History Draws Hispanics to Islam
By Deborah Kong
Ibrahim Gonzalez, raised as a Catholic, says he didn't convert to Islam -- rather, he says, he reverted.
Like a small but growing number of Hispanics, the New York-born Puerto Rican has found a spiritual home in a faith with a long history in Spain, stretching to the rule of Muslim Moors from the 700s to the 1400s.
Today, Hispanics with roots in Puerto Rico, Mexico, Spain and Central and South America are turning to Islam. A mix of immigrants and longtime residents, they are expanding the image of American Muslims as Arabs, blacks and South Asians.
In 1997, the American Muslim Council counted 40,000 Hispanic Muslims; current estimates range up to 60,000. Estimates of the total number of U.S. Muslims vary wildly, from about 1.8 million to 7 million.
Hispanics' reasons for converting to Islam are numerous. Many are former Catholics disenchanted with Catholic tenets. Others were attracted to what they call the faith's simplicity and directness. Some convert because they marry Muslims.
"Islam was my choice because of the multiethnic components of Islam, its lack of bureaucratic hierarchy and the fact that it was very direct and gave a young man such as myself a wide purpose in life," said Gonzalez, who founded the Islamic center Alianza Islamica with a half-dozen friends who became Muslims as teen-agers.
"We're returning to a religion that we once belonged to and was very much a part of our historical heritage," he said.
On July 5-7, the Islamic Society of North America is gathering Hispanic Muslims in suburban Chicago to study efforts to attract more Hispanics to Islam.
Generally, though, Hispanic Muslims are a loosely knit group, bound by Web sites and volunteer and nonprofit groups that promote Islam among Latinos and provide social services and Spanish-language literature.
One such group -- the Miami-based PIEDAD, which means "piety" in Spanish -- began in 1988 to help Spanish-speaking women who married Muslim men. Now, said Puerto Rican founder Khadijah Rivera, "people are just coming and saying, 'I heard about Islam. I'm just curious.'"
Curiosity brought Benjamin Perez Mahomah of Oakland, Calif. to his first Nation of Islam meeting in 1957. He was the only Latino at the meetings of dozens, then hundreds, of blacks, he said. Now, he travels around the country lecturing Spanish-speaking audiences.
"I saw there was a lot of knowledge in their teachings to black people. Their food was delicious. They were friendly. I liked it there and I stayed," he said.
Claudia Hein began studying Islam while living with a Muslim roommate after moving to the United States from Bolivia. A Catholic, she had always struggled with the concept of the trinity.
"I was always in search," said Hein, now 33 and living in Somerville, N.J. Islam was "what I'd been looking for all my life.
"It embraces all parts of life, everything that you do during the day," Hein said. "Islam teaches you everything, how to behave with your neighbors, how to be with your parents, how to educate your children. It embraces everything, every part of life."
Few Hispanic Muslims said they experienced the discrimination faced by Arab counterparts after Sept. 11, but some said their faith was portrayed unfairly by the media.
"All the lies they said, how they portray Islam ... that has given me a different understanding about what I take from TV," said Melissa Morales, an elementary school teacher in Tempe, Ariz., who converted from Christianity four years ago.
This month offered another challenge as a Hispanic Muslim, Jose Padilla, was accused of conspiring to detonate a radioactive "dirty" bomb in the United States. The New York-born Padilla was raised Catholic but converted to Islam and changed his name to Abdullah al Muhajir, authorities say.
News of his arrest shocked many in the Hispanic Muslim community, including Juan Galvan, a Mexican-American who is president of the Texas chapter of the Latino American Dawah Organization. "Islam does not condone terrorism," Galvan said.
Galvan, a former altar boy and Sunday school teacher, has wrestled with accusations that in leaving Catholicism, he rejected his Latino identity.
When he converted, his sister asked him, '"How could you do that to the Virgin? How could you just leave her behind like that?" He still hasn't told his grandparents.
But Galvan has discovered some comforting similarities between Islam and his Latino culture. The pita bread at a mosque dinner reminded him of the tortillas his mother patted out by hand.
"I was thinking, 'This really isn't that much different,"' Galvan said.