grow lax in their practice of the faith.

"Some simply stop going (to church) because work seems to demand too much," Schmitz said. And he added in some instances, they have trouble finding a Catholic parish that they are able to relate to, since North American culture and Latin American cultures are so different.

He also said in his parish, he hasn't had many people leaving because they disagree with doctrine, but "because they may have not had a good experience with a priest or because another faith reached out to them in a way that seemed inviting."

Shakir Mohammed of the Islamic Center of Fort Collins said that, from the social point of view, Latinos convert to Islam because it's a religion that treats everyone equally, giving them dignity and respect. "And all immigrant minorities, one way or another, always feel underestimated."

From a religious point of view, Mohammed believes conversion takes place because they're disappointed with the religion they professed before. "Then, they come to Islam looking for the simplicity of God; for a religion where the key point is the direct relation between the person and God."

The so-called exodus from the Catholic church is not exclusively happening in the U.S.; Schmitz says it's happening all over the world.

"The Church in Latin America is also dealing with the reality of people who were baptized Catholic, but never really formed in the faith later in life, leave and associate with evangelical churches," he explains.

In general, Schmitz says some Latinos in the U.S. leave for emotional reasons, because they feel better received in another church. Family reasons, he said, also play a role, when they are seeing someone who is from a different faith.

"And some, I suspect, leave because of doctrinal differences of opinion, such as teachings about marriage," Schmitz said.

Schmitz said bishops have also been concerned about these trends and they're working with priests and religious leaders to reach out in evangelization of Latinos.

"The bishops of the United States have a pastoral plan which includes establishing active evangelization groups in parishes," he said. And Our Lady of Peace Catholic Church already has its group working actively in the community and doing some door-to-door invitations.

"There is always need to do more," Schmitz said, "especially with our youth."

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