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Hispanic Women Swap Culture
And Religion, Convert To Islam

By Nevine Mabro
Columbia News Service
2000

NEW YORK -- Mariam Ramon has swapped her short skirts, visits to the beauty parlor and Roman Catholicism for baggy pants, a head scarf and Islam.

Ramon, 52, a Puerto-Rican American, became a Muslim ten years ago. Her curiosity about the religion was aroused by an Islamic prayer ritual by four African American men near her South Bronx home. She watched as they unfolded their prayer mats, knelt and turned east to face Mecca.

"It was a beautiful thing," she said. "I was struck by the peacefulness of it."

Some Hispanic-American women who become Muslim do so for love, having met a Muslim man. Others are searching for tranquility. Whatever the reason, for Hispanic-American women, embracing Islam is not easy. Adjusting to a new dress code, lifestyle and the language of the Koran, Arabic, can take years.

No exact figures exist on the ethnicity of Americans who convert to Islam, although it is widely agreed that African Americans account for over a third. The number of Hispanic American converts is unknown. What is known is that the numbers, although small, are growing, according to Ebrahim Hopper from the Council on Islamic-American Relations.

"Latin people have very little understanding about Muslims. They think they are terrorists."

-- Mariam Ramon, a Latina Catholic who converted to Islam

Vanesa Rivera, a petite woman with delicate features who looks much younger than her 20 years, is planning to officially convert to Islam in the summer. Introduced to the religion through an ex-boyfriend, Rivera attends Arabic classes at a mosque in New York. "It took me a while to get used to this," she says, tugging on her purple and lilac silk headscarf. "At first I felt very uncomfortable, but now I like it," she says.

Born in Ecuador and raised a Roman Catholic, Rivera moved to New York with her family when she was 13. Only her mother and sister know of her decision to become a Muslim. She is waiting to tell her father, whom she says will be less understanding. "I know he will laugh at me for wearing the scarf," Rivera says. "Probably my friends will too. But I'm determined, so I don't care."

Reconciling a new identity and religion with a non-Muslim family and community is difficult. "My mother has a little battle with my decision every time she sees me," Ramon says. Both Ramon and Rivera spoke about misunderstandings in the wider Latin community that often make them feel isolated. "Latin people have very little understanding about Muslims," Ramon says. "They think they are terrorists."

Adjusting to her new look with the headscarf is not Rivera's biggest worry. Fear of being laughed at and facing prejudice concern her more. A student at New York Technical College, Rivera wants to become a teacher at a public school when she graduates. She is worried about the reaction she will receive when she wears her headscarf to interviews. "Maybe I won't be able to get a job," she said. "Maybe the kids will say I look ugly or get scared because of the scarf."

Prejudice is something Arwa Avila, a Mexican-American who lives in Los Angeles, has faced since she converted to Islam in 1991. She tells of being verbally abused in the street and taunted for wearing her headscarf. A few years ago, before her conversion, she said she would have replied in kind when taunted. Now, she bites her tongue. "Shouting back would be a bad reflection on Islam," she says.

Avila says she can live with the taunts. What has proved more troubling is mastering Arabic. Her husband, a Syrian-born American she met after she converted, helps her and teaches the language to her two young children.

"It's more important for me that my children speak Arabic and English than Spanish," she says. "Arabic for the Koran and English because we live in America."

One of the few organizations specifically for Hispanic-American Muslims is Alianza Islamica, based in Spanish Harlem. Offering support to the local Puerto Rican and Dominican community, Ramon, who volunteers with the group says Alianza Islamica emphasizes the similarities between Hispanic and Islamic culture to foster mutual understanding.

"There are many commonalities. Spain was under Islamic rule for 700 years, many of the words in Spanish come from the Arab language and there are many similarities in the societies like the importance of the extended family," Ramon says.

Avila notes that many of the similarities helped her adjust. "Certain values, role expectations and ways of life are amazingly similar," she says. "Even the governments in the Middle East and in Latin countries are the same," she jokes.

While acknowledging certain cultural similarities, Rivera says it was actually the promise of a different culture that attracted her. "Hispanic culture is wild. Islamic culture is calmer," she says, sitting in a quiet corner of the mosque she frequents, clutching a copy of the Koran. "Even though I've only just started coming to the mosque, I feel a strong connection with other Muslims. More than with my own people."

(c) 2000 Columbia News Service
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