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Latino Muslims build identity

By James Janega
Chicago Tribune staff reporter
July 5, 2002

An Islamic conference hopes to give greater voice to a developing group that lacks a large cultural background or network in the Chicago area.

Yolanda Rodriguez considers herself a Muslim first, then Mexican-American, but on her regular walks down 18th Street in Chicago, she does not wear a hijab, the traditional head covering worn by many Muslim women.

Well known in the Pilsen community as general manager of Radio Arte, a youth-oriented offshoot of the Mexican Fine Arts Center offering Spanish-language radio experience, Rodriguez, 33, often finds herself negotiating between her public persona and her personal faith.

She is comfortable in both worlds, but has chosen not to make her religious beliefs stand out. At least, not for now.

That decision is common among Chicago's Latino Muslim population, a group consisting of perhaps tens of thousands of Spanish-speaking individuals who share Islam, but privately, without an overarching network or broad cultural background to support them.

Among more established Muslim groups in Chicago and nationwide, however, a growing conviction has emerged that this subset of American Islam deserves a greater voice. One sign is that issues particular to Latino Muslims will headline a series of lectures and presentations at an Islamic Society of North America convention beginning in Chicago Friday.

"The phenomenon is so big, but it's not unified. It's not in one place, they don't know each other," said Sayyid M. Sayeed, secretary general of the society. The convention at the Holiday Inn O'Hare in Rosemont will feature lectures on Islamic literature in Spanish, religious education for Latino Muslims, and profiles on Islam within various Latino cultures.

"There may be thousands, but we don't have a sense of them," Sayeed said. "This is our way of providing a forum for those of them who are Muslims--they can come and share and interact and discuss their problems and issues."

One issue is how the Latino Muslim community is viewed by America at large--particularly since the arrest of Jose Padilla, a Muslim convert of Puerto Rican ancestry who was accused of plotting to set off a "dirty" radioactive bomb.

Other questions include how the faith has been taught to Latino converts, and by whom. Just as important is what is being taught--or if material is even available in Spanish, be it copies of the Koran or other religious pamphlets. The questions, notes Sayeed, are humbling in their simplicity.

"That's where we are: in a very preliminary stage," he said.

Community ties

More established populations of Latino Muslims in Los Angeles and New York City have their own cultural centers and community support groups. In Chicago, activities are coordinated through informal webs of individuals.

Entrance into those networks is often gained through personal introductions, and often by chance meetings. Few know precisely who or how many are in the groups, or how exactly to contact them.

Nevertheless, their existence is invaluable to Latino converts, said Rami Nashashibi, director of the Inner-City Muslim Action Network on West 63rd Street. His storefront religious center acts as an informal clearinghouse, introducing this teen to that mentor, or this Islamic group to that neighborhood association or religious printer. People, Latinos included, literally walk in off the street.

"It's really hard to say how many there are. But I would say any good Muslim knows a good dozen, two dozen [Latino] Muslims who are active in the various communities," Nashashibi said.

A quick check of his electronic organizer provides contact information for a south suburban group of Colombian Muslims and a network of North Side Puerto Rican Muslims. It also provides a number of individuals, like Rodriguez, who have quietly practiced Islam with one or two fellow Latinos while maintaining active civic roles. "Oftentimes they go unnoticed, but they are an integral part of their communities," he said.

Culture clash

Part of that disconnection has its roots in Latino culture. In predominantly Roman Catholic Latino communities, conversion to Islam draws questions and occasional suspicion, even from family members, said Desi Maura, 21, a Cuban-American whose marriage dissolved shortly after his conversion to Islam last year.

Since then, finding other Spanish speakers with whom to share his new religion has had a powerful effect on his morale.

"Just to at least have the same background with a person, then they have the same understanding," said Maura, who tries to provide that link for others. He translates Islamic texts from English to Spanish, and recently started classes in basic missionary work.

"I've wanted to make my goal in life to help people," he said.

Also taking notice are established Muslim organizations like the predominantly African-American Muslim American Society, said Ayesha K. Mustafaa, editor of the Muslim Journal in Chicago.

Cultural centers affiliated with the society have begun deliberate efforts to reach out to the expanding Spanish-speaking populations who live on the West and Southwest Sides.

Edmund Arroyo, 27, a school social worker who married an Indian Muslim, said Hispanic Muslims in America cannot yet draw on a distinct culture of their own for comfort.

"People ask, `What's Latino Muslim culture like?' And really, it hasn't been created yet," Arroyo said. "We're just kind of figuring out what it is, exactly, that works."

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