Muslims make effort to welcome Hispanic 'reverts'
By Ira J. Hadnot
DALLAS - The Espinoza family was eagerly awaiting its first observance of Ramadan, the month-long Muslim period of fasting that began Sunday.
Anticipation swelled into a smile on Ericka Espinoza's face. Raised a Catholic, the 27-year-old Hispanic mother of two said she is ready to rise at 4 a.m. and abstain from eating and drinking from sunrise to sunset.
She is also looking forward to the three-day celebration, Eid al-Fitr, breaking the fast. Most of the Dallas Muslim community will mark the end of Ramadan in late November with a prayer service in Centennial Hall at Fair Park.
She wants to embrace every aspect of the fast-growing religion that is reaching out to the fast-growing U.S. Latino population.
"I have been looking forward to this (Ramadan)," she said.
Espinoza is one of a growing number of Hispanics who are leaving Catholicism for Islam, for Protestant churches, for other faith traditions or who are dropping out of any religious practice. Exact numbers are impossible to come by, but some national Latino Muslim associations claim "reverts," their term for converts, in the "tens of thousands."
In the Dallas area, officials estimate there are at least 100 to 150 Latino Muslims and they say the number is probably much higher. Some people, they say, consider themselves Muslim even if they don't visit a mosque regularly.
Andrew Greeley, the well-known Catholic sociologist and author, estimates that 60,000 to 100,000 Hispanics in the United States leave the Catholic Church annually.
"We know some are going to Islam," said Ronaldo Cruz, executive director of the secretariat for Hispanic affairs of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. "Some are going to Protestant faiths."
Numbers on converts can be misleading, said Anna Maria Diaz Stevens, a professor at Union Theological Seminary in New York. She and her husband, Anthony Stevens Arroyo, of Brooklyn College, have researched the role of Hispanics in the Catholic Church.
"Our work estimates that anywhere from 57 to 62 percent of Hispanics are still in the Catholic Church," she said. "Others put the numbers much higher. This is a moving target."
Citing a phenomenon she called "revolving-door Christianity," she said many Hispanics "like to try several religions at the same time." Some leave Catholicism only to return later.
Islam claims 6 million followers in the United States though some studies conclude that the number could be half that with about 25,000 converts annually. Ericka Espinoza wants that number to grow.
"I want people in my community to know about Islam. I am proud to be Muslim, and I want our community to know that this is our religion, too," she said.
"It can be odd sometimes. People think I am Arab, but when I start speaking Spanish, I get a puzzled look especially from Hispanics."
Sitting in the women's prayer area of the Dallas Central Mosque in Richardson, Texas, she said: "I have found peace. This is where I belong. This is where I come from."
Espinoza's husband is Christian, but their children, Katheline, 11, and Eldridge, 6, take classes at the mosque, and she is teaching them the meaning of Ramadan. "They will grow up Muslim," she says.
Espinoza, who is from Honduras, has relatives from Spain.
The potent connection between Spain and Islam was one of the things that intrigued her about the faith. Muslims from northern Africa, whom the Spanish called Moors, ruled Spain for more than 700 years. Arabic influences remain strong in Spanish language and culture; some Muslim scholars claim the exclamation "ole" comes from "Allah."
So, rather than using the term "convert," many Muslims say Latinos who embrace Islam are "reverting" to their spiritual roots.
Such a message holds appeal for Hispanics across the demographic spectrum from the boroughs of New York to the barrios of Los Angeles, among Central American immigrants, recent arrivals from Mexico and Puerto Ricans.
One measure of the outreach is the proliferation of Web sites and nonprofit groups serving the needs of Latino Muslims. In addition to the Latin American Dawah Organization, there's Latin American Muslim Unity; the Latino Committee of the North American Islamic Council; and the site, www.HispanicMuslims.com.
The phenomenon extends to Latin America. Mosques and Islamic centers are growing in the cities of Argentina, Bolivia, Panama, Peru, Honduras, Columbia and other countries. Mexico has the largest such center.
The Islamic Association of North Texas held an open house for Latinos recently. Before the event, fliers in Spanish were posted at the Richardson mosque and distributed in Spanish-speaking neighborhoods of Dallas.
The open house drew about 150 people. "We were hoping for 300, but this is a good start," said Alaedin Bashiti, one of the event's coordinators.
Muslims call such outreach activity "dawah," a call to Islam. The Quran instructs Muslims to "invite to the way of your Lord with wisdom and fair preaching, and argue with them in a way that is better."
"Dawah in the Spanish-speaking area is very important," Imam Yusuf Ziya Kavakci of the Dallas Central Mosque told open house attendees.
"We Muslims have to spread dawah all over the world. This is a very good opportunity for us in North America, where we mix and mingle easily with Spanish-speaking people."
Some Latinos who dropped by the open house said they'd been especially curious about Islam since Sept. 11, 2001. Across the country, Muslim organizations have hosted community events in hopes of erasing what they say is a stigma from the terrorist attacks.
"We have been stereotyped as terrorists, as people to be afraid of and to suspect," said Bashiti.
Gerrado Lobato brought his wife, Luz, and their children, Cesar, 5, and Leslie, 4, to the open house.
"I saw the signs, and I wanted to check things out," he said.
"This is very different from the Catholic Church. But so far I like what I am seeing. I like the emphasis on family life. There is a lot of controversy in the Catholic Church. Some priests abusing kids. This not good for kids."
Espinoza, the "revert" about to observe her first Ramadan, was one of those whose interest was sparked by 9-11.
"I had friends who were telling me things about Muslims," she said. "I wanted to know for myself."
Before embracing Islam, she said, "I had the same dream three times. I was at Mecca, and I was wearing a hijab (the scarf that many Muslim women wear to demonstrate modesty)."
She added, "I know that coming here has produced a change in me. All the sisters are so close. They are helping me with Ramadan, teaching me what I need to know to prepare my home.
"The closeness and family are what remind me of my culture."
Maritza Flores, 48, came to the open house "to learn for myself as an adult what my spirit needed." Flores, who came to Dallas from Mexico eight years ago, expressed disenchantment with the rigid instruction she received as a Catholic child. "When you are young, your family tells you have to believe this, and this is the way, the tradition," she said.
Through the afternoon, she visited with Muslims. At one point she sat in a large hall filled with children eating cotton candy and snow cones. As the visitors were starting to disperse, Imam Kavakci called people to take their seats.
"We have something very special," he said.
Flores had decided to convert on the spot. Guided through the Shahadah, the Islamic declaration of faith, with the imam helping her speak Arabic, she became a Muslim.
Amid clapping and tears, the women in the room rushed to circle around her. Having said the words is important, she was told by her new Muslim sisters.
But the first real test of Flores' dedication would begin with Ramadan.