By Evelyn Nieves
The NY Times
December 17, 2001
LOS ANGELES, Dec. 15 — They file into the mosque when Sunday school is over and the conference rooms are cleared, staking a small piece of turf in the main hall. For many, Spanish is their only language, and this is a whole new world. They are new immigrants, new to the big city and new to Islam.
Over the last year, the Islamic Center of Southern California has been conducting these weekly 90- minute Spanish-speaking sessions for new Muslims by popular demand. Marta Galedary, who converted after immigrating here from Mexico two decades ago, has helped lead them. She finds that the group, which can include 20 to 50 people in any given week, is intensely interested and a little nervous.
"Something in these Latino meetings that we keep telling people," Ms. Galedary said, "is that you don't leave your culture because you convert to Islam. You have to continue to be proud of whatever part of Latin America you are from."
They come from all over. Each week, immigrants from Mexico, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Peru and Costa Rica — just a handful of the countries represented — come to the Islamic Center, relieved to find that they are not alone. Far from it. In recent years, Latino Muslim groups have formed in most large cities in the United States, stretching from New York to Los Angeles. Latino Muslim groups have also formed in smaller cities with large Spanish- speaking populations, including Fresno, Calif.; Plantation, Fla.; and Somerville, N.J. Though exact figures are hard to come by, since people tend to drop in at mosques and may not appear on any membership rolls, the American Muslim Council, an advocacy group in Washington, estimates that 25,000 Hispanics in the United States are Muslims.
It is a small fraction of the nation's Muslims — estimates of the total number range from 4 million to 6 million — but a figure that appears to be growing by the year. (Several Latino Muslim organizations say the number is closer to 40,000, with the largest Hispanic Muslim communities in New York City, Southern California and Chicago, where Hispanics and Muslims are plentiful.) Indeed, Spanish-speaking immigrants, the nation's fastest-growing minority, are converting to Islam to such an extent that a national organization, the Latino American Dawah Organization, founded in 1997 by a handful of converts in New York, now claims thousands of members in 10 states.
Why Islam, a religion cloaked in mystery in Latin America — as it was in this country before Sept. 11 — is attracting so many Latino converts has several answers. For many women who attend the Islamic Center of Southern California here, the path is a relationship with a Muslim man. Many others say they chose Islam because they preferred a religion without the trappings of a vast hierarchy or the complicated dogma that they saw in the Catholic Church.
For new immigrants, Latino Muslim leaders say, the close-knit Hispanic Muslim community is also an attraction, helping Latinos understand the society as the Latinos help Muslims become more mainstream.
Religion scholars say that Islam also attracts those who prefer a more rigorous way to worship than what they find here in the modern Catholic Church.
"There are those in the Roman Catholic tradition who are somewhat discontent with the modernizing trends of the Catholic Church," said Wade Clark Roof, chairman of the religious studies department at the University of California at Santa Barbara. "To those people," Mr. Roof said, "a religious tradition such as Islam, that attempts to maintain a fairly strict set of patterns and practices, becomes attractive."
For Nicole Ballivian, 27, an aspiring film producer from Falls Church, Va., whose mother is Bolivian and father Armenian, Islam was a natural progression from Catholicism.
"I loved religion," said Ms. Ballivian, who converted to Islam eight years ago in Virginia and now practices in Los Angeles. "I was very religious in Catholic high school. I told myself that I would study philosophy and religion. I remember getting in trouble in Catholic school for debating things like the concept of original sin at a really young age. When I actually studied Islam, it made it all simple."
Ms. Ballivian, who has been working on a documentary on Latino Muslims, sees two distinct groups of converts. One is composed of new immigrants, poor and usually with little education, who come to Islam out of an emotional connection. The second, she said, is made up of young, usually first-generation, middle-class, college-educated Americans of Hispanic descent who make a deliberate, well-researched conversion.
"We actually have a lot of women who convert because they're married to a Muslim," said Ms. Ballivian, who married a Palestinian Muslim two years ago.
Like Ms. Ballivian, Juan Galvan, 26, a senior at the University of Texas at Austin, came to Islam in a deliberate way. One of eight children born and raised in a strict Catholic household, he remembers never being truly comfortable with some of the church's tenets and hierarchy.
"When I was growing up in the Texas Panhandle, I read a lot, and even then I had a lot of questions," Mr. Galvan said.
"I was a very strong Catholic," he said. "I did all my sacraments and I lectured as a Eucharistic minister. But even when I was young I had a lot of problems with the Bible, ideas like original sin. So coming to Islam solved a lot of problems for me."
Three years ago, as he began seriously questioning some Catholic doctrines, he came across a man praying on campus. "I asked him his name and I could not believe it when he said his name was Armando. What was this Hispanic guy doing praying to Allah? He told me some things about Islam — how Spain had been Muslim for 700 years, how so many Spanish words had come from Arabic."
Mr. Galvan, president of the Texas chapter of the Latino American Dawah Organization — dawah, he said, means education in Arabic — has found that it is sometimes lonely being a Muslim. He connects with other Latino Muslims, including Ms. Ballivian, through e-mail and Web sites like www.latinodahwah.org. "Sometimes it feels like I am in the wilderness," he said.
For many Latino Muslims, the hardest part of converting is handling the reaction of relatives. Ms. Galedary, 45, a nurse from a particularly religious Catholic family — one of her sisters is a nun — had to convince her mother that she had not joined a cult. "I told her to ask her priest about Muslims," she said, "and she did, and he told her that it was a good religion. That's what I recommend to people — to ask their family to ask their priest, because they know since they've studied comparative religions."
Latino Muslims — before and after Sept. 11 — said they have been confronted by peers who ask how they could trade in their culture for another. "I've been asked why I adopted an Arab culture," Ms. Ballivian said. "That's just a lack of knowledge about Islam."
Even for longtime Muslims, there are challenges. Vita Abdelmohty of Miami, who goes by her Muslim name, Sister Khadija Rivera, converted to Islam in 1983 in New York City. She helped found a Latino Muslim women's organization and is preparing a radio program that will help people understand that Islam is a religion, not an ethnicity. Is is to be broadcast on a Spanish-language station in Miami.
"Islam is still a mystery to most people, and we want to reach out so people understand, especially that it is an Abrahamic religion," said Ms. Rivera, who wears the traditional Muslim head scarf. She said that like other Muslims, she has been harassed since Sept. 11. "I was insulted in the supermarket, on the street. I would be waiting for a bus and people would see me and just yell obscenities. I have had dirty looks from Latino people, too."
Ms. Rivera, like many others who came to Islam from a Catholic background, said that as a girl she was not always comfortable with the teachings of the church.
"I always wanted to read the Bible and learn more, but it was all about the catechism," she said. "You just have to believe it, not understand it. For me, Islam gave me answers, made sense."