"ˇHola!" or "Salaam alaiykum"
By Marion Piekarec,
To Be South-American, American by Adoption,
In the United States, there are 15,000 to 40,000 Hispanic Muslims out of a total of six to eight million Muslims, according to data from American Islamic organizations. In general, one may expect to find Hispanic converts mainly in southern California, in Chicago, in Miami, and in New York. This cultural marriage may appear contradictory at first sight, but its roots may be explained historically and sociologically.
New York -
Juan received his first introduction to Islam while in high school by listening to members of The Nation of Islam, an organization of African American Muslims. It is only once at the university, as he reads books on Islam, that he learns what is "the true Islam, i.e. orthodox Islam." He is lured and charmed by the explicit personal discipline involved: "All is so lax in the United States," he comments. "As a 19 year old young man living in New York, I needed some form of self discipline." He converted two years later - actually; he chose a "reversion." Muslims speak indeed about "reversion" rather than "conversion" because they believe that one is born Muslim or, more precisely, in a state of fitrah. This word expresses the tendency that any person has to believe in only one God and of that person's natural disposition to be good, to be at peace with oneself and with the world. Embracing Islam then would be equivalent to returning to our natural disposition.
The Same Struggle
According to Ronaldo Cruz, director of the Secretariat for Hispanic Affairs of the Conference of Catholic Bishops in the United States, there are approximately 100,000 Hispanics who leave the Catholic Church every year. "These people are in search of something. They do not seek to adapt but rather to affirm themselves," he says.
According to the testimonies of converts, the reason may lie in the uneasy reception that they get as they arrive in the United States on the part of the Catholic Church, which is an American style, with a tendency to be impersonal and too hierarchical. There is also the question about the saints. I ask Juan: "What is the problem presented by the saints?" "In the Bible," he explains, "it is stated that we should not venerate idols. Neither Jesus, nor Mary, nor Muhammad, i.e. nobody other than God."
"There are too many diversions in Catholicism. It is a waste of time," explains Guadalupe Martinez, 26, who converted to Islam in 1997. "In Islam, one does not need to pass through the telephone operator to obtain a number. Islam is the direct line to God."
Brief Historical Flashback...
"Intellectuals are now reasserting this view," according to Hisham Aidi. "Now, in the new works being published, the authors insist on the fact that the Spanish culture, literature and art have benefited from the Arab, Islamic or Moresque influences." And this is without mentioning the Spanish words of which at least a thousand have Arabic origins. Thus, according to Imam Ocasio, the expression "ˇolé!" would be derived from Allah, and "ˇojalá!" from insha' Allah, two expressions that mean "If God wills it." Juan adds that "zapato" would be derived from the Arabic shabbat. Also that Spanish names beginning with 'Al' would come from the Arabic. Imam Ocasio is proud to say that contrary to African-Americans who must change their names when they convert (with the exception of Muhammad Ali), Latino-Americans do not have to do so "because many Spanish proper names like 'Medina' are already Muslim," he says.
"There is an enormous similarity of the values and the practices that are common to the Hispanic and the Arabic Muslim cultures," according to Arwa Avila, a Mexican American who converted to Islam in 1991. "And we haven't said anything yet about the resemblances between the governments in the Middle East and those in Latin America!" she jokes. Yet, it was the differences between these cultures that attracted her. "The Hispanic culture is passionate, whereas the Islamic culture is much more restrained," she says. According to Juan Galvan, 27 years old, and director of the Texas chapter of the Latino American Dawah Organization, an Islamic organization that promotes Islam, "Latino American women are tired of being regarded as 'sex objects' and of being judged only on their appearance. Islam elevates women and releases them from the 'Maybelline slavery' created by the American culture."
True or False?
"What about salsa and merengue, Juan?" He answers with some pain: "I like music, enormously. I do believe that one has the right to listen, but as regards to the question of dancing, opinions do diverge. I am not sure that I have the right to dance with my wife , even at home." How about pork? He painly answers: "When I smell a dish made with pork... I feel hungry!" he acknowledges, not without some guilt. In addition, he swears not to have eaten any for what seems like an eternity. A marriage bringing together Latino Americans and Islam can be difficult... and yet in some cases they are acceptable to their community. "Some say: you are not Puerto Rican if you do not eat pork," deplores Ibrahim Gonzalez, one of the founders of Alianza Islamica. "Catholicism is so intermixed within the Hispanic culture and community that it is almost inseparable. Thus, converting to Islam is tantamount to stopping being Hispanic," explains Samantha Sanchez, a Muslim woman who is working on a doctorate in cultural anthropology at New School University.
There are also certain families that break apart. There are parents who refuse to speak to their children. Juan Alvarado was lucky but he too had his share of tensions. His father initially did not accept the fact that Juan was abandoning "the religion of their ancestors." His wife, a Catholic, would have liked to have been informed before their marriage if he intended to convert to Islam. He has endeavored to bring her to see Islam favorably, but he has no intention to force her to convert. How about their children? "We made an agreement," he smiles. "When we have boys, I choose their names, and when we have girls, she chooses their names. Then came Yassou, born seven years ago, and small Jamil, born one year ago. Yassou already knows how to pray," says Juan proudly.
This article has been translated from French.