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Spanish-speaking converts struggle with defining their identities

By Mariam Al-Kalby
Southern California InFocus
July 25, 2010

When most people think of Muslims, the stereotype is a hijab or turban-garbed Arab, and many are surprised when a Muslim woman starts speaking Spanish or has an at-length conversation with another Muslim Spanish-speaking person.

Othman Solorio, a Mexican export manager living in California, knows all too well the shock many experience when they find out that he is not an Arab but a Latino.

“I often get confused with a Middle Eastern person due to my looks,” he says. “Even when people hear me speaking in Spanish, they think I learned the language and often ask me, ‘Where did you learn to speak Spanish so well?’ It’s a big shock to them when I reveal that I am, in fact, 100 percent Mexican.”

Some Latino Muslims have had a struggle trying to maintain their individual identities. For Noor Rivera, or Pauline, a student majoring in Liberal Studies, having a mixed heritage of Mexican, Puerto Rican and Dominican as her background has been a challenge when trying to fit in.

“It hasn’t been easy; I have other Latinos in the street who tell me that I look ‘Arab’ or like I’m from the ‘Middle East’ or ‘Indian.’ At times I feel like I have lost my Latin identity and don’t know exactly where I fit in the Muslim community, if at all.”

How does Rivera, who relieves much of her stress through poetry, handle it all?

“I’m still struggling with that. Still trying to figure out how I can keep my Latin identity and not cross lines that are in opposition to Islam. It’s difficult to relate to other Latinos because they take one look at me and cannot relate to me in many aspects because I am not your ‘typical’ Latin American female. This is understandable, at the same time you struggle to gain the acceptance of the Arabs in the community and try to identify yourself with them as Muslims, but in the end you are still a non-Arab.”

Becoming a Muslim in itself often entails large-scale renovation of one’s identity. For Dua Gonzalez, originally from Mexico City, it was an experience forever to be remembered. Gonzalez recalls the night she was ready to be welcomed into the Muslim community.

“Some nights, I was crying in confusion. I had a dream that I was walking, and there were many noises and people talking,” she says. “ I didn’t want to hear them. and I was feeling heavy … many views ... many people … and noise.

I continue walking, and at the end, there was a mosque with big doors like the Masjid Al Aqsa. When I entered the mosque, it was empty, and the smell was beautiful and everything was peaceful and tranquil. I continue walking and I saw my aunt, and I almost was going to pray and then she looked at me and invited me to pray. After that, I woke up, and when my aunt called me at night, I told her I wanted to embrace Islam.”

For Solorio, a frequent visitor to both the Islamic Center of Irvine and the Islamic Institute of Orange County, an interest in religion at a young age foreshadowed his path to Islam.

“Since I was a young kid, I have always been interested in religion,” he says. “From the moment I heard the basics of Islam, I became very interested, although I was still skeptical due to all the negative things I had heard about Islam before, but eventually my doubts were clarified and my questions were answered, until there came a day when I could no longer hold back and I declared my shahada.”

The concept of monotheism was what drew Solorio closer to Islam.

“The main thing that resonated with me was the unequivocal belief in one God,” he says. “Most traditional religions claim this, too, but none has this concept as clear and pure as Islam does.”

For a divorced mother of two home-schooled kids, Sharifah Blanco, who works part-time for the Irvine Unified School District, was also curious about world religions and cultures from a young age.

“As I grew older, I read more, and along with my waning beliefs in the tenants of the church, I began to ask myself more profound questions that needed answers,” she says. “I then started to search through various belief systems and found that only Islam had answers to life’s deep questions, such as: Why am I here? What is my purpose? What is there before and after life?”

Maria Sanchez, who arrived to the U.S. from Guatemala in the early 90s, said her desire for a closer relationship with God brought her into the folds of Islam. “I was feeling too far from God, and Islam brought me back to Him,” she said. Becoming Muslim also brought a feeling she did not have with her previous religion of Catholicism, she said, adding that she feltmore peaceful.

For these Latinos, becoming a Muslim is only the beginning of the trials they have to undergo. Not only do they have to adapt to their new identities as Latino Muslims, but they also had to deal with the backlash and concern of friends and family who often cannot understand the conversion of loved ones like Solorio to the impugned religion of Islam

But Solorio held steadfast to his faith, even when his family tried to steer him away.

“At first I was treated differently, and I guess it was because my family didn’t know what to make of it. My father in particular was very skeptical, and kept thinking that this was a temporary thing,” he says.

One of his siblings even asked him, “Why don’t you choose anything BUT Islam?”

He continues, “At first, many members of my family tried to convince me I had made the wrong decision in spite of the many positive changes they saw in me. This has stopped now, and although I know they may not fully accept the fact that I’m a Muslim, they have learned to respect my decision.”

Blanco, a regular at the Mission Viejo Masjid, also had similar reactions from her family.

“No one in my family is Muslim. Their reactions were that I was going through a fad or phase, and I think they feared that I was entering a cult or that my personality would dramatically change for the worse,” she says.

Being different is ultimately something inevitable for Blanco. “As a woman, and a Latina, and a Muslim in this society, you are naturally treated differently because you are not considered part of the mainstream culture, so I had more hurdles to overcome,” she says.

“People who were averse to seeing or working with a woman wearing a scarf had to overcome their prejudices and see the person I am and the job I was doing. They had to listen to what I was saying and forget about the superficialities of the society. I got more respect because they saw that I believe in something and I try to live it and that I’m not going to attack them or work any less harder because I happen to be a Muslim.”

Gonzalez had a different experience with her family when she became Muslim.

“Alhamdulilah, nine members of my family embraced Islam, and I’m hoping more of them (will) start looking and study(ing) the light and beauty of this religion,” she says.

With identity, misconceptions usually arise, and Blanco has had her taste of not being fully understood, even from other Muslims.

“The main misconception about Latino Muslims is that we don’t understand the full sublimity of the message of Islam,” says Blanco, who has been a Muslim for 25 years.

Gonzalez says Latino non-Muslims also have their misconceptions about Islam. “With Latinos, especially, they think it is a religion for Arabs and that it is something new or invented.”

“We have to be more active and persistent in dawah within the Hispanic community by Hispanic Muslims,” Solorio says. “There are a lot of Muslims who have learned to speak Spanish and are using it to communicate with the Hispanic community, and it makes a difference when you hear the message in your own tongue. But it makes an even greater difference when you know the person speaking to you is Hispanic, too.”

Latino Muslims can change the Muslim community, and Solorio and Rivera agree that many can benefit from this change.

“Latino Muslims add more diversity to the Muslim community,” Solorio says. “It’s a shame, though, that in spite of its diversity, we find so much cultural segregation within the community. When you visit any Masjid, it’s not difficult to see what the predominant nationality of the congregation is.”

He continues, “One masjid is mostly Arab, another one is mostly Pakistani. I used to gather with a group of Hispanic Muslims who seemed to think we should also have a Hispanic masjid. While I understand where they are coming from, I think way too much emphasis is being placed on our different nationalities and not enough emphasis is being placed on the fact that in spite of our nationalities, we are all one ummah.”

Solorio’s advice to Latinos who are hesitant to step into a Muslim identity: “Put aside all prejudices. Open your mind and your heart. Be honest about your feelings when you hear the message. Usually, it’s arrogance or fear that get in the way of people hearing and accepting the message.”

Gonzalez, who holds Spanish-speaking sister halaqas, advises patience to those who are new Muslims. “Don’t rush and try to do everything at once. Know that it takes time, and it’s better to take one step at a time.”

For Sanchez, who loves spending time with her family and two young boys, time is all too precious. “Don’t waste time praying to something else, because no one has the power like Allah.”

Strength is vital when entering into Islam, Rivera says. “Be strong. I know it’s difficult, and we might be tempted to give up at times, but this faith is too authentic, heaven is too grand, and Allah the merciful has chosen us for a reason.”

Join a halaqa with Latino Muslim sisters, Thursdays at 6:30 p.m. at Masjid Al Ansar 1717 S. Brookhurst Street, Anaheim, CA, 92804.

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