Latino Americans Reclaim Their Islamic Heritage
By Salmy Hashim
WASHINGTON, June 30 (Bernama) -- Juan Jose Galvan, an American Latino, is one of the growing numbers of Muslim converts in America. Before he became a Muslim, Juan was a devout Catholic who went to church and conducted bible study groups.
One day, he saw a Latino man named Armando praying. He thought to himself, "What is this Hispanic guy doing, praying to Allah?" Armando later told him that Spain was ruled by Muslim rulers for over 700 years. Thousands of Spanish words have Arabic roots. The ruins of mosques with Quranic writings have been found in former Spanish colonies such as in Cuba, Mexico, and in Texas and Nevada in the United States.
Three years after meeting Armando, Juan embraced Islam. The decision was not easy - coming from a strong Catholic background. But most importantly, he felt that the questions that were gnawing him were answered the more he studied Islam. "How can the Father be the Son? Why can't God forgive anyone he wants? What happens to babies that die that are not baptized?"
Although his family accepts him, Juan finds it hard being a Latino Muslim. He says, many Latinos wonder, "why would you ever quit drinking and eating pork?" Some Latinos think you're a 'race traitor' for giving up the partying and the drinking.
"I don't think being a non-drinker makes me less of a Latino. At least I'll never become an alcoholic. While growing up, my dad and most of my uncles were alcoholics," he says.
Juan, 28, a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin who is now a computer programmer in Austin, works with other Latino Muslims to spread the teachings of Islam through the Latino American Dawah Organization (LADO).
LADO, is a non-profit organization founded in 1997 in New York. Juan is Vice-President of the national LADO and also President of LADO, Texas. He is co-authoring a book with President of LADO, Samantha Sanchez, called, "Latinos Revert to Islam: What's Old is New Again."
There are approximately 40,000 Hispanic Muslims in America, according to the American Muslim Council. Most are found in heavily-populated Latino areas such as New York, Chicago, Miami, Houston and Los Angeles. There are an estimated six to seven million Muslims in America.
A study by Dr. Ihsan Bagby of the Council of American Islamic Relations (CAIR) on mosques in America, found an annual growth of 20,000 converts nationally. More than 60 percent of converts are African-Americans, 27 percent are Whites and six percent are Hispanic.
Interestingly, more women than men are converting to Islam in the Latino community. In fact, the Latino Muslim movement is driven by Latinas (Hispanic women). LADO, for example, is headed by Samantha Sanchez in New York.
Many of these women are trying to get away from the "Maybelline slavery" created by the American culture. "Like many women, Latinas are tired of being viewed as sex objects. Indeed, the Islam I know elevates women!," says Juan.
According to a study by Sanchez, 25 percent of the respondents in her study came to Islam as a result of "personal exploration" whereby they actively seek a new faith as a result of being disillusioned with the present one.
Those who actively explored, considered a number of religions before Islam including sects of Protestantism, Judaism, Hinduism and Buddhism. For many Latinos, mainly Catholics, embracing Islam took between three to 12 years.
Juan knows he and his friends have a long way to go in correcting the misconceptions about Islam in the Latino community.
He has been asked : "Don't you still love Jesus? How could you do this to the Virgin Mary?" He usually replies: "I still love Jesus. We believe he's a Prophet. There's also a chapter on Mary in the Quran. When accused of worshipping 'Allah', I say we worship Dios or God."