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Our Stories: A Leap of Faith

By Damarys Ocana
Latina Magazine
November 2004. pp 122-128.

Being Muslim in America isn't easy these days. So why would a Catholic Latina convert to Islam? Three Women's true stories of struggle and devotion.

Wearing a loose robe and veil that cover all but her face, Nylka Vargas glides into the mosque and takes her place in the middle of a row of solemn women. In unison with the others, she turns east, in the direction of Islam's holy city of Mecca, then touches her forehead and hands to the floor in submission to Allah. Some 30 feet in front of her, leading a row of men, the mosque's imam, or spiritual leader, chants a plaintive prayer in Arabic, his voice so clear and evocative that the nearby sounds of children playing and of rush-hour traffic grinding away seem to dissipate into the Union City, New Jersey, dusk. At the Imam's direction, Nylka joins the rest of her fellow worshippers and responds to his recitations from Islam's holy book, the Koran.

"Bismillahir rahmanir Rahim," she says in Arabic. In the name of Allah, the most gracious, the most merciful.

Growing up in her Peruvian-Ecuadorian home, Nylka said her prayers in Spanish and went to a Christian house of worship. Then, in 1995, as a 20-year-old college student, she became a Muslim - a decision that shocked her family at the time, even though it is becoming an increasingly common choice in the United States for Latinos. Although there are no official statistics on the number of Latino Muslims in this country (some estimates suggest there may be up to 75,000), over the past decade, Latino Muslim organizations have been cropping up across the country - Latino Dawah in New York City and Houston, and Propagacion Islamica para la Educacion e la Devocion a Ala' el Divino (PIEDAD) in Miami, are just two. There are also a growing number of Muslim Latino outreach programs, such as the one Nylka, now 30, heads at the Islamic Educational Center of North Hudson in Union City, New Jersey.

Since the terrorist attacks of 9/11, however, Latinos who convert to Islam are sometimes finding their decision met with grave concern, if not outright suspicion. Never mind that the Koran does not preach violence and that Muslims believe in the same God as Christians and Jews (though Muslims call him Allah). As the world's 1.2 billion Muslims celebrate Ramadan this month - which marks God's revelation of the Koran to the Prophet Muhammad - they do so against a backdrop in which being Muslim is often wrongly associated with being a terrorist. There are also more personal worries: When mujeres choose to wear hijab, the traditional Muslim covering, they are often defying furious families and friends who view conversion as a betrayal of their heritage.

What's ironic about this reaction is that there are few cultures to which Latinos are more connected than that of Islam. From the years 711 to 1492, Andalusia, Spain, flourished under the rule of the culturally advanced Islamic, or Moorish empire, which left its mark on everything from place and family names, like Cordova and Alameda, to people's facial features. Moorish architecture, so vividly preserved in Granada's Alhambra castle, also left its traces in some later cathedrals. Hundreds of Spanish worlds are derived from Arabic - the expression ojala' for example, comes from insha'Allah, or "God willing," and ole' is the Spanish adaptation of "Allah." Even chaperonsa, the dreaded abuelitas or tias who have supervised many a Latino on dates, have Islamic counterparts. "We can't deny the legacy of Islam in Latinos - you can scratch the surface of our skin and it's there, a flor de piel," says Juan Suquillo, an imam at the Union City mosque. "And that, combined with the fact that Islam offers a very logical, simple message that doesn't require people to give up most of their biblical beliefs, makes Latinos feel en casa (in the Muslim world)."

Other aspects of Islam are less easy for many Latinos to understand, such as the religion's strict guidelines for women. At a mosque, for example, women worship in a segregated section, which sometimes partitions off by a curtain. When a woman menstruates, she is prohibited from praying or touching the Koran; and, of course, women are expected to cover their hair with hijab. What, then, is Islam's appeal for so many mujeres? Like faith itself, the answer is a highly intimate matter. For la espanola, Diana Mariam Santos, conversion went hand in hand with a discovery of her true heritage; for Kathy Umaya Espinoza, a Chicana, it helped awaken her from a deep spiritual slumber. And for Nylka, it was about finally finding a place where she felt she belonged.

WHO AM I?
Leaning over a sink in the bathroom at the Union City Mosque, Diana douses her hands, arms, mouth, nose, ears, feet, and hairline three times, the required preparation for prayer. "All this is costumbre," says the 25-year old social worker and teacher's aide. "Muhammad established (the ritual of ablution) no only as a preparation to pray, but for hygiene. In Islam, there is always a reason behind everything you do."

The study of Muslim customs is no mere history lesson for Diana, who was born in Seville and raised in Cadiz, both in Spain's Andalusia region. When Diana began looking into her family's history as a 19-year-old living in New York City, she discovered that - like many other Muslims living through the Spanish Inquisition during the 1400s and 1500s - her mother's ancestors had publicly converted to Christianity in order to hold on to their property and avoid being expelled. As it turned out, the maternal last name Diana knew as Calderon was actually Al Calderon. Diana, how had never felt at home with Catholicism (as a child, she was actually suspended from Catholic elementary school in Cadiz for asking too many questions), was "very angry, learning what they had to go through. They had to lose their identity."

At the time, Diana was already Muslim - in name, at least. She had converted years before, after learning about the religion from Moroccan neighbors back in Cadiz, but had never practiced. What really put her on the path to Islamic faith was seeing how the religion affected her Turkish Muslim bosses at the New York City gourmet market where she worked. "They were so peaceful," says Diana, who adds that although most of her family's has accepted her conversion, she's estranged from a few cousins because of it. "I was always very stressed. You see them and you are like, Oh my God, I wish I could have that light they have." She enrolled in Islamic classes and started reading the Koran. And although she took comfort in finding similarities between the Koran and the Bible she had grown up with (both holy books are against praying to graven images, for example, and the Bible's First Epistle to the Corinthians, like the Koran, urges women to cover their hair), she also found some of Islam's teachings - such as Jesus' being a prophet instead of the son of God - easier to believe. As soon as she made her Shahadah, the Muslim declaration of faith, Diana, who had suffered from depression in her teens, says she felt a light within her too.

Her newfound faith was severely tested during the September 11 attacks, when Diana, who was at work near the World Trade Center, walked the length of Manhattan in order to get home. Diana, who at the time didn't wear hijab because she didn't feel it was crucial to her faith (more liberal interpretation of Islam say this is okay), remembers clutching her purse in fear that someone would see her Koran and attack her. "Please let it not have been Muslims, because we wouldn't be very secure in this country if Muslim did this," she recalls silently praying. "I was so afraid." When she did find out the terrorists were Muslims, Diana says she was shocked - but is quick to add that they were extremists who do not represent the mainstream Muslim world. "You cannot control their sick mind," she says of the attackers. "You cannot blame the whole religion."

Soon after the attacks, Diana came to the defense of a Muslim woman and girl, who were being hassled on a Manhattan street for wearing hijabs. The incident led her to start wearing the scarf herself, as a tangible testament to her faith. "I was thinking, I'm an educated woman with a college degree," she says. "So when people come up to insult me or try to berate me, I will talk to them."

Since then, Diana occasionally runs into people who want to "liberate" her from Islam by telling her, "in this country you are free." Her response? "I just tell them that's exactly why I wear my hijab - because I am free to do so." She also draws strength from the mostly supportive response she receives from non-Muslim Latinas, who don't seem to doubt her cultural ties. "When they hear you speak Spanish," she says, "They know where you come from; they know who you are."

A MOTHER'S STRUGGLE
Stella Espinoza sat frozen in her chair. At the invitation of her daughter Kathy, she had come to a Muslim poetry slam in Irvine, California, hoping to reach a greater understanding of her daughter's new religion. But when a young man took the state and stared angrily criticizing Catholics and U.S. foreign policy, Stella's worst fears were confirmed. "I find the religion to be a bit political," says the retired secretary, who lives in Riverside, California. "I was disturbed."

She might as well be talking about the way she felt that day in April 2001, when Kathy, then 22, told her she had converted to Islam. Growing up with her Mexican American mother, Kathy had been active in a Catholic youth group, evening traveling to Denver one summer to hear Pope John Paul II speak. And when her older brother, Michael, strayed from the church after high school, it was Kathy who helped rekindle his faith; years later she served as an example when he applied to join the church's Dominican Order of Preachers. "When you're a strong believer in your faith and you've tried to raise your children to the best of your ability," Stella says, her voice trailing off. "I never gave it a through that one of my kids would want to go into another direction."

It was just this kind of assumption, however, that sent Kathy, now 26, a social worker who lives in San Jose, California, on her initial spiritual search. "We were kind of taught to not really question Catholicism - that we had to believer in it and have faith and that it's the truth," Kathy says. Then, while she was at San Jose State University, her two Muslim roommates introduced her to Islamic principles such as the emphasis on a direct, priest-free relationship with God. "The fact that the Koran has not been changed in all these years, while the Bible has many versions - that was big to me," she says.

After finding peace in the Koran's teachings, Kathy now finds herself having to explain them to others who believe that being a Muslim means being a terrorist. "I'm constantly having to come up with passages in the Koran that show killing is wrong, and what is permissible in times of war and what is not," she says. "People see images of Muslims with (weapons), and that's what gets into their heads."

Then there are the questions she faces about what many view as Islam's oppression of women. The Muslim ban on women touching the Koran and performing the five daily prayers during their period is "about coming to God pure," Kathy says, noting that anyone with an unwashed open wound - be it man or a woman - is forbidden to touch the Koran. "When the prophet Muhammad came, women got their rights to own property and get an education," she says. "That was back in the 600s. In America, women couldn't even vote until the 1900s. Honestly, I'm sick of addressing it - it's frustrating (to have to defend the religion) you know so clearly and that is so beautiful." She does, however, share the alarm of people who read about women's lives in places like Afghanistan, where - prior to the 2001 U.S. overthrow of the religiously conservative Taliban regime - women were forced to cover themselves from head to toe and were not allowed to go to school or have jobs. Then there's Saudi Arabia, where women are not allowed to drive and cannot travel without written permission of a male relative. "My teachers have told me that is not Islam," Kathy says. "And there's a whole historical reason that folks in Saudi are the way they are. And I know Islam is true form does not oppress women."

It's a shame that people see those cases and condemn all of Islam, she adds. "Islam is a monolithic in that we believe, no matter who you are, that there is one God and that Muhammad is the last messenger of God," Kathy continues. "But you do have different people, different cultures. One thing that one of my teachers makes clear is that we are American Muslims, and our experiences is not going to be the same (as Muslims oversees)."

There is a least one person, however, to whom Kathy is defending herself less and less: her mother, Stella, who is - slowly - coming around. Earlier this year the two attended a Muslim wedding, and these days, when Kathy comes over for family barbecues, Stella will take the meat Kathy brings - bought from a shop that prepares meat in accordance with Islamic halal uidelines, which state that animals must be killed in a way that minimizes their suffering - cook it is a separate grill. "My philosophy is that it's very important to be respectful. You have to let your kids go and do what they think is right, " Stella says. "I love my pope - but I also love my daughter very much."

AT HOME IN THE WORLD
Nylka steals a look at her imam, who is explaining the Islamic prayer calendar to a class of 10 Latinas at the Union City Mosque, then quietly opens a small photo album. Stuck behind cellophane protectors are pictures of her before her conversion to Islam. There she is, blowing out birthday candles; kicking out a bare, leg, Rockettes-style, while dancing arm in arm with friends; and wearing a short-sleeved white lace dress and gloves, with her thick, jet-black hair sloping over her shoulders. "That's me at a wedding when I was 16," she says.

The change is remarkable. In accordance with strict Islamic principles that insist women dress modestly - both to honor Allah and to protect themselves from the lustful gaze of men - Nylka now ears loose clothes that cover her skin from neck to wrists to ankles. Her hair has disappeared behind her hijab, and because Muslim women are permitted to dance only when men aren't present, she no longer dances in public.

But Nylka doesn't measure her transformation in terms of what she has left behind; she measures it terms of what she has gained: the spiritual fulfillment she always longed for, even as she was confirmed. As a child growing up Catholic, Nylka never felt in tune with church rituals like crossing herself with holy water or confessing to a priest, or paying money to light a candle and pray to a saint. Family visits to the religious services of other Christian denominations were equally baffling; during trips to a Pentecostal church, "I would see people jump up and dance, and I was never comfortable with that," she says. "I was always questioning, 'what are we doing here?'" What's the reason?' My entire life, I couldn't find answers."

That changed while she was a student at Penn State University, where she formed friendships with several Muslims, who introduced her to the Koran. Nylka found the book's teachings intriguing, such as the concept of a direct link to God, as well as any easy-to-follow code. "Islam gives you specific guidelines for everything - hygiene, relations with your husband, how to play sports," she says. "It's not just about religion; it's a way of life." Simply put, she says, "Islam just made send to me. It was natural."

Explaining that to her six siblings and mother, all Catholics, hasn't been easy. In the first few years after Nylka's conversion, her resistant mother would keep up a normal routine and cook Peruvian delicacies during the month of Ramadan - which requires Muslims to fast from sunrise to sunset - and heap it onto a plate that she served Nylka. "Sometimes I would have to hide it and pretend that I was eating," she says. "I tried to understand her point of view and not disrespect her."

The hijab was another battle. "For my mother and sisters, I'm in my youth, so I should be more glamorous," Nylka says. "It was hard for them to walk with me sometimes; hard for them to understand that Muslim women have to cover themselves to protect our charms from men." The hijab can seem "like a double standard," Nylka says, "but it's about modesty." Besides, she points out, "men have as much of an obligation to look away when they see a woman, whether she's wearing a hijab or not."

Fortunately, there is one place Nylka can go when she feels the need for understanding: her mosque. Although she still lives with her mother and plans to go to graduate school, she spends most of her time these days working as an assistant at the mosque, organizing Latino Muslim get-togethers, and helping with an educational-outreach program, thus furthering her own study of the Koran. With the evening's prayer class ended, Nylka takes one final look around the mosque and nods. "This," she says, "is my home."

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