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Latinos turning to Islam
Converts find faith, discipline

By M. Elizabeth Roman
Worcester Telegram & Gazette
June 6, 2005

WORCESTER - On the door outside Juan Perez's home, a hand-written sign asks visitors to respect the Islamic custom of removing shoes before entering.

The sign is one of the only indicators that this young Latino father, his wife and four small children tend an Islamic household.

Inside, a person is likely to see the Hispanic cartoon character "Dora the Explorer" on the television, hear the sound of a rhythmic salsa band on the radio, or smell the aroma of adobo cooking in the kitchen.

"As Latinos, we are a passionate people," Mr. Perez says as he  cradles his 1-1/2-year-old baby while his 3-year-old daughter, Mia, lightly kisses the child on the cheek.

"Islam covers every aspect of your life; it's not just going to church and praying. It deals with marriage, divorce, wills, orphans,  what to eat, what not to eat. As Latinos, when we do something, we go full-fledged into it."

The Perez family is among an estimated 150 Latino converts to Islam in Worcester, reflecting a trend that researchers have taken note of in recent years.

A 2001 study on faith communities, coordinated by Hartford Institute for Religious Research and conducted by the Council on American-Islamic Relations, indicated Latinos made up 6 percent of all converts, which at approximately 60,000, made them the third-largest segment.

The growth of this population can also be seen by the creation of bilingual Islamic centers in Chicago, Los Angeles, California's San Fernando Valley, San Francisco, Florida, New York and Atlanta. Each site reports having hundreds of members and offers publications translated into Spanish.

In addition, chapters of the Hispanic Muslim organization Latino Dawah are located in Massachusetts, Illinois, Texas and Arizona.

"It is easy to accept once they found out what it is,"said Jason Perez, who, like his brother Juan, converted to Islam. "It is almost impossible to find a Latino that is an atheist because of our struggle. Being poor, we know it is the miracle of God when we get food. We know that it is not just our own work that helps us survive; we survive with the help of God."

In addition, many Latino converts profess that they do not give up any of their heritage to convert to Islam, but in fact learn more about their cultural roots.

"Islam connected me with the struggle for self-determination and the struggles with the natives of Puerto Rico," Mr. Perez says, adding that many Latino expressions and surnames originate in Islamic culture.

"It's not an Arabic culture thing," said Adolfo Arrastia, executive director of the Worcester Youth Center for 10 years."Only 15 percent of the Islamic population around the world is Arab. It's amazing the amount of people that are Muslim, including people from Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic and Mexico."

Mr. Arrastia converted 31 years ago in New York City."It fit me like a hand in a glove," he said. "Islam tells you to be a part of the community; to stand up against injustice. It gives me guidelines in how to be an activist without hurting and causing injury."

Juan and Jason Perez grew up down the street from the mosque in Plumley Village with a group of close friends, most of whom have also converted to Islam. Some of the friends, including Jason, now live in Pennsylvania, where they are learning how to translate ancient African manuscripts at the Sankore Institute.

They were raised Catholic and even attended Catholic school, but when they had questions about the Holy Trinity and other Catholic doctrine, the brothers say, they were admonished, which made them move away from the church.

"But I was involved in the street life and it wasn't bringing me happiness," Jason Perez said in a telephone interview from the institute.

So despite the fact that neighborhood friends used to think the mosque was a satanic church, Jason decided to visit after his Islamic roommate encouraged him.

"I jumped in and loved it," he said. He said his mother was not opposed to him converting to Islam because he stopped smoking marijuana and began respecting and helping her any way he could, as instructed by the religion.

"Latinos love Jesus and Mary - the Muslims do too," Juan Perez said when describing the similarities between Islam and Christianity.

Tahir Ali, media director of the Islamic Society of Greater Worcester, said that Mr. Perez's experience is typical of converts of all races. "They come in just to learn about Islam. They want to come to the source," he said. Rigorous study is an essential component of the faith. However, U.S. Latinos have the highest dropout rate of any ethnic population, with illiteracy rates in areas with dense Hispanic populations as high as 84 percent, according to the National Adult Literacy Survey.

In addition, most U.S. mosque services are conducted in English, creating a barrier for 10 million non-English-speaking Latinos.

Members say, however, that the Muslim community a! ddresses these concerns.

"My friends and I got kicked out of all the high schools in Worcester," Jason Perez said. "Now, I'm a top student in the institute and am fluent in four languages - Spanish, English, Arabic and Hausa."

He said Islam makes you change your whole perspective.

"I went from a street thug to a scholar in Islamic law. I've learned about science, math, calligraphy; Islam will teach you."

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