Houston's Hispanic imam bridges cultures
By Ken Chitwood
Growing up on the streets of New York and Houston, Isa Parada was always part of a vibrant faith community. An altar boy at his family's Roman Catholic parish, his family regularly prayed and read Scripture together. Today it is no different for Parada, spare for one thing, he is not a Roman Catholic, instead he is a Muslim imam.
A convert since 1996, Parada is fluent in Arabic and an expert in Muslim theology, having studied in Saudi Arabia. With family roots in El Salvador, Parada is part of a growing number of Hispanic converts to Islam in Houston and the United States.
As the Muslim population continues to grow in the United States, so does its Hispanic contingent. According to the Pew Research Center there are 2.6 million Muslims nationwide. Of those, 6% are Hispanic, which equates to 160,000 Hispanic Muslims. Further, one of every ten native born converts are Hispanic, and that figure is growing.
For Parada, and others like him, the conversion process is more than switching faiths, it is a cultural odyssey replete with promise and pitfall.
"The Islamic community and the Hispanic community don't know much about each other," said Parada, "when I converted many Hispanics thought I was rejecting my Latino culture. They thought I had to 'become Arab' to be a good Muslim."
This tension during his conversion was felt most potently within his own family.
"My conversion was a shock for my family, they thought I rejected Jesus, Mary, my culture," said Parada. "My dad thought I was going to be a terrorist," he said, "but that's because he watches too many Chuck Norris movies."
Still, his family did not know how to handle their son's conversion. Parada's birth name was 'Christian.' Understandably, his conversion was trying for his family and their faith.Today, things are much better, although some uncles and aunts still ostracize Parada and do not permit their children to be with him for sustained periods of time.
Likewise, Parada found that the Islamic faith community did not know how to deal with Hispanics and lacked resources for Spanish-speaking converts.
Working with Mujahid Fletcher, another Hispanic convert from Houston, the pair now produce a myriad of Spanish language videos, audio files, pamphlets and other literature to educate Latinos about the belief and practice of Islam. Their website is called IslamInSpanish.
Being interviewed for the Chronicle in 2008, Fletcher said that he found a wealth of Hispanic culture present in Islam and wanted to share that with others.
Parada noted the similarities as well.
"Respect for elders, parents, family, culture, marriage, similarities in food and language, there is so much in common between Islam and Hispanic culture," he said.
Manuel Morales, an Hispanic house church planter in the 5th ward, said he is concerned about such similarities and the appeal that Islam has for Latinos.
"The legalism is attractive," he commented, "and there are familiar names like Jesus and Mary, so it is easy for some Latinos to think that Islam and Christianity are one and the same."
While Parada notes the differences between Islam and Christianity, he believes that Islam is a completion of everything he learned growing up as a Roman Catholic altar boy. He said, "Isa is my name, it means Jesus. I still respect and represent him. I still follow Jesus, but now I follow his full teachings."
He mentioned that on key issues, such as immigration and gang violence, Muslims provide a deep resource for Latinos.
"You are not going to see many Muslims look down on immigrants," said Parada, "they know how it feels to be ostracized, looked down upon, stereotype and treated as a second class citizen."
His own work as an imam in Houston focuses on educating youth who he hopes to keep off the streets, out of gangs and away from negative influences.
Parada said, "It's what I lacked as a teenager, a consistent positive influence with clear rules."
For these reasons and others, Parada insists that the Latino Muslim community will continue to grow in Houston and the Western Hemisphere.
"When I first converted there were only about 20 other Hispanic Muslims in Houston," noted Parada, "but just the other month we had a potluck at one mosque with over 100 Latinos in attendance."
"I am usually the first Hispanic Muslim people meet," he said, "and that uniqueness gives me the opportunity to educate, but I won't be unique for long."