Reshaping One Nation Under God
By Kenneth Butler
Latinos and Muslims: a new union between two fast-growing populations
When 37-year-old Wilfredo Ruiz, a lawyer in Puerto Rico, made the decision to change his life, it was a relatively easy one. There were no bouts of self-discovery, no ideological struggles and little hesitation. Ruiz remembers the day vividly. Moreover, he remembers how he told his wife. Brenda Ruiz, also a Puerto Rico-native, had just walked into their San Juan home after a tiring day of errands. Ruiz, charming as always, proudly greeted his wife with a kiss on the cheek. Then, before Brenda could even return the gesture, Ruiz blurted with a smile: “Guess what, honey? I’m a Muslim.”
And that was that.
For other Latinos, converting to Islam is not so breezy a decision. The faith, consisting predominately of African-Americans, Arabs and South Asians in the U.S., is swelling. There are more than 8 million Muslims in North America, and, according to a 2002 survey conducted by Cornell University, that number will double by 2014.
As Islam-practicing Americans grow in number, so too does the involvement of America’s fastest climbing minority. Although Latinos constitute only 6 percent of total Muslims, they are adopting the religion in bounding numbers and uprooting themselves from their cultural and spiritual upbringing to do so.
When Brenda Ruiz heard the news of her husband’s new ideological switcheroo, she was incredulous. Even as Ruiz confirmed everything, his wife remained wary of a prank. Finally, Brenda walked to their liquor cabinet and opened it. When she found it empty, she knew her husband had done it. He’d decided “to wear the turban,” she said.
For Muslims, mind-altering substances, like alcohol, are forbidden. Also out are smoking and the consumption of pork.
What’s required is prayer five times a day and a pilgrimage to Mecca at some point in their lives, alms-giving, and most importantly, acknowledgement that there is one true God.
The latter is what led Ruiz, a lawyer who attended Texas A&M University and studied law at the University of Puerto Rico, to investigate “this whole Islam thing” in the first place.
Despite a fervently Catholic mother and having attended only parochial schools before college, in 2002 Ruiz left behind a lifetime tradition of attending Sunday mass completely. Catholicism, he said, prompted him with too many questions.
“I was never convinced and comfortable with the assignment of partners to the Divinity or to the concept of God,” Ruiz said, his perceptible Puerto Rican accent rising. “Who were all these saints and intercessors?”
Eighty-five percent of Puerto Ricans self-identify as Roman Catholic and almost all Spanish-speaking countries have matching percentages or higher.
Catholicism and Hispanic culture go together like arroz con gandules.
However, some Latinos feel that the religion filters worship through too many ministers and clergymen.
“We share a commonality,” explained NYU’s Islamic Center chaplain Khalid Latif. “There are no intermediaries in Islam — God is connected to all of us directly.”
The Catholic ministry uses a tri-tiered hierarchy of deacons, ministers and bishops to help serve the congregation. Those selected are considered to be the most recent in a lengthy line of religious leaders ordained by God.
Though these storied traditions are the backbone of Catholicism, Hérnan Guadalupe, a New Jersey native who converted to Islam five years ago, found conventional Christian traditions a hindrance to his spirituality — specifically the need for priests and other clergy to control the congregation’s relationship with God.
“What gives the priests power to decide what has to be done for God to forgive you,” Guadalupe said. “All human beings are equal in the eyes of God, so why should we have to go through an intercessor. Muslims don’t have to jump through hoops to connect to God himself.”
Islam preaches that there is one God and that Jesus was not His son, but one of many prophets with the gift of receiving revelations from Allah, which is Arabic for “God.” The greatest prophet, Muhammad, wrote the Koran, the Islamic holy text.
“When I heard that God was one, that he had no partners or co-participants in the divinity, this appealed to my feelings,” Ruiz said. “It didn’t seem to be anything new to me. That was always my belief but it was not the belief that was instructed in me.”
Guadalupe, who founded a nonprofit called the Latino Muslim Outreach Program, believes that close ties between Latinos and Islam are more than just spiritual, but date back to Spanish history.
“Many people do not realize that Muslims ruled Spain for more than 700 years. From 711 to 1492,” Guadalupe said, speaking before a group of Muslim students at Columbia University last fall. “Latinos and Islam have always been closely related. It is only now that we are reconnecting to ourselves.”
Ruiz also believes his Islamic experience is reversion rather than conversion.
“Muslim means ‘that which submits [to God].’ We believe that everyone was born a Muslim, but that your religion changes based on what you learn,” he said.
Ruiz’s decision to convert has changed his future significantly.
His wife has chosen to embrace Islam as well. They are now raising their six-year-old twins in the faith, and the family has relocated from sunny PR to the often blustery Hartford, Conn., so that Ruiz can further his religious studies.
“It was harder [to raise children] in Puerto Rico because there weren’t many Muslim kids. The integration here is a lot of better,” Ruiz said. “It so happens that my neighbor is Muslim and there are more Muslims in the schools.”
Ruiz said it’s important not to push Islam too forcefully on other people and that part of its appeal is the relaxed nature with which possible converts can study the faith.
“The changes for me were gradual,” Ruiz said. “I always kept in mind that Islam is soft. Islam comes drop by drop, little by little.”
And Muslim by Muslim, Islam is growing. There are now 4 million Muslims in Latin America, according to information from Guadalupe’s Latino Muslim Outreach Program.
A few months ago, Ruiz received a call from the Catholic grammar school he attended in Puerto Rico. There was a young boy on the other end who wanted to know if Ruiz could participate in a presentation on Islam for his class.
Ruiz, though stunned, quickly agreed.
“I was amazed,” he said. “Twenty years ago, that would never have happened — not a presentation on Islam from an Islamic perspective and in Puerto Rico.”