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.
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
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.
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."
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
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
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
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
"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
"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
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."
Worcester Telegram & Gazette link