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Number of Hispanic Muslim converts growing

By Tara Dooley,
The Houston Chronicle
August 17, 2002

Huevos rancheros for breakfast; fasulye for dinner.

It was not an unusual menu that graced the table one recent Thursday at Patricia El-Kassir's west Houston home.

For El-Kassir, a Mexican-American convert to Islam, starting the day with the Mexican egg breakfast and ending it with a Lebanese meat-and-bean dinner meant nothing more than the merging of cultures easily found in Islam.

"One of the things that brought me to Islam, that I think is so beautiful, is that Muslims come from all nations," said El-Kassir, whose husband is a native of Lebanon.

"You can be Mexican and be a Muslim and be happy," she added. "You don't have to be torn between two things."

Though Muslims may live in all nations, when El-Kassir first accepted Islam 16 years ago as a 15-year-old student at Bellaire High School, she was one of few Hispanic Muslims at Houston-area mosques, she said. She didn't meet another Hispanic Muslim until she was an adult living in Lebanon.

Now when El-Kassir looks around at local gatherings of Muslims, she sees others with roots in Latin America. She even has friends with whom she can discuss the ins and outs of halal meat in tamales.

"In the last couple of years, I know more and more Muslims who are Hispanic," she said.

Some Hispanic Muslims in Houston say the general public often assumes they are of Middle Eastern or Pakistani origin because of their religion. But where they once were an unrecognized "other" in demographic studies of American Muslim communities, the number of Hispanic converts to Islam is growing -- if incrementally, some say.

"This phenomenon is quite old," said Sheikh Zoubir Bouchikhi, Imam of the Islamic Society of Greater Houston's Southeast mosque. Bouchikhi also teaches at Masjid El Farouq, a west Houston mosque where El-Kassir attends prayers and Quran classes.

"It's not only in Houston but also all over the United States," he said. "In the last five years we have an increase in the number of people embracing Islam: Latinos."

A study of mosques in the United States, published in 2001, indicated that about 6 percent of American converts to Islam are Hispanic, said Ihsan Bagby, an author of the report and associate professor of Islamic studies at the University of Kentucky. About 27 percent of American converts are white, 64 percent are African-American and 3 percent are a mixture of other backgrounds, according to "The Mosque in America: A National Portrait."

Statistics are hard to come by, Bagby said, but Hispanics are becoming a significant minority of American converts to Islam.

"I think what we see happening is that many of the earlier Latino converts have developed more sophisticated infrastructures, although it is in its nascent form," Bagby said. "I think there is a lot more available for Hispanic converts than in earlier years."

Some of what is now available for Hispanic converts comes from the Latino American Dawah Organization, a group started about five years ago in New York City by Samantha Sanchez and five friends.

Sanchez, who is studying for a doctorate in cultural anthropology, had just become a Muslim and was interested in discovering whether she and her friends were the only Hispanic Muslims out there.

The organization has grown into a support network and an information outreach that provides Qurans and pamphlets on Islam in Spanish and runs a Web site, www.latinodawah.org. The group now has a chapter in Austin and is working on chapters in Illinois, Massachusetts and Arizona.

"I would say (the Hispanic Muslim community) continues to grow, and the more people know there is such a thing as Latino Muslims the more it grows," Sanchez said.

Part of the group's goal is to connect Hispanic Muslims and offer services for new converts, said Austin resident Juan Galvan, president of the group's Texas chapter.

"When you go to a mosque and everyone is, essentially, a foreigner, it can be a lonely type of experience," he said.

Hispanic Muslims in Houston sometimes still find themselves victims of mistaken cultural identity -- especially women who wear traditional Islamic head covering.

Juliette Oliva Enchassi has run into the confusion in her job as interpreter at Texas Children's Hospital. When she arrives to interpret for Spanish-speaking patients, she has been mistaken for an Arabic interpreter.

She has also been able to listen in on conversations not meant for her ears, said Enchassi, who wears the head covering called a hijab.

"I have been in stores where people were talking about me in Spanish," she said.

In some ways, the confusion comes from a clash of stereotypes.

Cristina Martino, who became Muslim about six months ago, said that Americans immediately associate Islam with Middle Eastern countries.

"A lot of people think I'm from Iran when they see me wearing the hijab," the 21-year-old Venezuela native said.

But recent converts also buck cultural stereotypes that assume all Latinos must be Catholic, Sanchez said.

"I think because they have never heard of such a thing in a way, the Latino community is so stereotyped as being Christian," she said. "There are not only Christians, but there are also Latino Buddhists, Latino Jews."

Many Hispanic converts to Islam once considered themselves Christian.

Enchassi grew up in a strict Catholic family in Mexico, but even as a child felt distanced from the faith. As a teen, she challenged her mother on matters of dogma.

"I had many doubts in my heart and my mind about my religion," Enchassi said.

But Enchassi also thinks there were elements of her upbringing that fit well with Islam.

The Latino culture of Enchassi's youth was very family-centered. She was taught to obey her parents and to believe in and fear God. As in Islam, even simple tasks such as cooking involved prayer, and her mother taught her that an egg was perfectly poached in the time it took to recite the "Our Father," she said.

"My mother, without knowing it, was a Muslim," Enchassi joked.

Enchassi, 47, said she was introduced to Islam by a Muslim brother-in-law and converted in 1993 after marrying a Muslim. For her, Islam is a shield "we have in a society worldwide that has lost its moral values."

Bouchikhi said that some Hispanic Muslims become interested in Islam when they hear that Jesus is considered a prophet in the faith -- though not the divine son of God and the path to salvation as Christians believe.

El-Kassir's brother, Felipe Ayala, always questioned the Christian idea of the Trinity. Finding Jesus as a prophet -- but not divine -- in Islam felt like a comfortable spiritual fit, he said.

"I already believed that Jesus was a special messenger," said Ayala, who became Muslim about seven years ago, inspired by his sister and the works of Yusef Islam, the former rock singer Cat Stevens. "This confirmed it. For me, it was a natural development."

El-Kassir's family moved to Houston when she was 8. The family attended Catholic and Lutheran churches, but they were never orthodox in their observances or beliefs.

"My parents are not very religious," she said. "They believe in God; they are good honest people who do good."

As a teen, El-Kassir never felt spiritually lost or as if something were missing in her life, she said. In high school, she had friends of many faiths and found herself intrigued by Muslims.

"I saw how they dressed; that sparked a curiosity," she said. "I went into a mode of wanting to learn. I'm an avid reader, so I read and read."

What she found was "a religion of common sense," she said.

Islam's emphasis on one God and belief that one's deeds will be judged after death spoke to her.

El-Kassir, now 31, met and married her husband when they were both students at the University of Houston. She works as a bilingual fifth-grade teacher in the Spring Branch school district. Though there are many ways to hyphenate a demographic description of El-Kassir, she describes herself simply as a Muslim. But she tries to offer her four children the full array of their cultural and spiritual identity, teaching them Spanish and making sure they annually visit relatives in Lebanon.

"They are American," she said. "Their mom is Mexican. Their dad is Lebanese. They are Muslims. They get the best of everything, I tell them."

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