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Yes, I can be a proud Latina & Muslim

By Eiliyah Gonzalez
MSN LatinZine
July 11, 2013

Though I may still get looks at the taqueria for wearing my hijab, I am proud of both my Mexican heritage and my newfound faith.

I am the daughter of devout Catholic Mexican immigrants who erected candle-lit altars to the Virgin of Guadalupe in nearly every room of the house.

Not surprisingly, people are often puzzled by my conversion to Islam, a religion I embraced three years ago. That I can understand. It is when people question whether I can still call myself a Latina that I get impatient.

Or when I get persistent looks when I enter a Mexican store wearing a hijab (the head covering Muslim woman wear), as if I didn't belong. People have asked if I'm from the Middle East and even forced me to hold short conversations with them in Spanish to confirm my heritage.

As I begin fasting during the holy month of Ramadan, I want to put this non sense to rest.

Let me assure you, I enjoy a mean pozole and turn to films of La India María and Cantinflas for a good laugh. I still listen to corridos from my parents' Mexican state of Jalisco and whip up tamales during the Christmas season as my mother does, although I've tweak the recipe to meet the Muslim dietary rules. Yes, I'm Mexican. Yes, I'm a Muslim. There's nothing in Islam that denies my proud Latina heritage.

Islam is one of the fastest growing religions with more than 1.2 billion people practicing it in the world, according to the Why Islam project launched by the Islamic Circle of North America.

The American Mosque 2011 study, released last year, estimated that as many as 7 million Muslims live in the U.S. Meanwhile, Hispanics made up 12 percent of all converts in 2011, the study reported.

With an influx in Hispanic congregants, especially in cities with a high Hispanic population, some mosques around the country are now offering Spanish translations to Friday sermons. They're also seeing an increase in request for Spanish-language Qurans.

That doesn't surprise me. My own Mosque has many Latino members. One of them, a woman of Puerto Rican heritage, quickly lent me her support when I converted. Having the support of someone who understood my cultural background and idiosyncrasies was a blessing from heaven as I learned to live a Latina Muslim.

Misconceptions about Islam still abound. Some people automatically make a connection to terrorism and other ills even though Islam is a religion of peace that just like Latino culture, places extreme importance on building strong, loving families. That made it very hard for me to tell my loved ones. I was unsure about how they would react to a faith that was foreign to them.

To my relief, they graciously respected my decision. This isn't short from extraordinary, which reflects the kind of people they are, considering how intertwined with everyday life Catholicism was for us. It was the filter through which, right or wrong, even the most banal of daily occurrences was interpreted.

Like the one time neighbors -- some carrying rosaries and mumbling prayers -- trickled into a relative's house to bear witness to patchwork on a bathroom wall that slightly resembled Jesus. The discovery of such resemblance was even covered by a local Spanish TV, which made my family a local celebrity for a short while.

And then there was the time when one of our neighbors claimed la virgencita appeared on her glass window, took the window apart and paraded it down the street where she was joined by other awe-struck neighbors.

My mother, who's never missed a Sunday mass, prayed daily and lit candles for the large Our Lady of Guadalupe effigy the middle of our living room. She was convinced the shed tears at one point to warn about an earthquake in California. I marveled at such possibility.

I was skeptic, though. Nevertheless, I desired to feel the strong spiritual connection that my family had with religion, but it never happened with Catholicism.

I did find that connection years later listening to the Adhan -- or call to prayer -- for the first time while roaming the narrow streets of the Medina in Tetouan, Morocco, during a brief excursion in my college years. It was around mid-day and shopkeepers had shut their doors and raced to the mosque to join the rest of their neighbors in prayer.

I had never seen anything like it. Besides the people traveling with me, the streets were empty. That sparked my interest to learn more about Islam, which took me into a five-year-long journey that led to my conversion.

As I fast during this Holy Month of Ramadan, I'll reflect on how far I've come in the past three years. My family has been supportive, watching me find peace and humility by having a closer relationship to God.

And as more Hispanics become Muslims, it's likely someday I won't have to defend my heritage while standing in line at the panaderia or my favorite taqueria.

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