By Hernán Rozemberg
San Antonio Express-News
January 25, 2005
Like most youngsters growing up around his West San
Antonio neighborhood, Jesús Villarreal was raised
Catholic. He went to church every Sunday, took
Communion and attended catechism classes.
But he eventually strayed from the church, remaining
in religious limbo for years until stumbling upon an
unexpected answer — Islam.
Indeed, thousands of Latinos across the country — both
U.S.-born and immigrants — have been converting to
Islam since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks sparked
massive U.S. societal interest in the religion and its
billion followers worldwide.
No definitive research exists on the ethnic breakdown
of the U.S. Muslim population, estimated by the
Islamic Society of North America at 8 million
to 10 million people. Most surveys identify African
Americans as the largest group, but little is known
about Latino conversion patterns.
"It's a small religious phenomenon," said Edwin
Hernández, director of the Center for the Study of
Latino Religion at the University of Notre Dame.
"There's a lot we don't know. It's on our radar
A 2001 study by the Council on American-Islamic
Relations estimated 6 percent of 20,000 annual
converts to Islam are Latinos. Studies variously
list 25,000 to 75,000 Latino Muslims in the United
States; most concur there are roughly 40,000.
What has become evident since the 9-11 attacks is the
number of Latinos — especially women — converting to
Islam is growing rapidly, particularly in cities with
large Latino populations such as New York, Los
Angeles, Houston and San Antonio.
"So much information about Islam was coming out after
9-11," said Yousef Said, the imam, or leader, of the
Islamic Center of San Antonio.
"People wanted to know for themselves what Islam was
about, and when they heard the truth, they started
believing in the religion," Said said.
He estimated there are about 5,000 Muslims in San
The growing Latino Muslim population remains in
obscurity at the national level.
San Antonio resident Juan Galván became interested in
Islam while attending the University of Texas at
Austin. But he could not find much research on
why people like him, a Mexican American who grew up in
Lubbock, would turn to Islam — accepting not just a
new religion, but a new way of life.
After becoming a Muslim, Galván made it his personal
mission to inform the country about Latino Muslims.
He's now the vice president of the Latino American
Dawah Organization, a nonprofit group formed in New
York in 1997, and he's also co-authoring a book on the
Galván said he has found some answers. He now can
clearly see why Latinos "revert" to Islam, a term
widely used for people symbolically returning
Followers believe everyone is born Muslim — and many
Hispanic Muslims feel it applies directly to them,
since the land of their ancestors, Spain, was
under Islamic rule for nearly eight centuries before
Christian kingdoms forced them out.
Ferdinand and Isabella ended Moorish rule altogether
in 1492 and the Inquisition rooted out practitioners
of both Islam and Judaism.
To Hispanic converts, many of whom privately doubted
Jesus is the Son of God and questioned the concept of
the Trinity, their new religion provided what
Catholicism lacked. Many also have longed to dispense
with a go-between when it comes to making spiritual
"Can't I just ask God for forgiveness myself? Why do I
have to go through a priest?" asked San Antonio's
Villarreal, 27, a premedicine student at St.
Philip's College who became a Muslim three years ago.
"There's no intermediary in Islam — it's purely
Latinos come in contact with Islam through various
avenues. Quite often it mirrors Villarreal's case,
whose curiosity — and anger — over the terrorist
attacks drove him to Said's mosque.
He returned every day for two weeks, holding lengthy,
fascinating conversations with a man named Abdullah.
It was enough to convince Villarreal he was ready for
shahadah, the imam-led declaration of faith to Islam
that is in essence the conversion process.
San Antonio native Dorinda Garza Smith, also raised in
a strict Catholic home, discovered Islam 12 years ago
when she began talking to her then-sister-in-law's
Muslim husband. Garza later converted and has
raised her four children under Islam.
What attracted her the most, she said, is that Islam
obliges Muslim men to treat women with respect. In
fact, most Latino converts are women, many citing the
devotion of their Muslim husbands as the main reason
they made the switch.
"We're held on very high pedestals," said Garza, 40,
who is married to a Saudi.
She and other Latina Muslims dismissed criticism that
Islam subjugates women to secondary roles, attributing
discriminatory treatment to cultural traditions in
some Middle Eastern countries. They point out that
Islam's holy book, the Koran, gives women rights equal
Though most don't regret converting, Latino Muslims
recognize that juxtaposing their previous and current
lives is no easy feat.
Garza, a veteran cabdriver, goes through a radical
attitudinal shift when she's hanging out with
Spanish-speaking colleagues, compared with when she's
around Muslim drivers.
"It's like having a split personality. You have to
change depending on the background of the people,"
said Garza, who said she faces continual questioning —
even harassment — from customers about her hijab, or
Converts face other obstacles.
Linguistic and cultural differences can be
problematic, especially for immigrants who don't speak
And although Islam unites people from a plethora of
nations and cultures, they are capable of stereotyping
Some "think all Latinos are promiscuous and incapable
of becoming a 'real' Muslim," Galván said.
The main challenge Latino Muslims face is at home.
Their families have a hard time accepting the dramatic
lifestyle changes, from needing to pray five times
daily to no longer consuming alcohol or pork. While
some have tolerant relatives, many said their families
harbor negative images of Islam and ask them why they
Iliana González, 28, who works for a Muslim advocacy
group in Houston, said her Mexican parents — strict
Catholics — refused to accept her conversion
last year and still think she's going through a
They will not let her into their home if she's wearing
her headscarf. After numerous arguments, she decided
to take it off when she visits them.
The ordeal continued in her own home, González said,
where her 10-year-old daughter has questioned the
change and does not intend to follow her mother's
Yet despite the pressure, she remained steadfast with
her decision, noting the revived faith and happiness
being a Muslim has brought her.
Thus lies the crux of the Latino Muslim dilemma:
Reconciling cultural tradition with religion
"I'm proud to be Latina and say I'm Muslim," said
Adilia Riaz, 32, who was born in El Salvador and
brought to New York by her adoptive Puerto Rican
father. She moved to San Antonio last year, converting
to Islam in August.
Ironically, said Riaz, it wasn't until she became a
Muslim that she learned the significance of her own
name — Adilia, she said, means "justice" in Arabic.
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