Terror suspect's arrest puts Hispanics on edge
By Dan Mihalopoulos and James Janega
On the day that President Bush called Jose Padilla a "bad guy" and a "would-be killer," Puerto Rican community leaders in Chicago said they felt uneasy about the arrest of their former neighbor, on suspicion that he was linked to an Al Qaeda terror plot.
Many were having a hard time imagining how a kid from the streets of Logan Square could wind up accused of joining an international terrorist network. Others said they had never even heard of such a thing as a Puerto Rican Muslim.
Still others worried that the stream of government invective against Padilla, emphasizing his life as a street gang member in Chicago, could put all Puerto Ricans in an uncomfortable spotlight--a glare also felt keenly by Chicago's tiny group of Hispanic Muslims.
"It's unfortunate that this happened," said Alma Montes, 24, a Mexican-American and Muslim from Chicago's Little Village neighborhood. Padilla "was a gangbanger and he's a Muslim to top it off. That's two strikes against him."
Though they make up only a fraction of all Latinos, converts to Islam are not unheard of. Once traced to the Moorish influence in medieval Spain, Hispanic converts now are more likely to come from the streets of the U.S., where their traditional Catholic faith competes with Islam, evangelical Christianity and other options.
Authorities said Padilla, 31, who is of Puerto Rican descent, apparently converted to Islam in prison. Born in New York but raised largely on Chicago's Northwest Side, where authorities said he became a member of a street gang, it is not yet clear how he was allegedly recruited into Al Qaeda.
Hispanic Muslims say Padilla's sudden notoriety could sharpen the challenges they face. Yolanda Rodriguez of Little Village, 33, said she and others Latino Muslims are afraid of being profiled or "should be worried, especially if you converted in prison."
"I think we have it tough enough as Muslims," Rodriguez said. "This just makes it worse."
Meanwhile, Puerto Ricans interviewed Tuesday on Chicago's Northwest Side said their fellow Americans should not consider Padilla in any way representative of their ethnicity. The 2000 census counted almost 158,000 Puerto Ricans in Illinois, making them the largest Latino ethnic group after Hispanics of Mexican descent.
"I don't believe there are any Puerto Ricans in Chicago that agree with what this young man was doing," said Juan Sanchez, director of Cocineros Unidos, the association of food vendors in Humboldt Park. "The Puerto Rican community is clean."
For a few, Padilla's arrest was an ominous reminder of the days when Puerto Rican separatists committed terror bombings in Chicago in the 1970s and the whole community came under suspicion.
"If someone is arrested in our area with proven links to Al Qaeda, of course, it's going to worry people, because many people lived through a period of investigation and suspicion related to the Puerto Rican independence movement," said state Sen. Miguel del Valle (D-Chicago). "So it would not be entirely new to anyone."
Del Valle said he had been worried about violations of civil rights in the government's pursuit of terrorists even before Padilla's arrest was revealed earlier this week. Now, he said, it would be important to find out whether Padilla was an isolated individual or whether there were broader links between Al Qaeda and American street gangs.
Rosie Irizarry of Logan Square, who was playing bingo at the Puerto Rican Parade Committee's building in Humboldt Park, said she was mystified at the news descriptions of Padilla.
"I've never seen a Puerto Rican Muslim. There are Puerto Rican Jews, but Puerto Rican Muslims?" said Irizarry, who wore a T-shirt bearing the words "Puerto Rico" and "Blessed is the fruit of our land." But, she added, Al Qaeda apparently involves people of many ethnicities.
Others looked for solace in the fact that Padilla had gone so far as to abandon his Spanish name for the Arab-sounding Abdullah al Muhajir.
"I don't know how Puerto Rican I would consider this guy," Sanchez said.
As much as any ethnic group in Chicago, Puerto Ricans love to fly their flag. Huge metal representations of the Puerto Rican flag span the stretch of Division Street where Puerto Rican-owned businesses cluster. Vendors in Humboldt Park sell all manner of clothing emblazoned with the flag.
Tuesday, however, the focus was on rallying around the American flag.
"We support this country fully in the war against terrorism," said Miguel Nogueras, executive director of the Puerto Rican Chamber of Commerce of Illinois, based in Chicago. "I see [Padilla] as an aberration."
Leoncio Vasquez, executive director of the Spanish Action Committee of Chicago, in Humboldt Park, said that as the father of two U.S. soldiers, he felt particularly betrayed by the link between his neighborhood and terrorism.
"For us Puerto Ricans, this is painful," Vasquez said. "We are a family. When something bad happens, whether we know the person or not, it hurts us. But this hurts even more."