By Tal Abbady
South Florida Sun-Sentinel
January 3, 2006
Melissa Matos slips into an easy communion with her newest circle of
At regular meetings, they invoke their families' native towns in Cuba
Dominican Republic, or recipes for arroz con pollo. English is
with Spanish. And, posing no incongruity to the women, hijabs, or
head scarves, frame their faces.
When she converted to Islam in May, Matos, a Dominican-American raised
Seventh-day Adventist, expected the passage to be lonely.
"I said to myself, `Great, I'm going to be the only Muslim Latina in
whole world,'" said Matos, 20, a student at Florida International
who recently joined a group of Latina converts to Islam.
Scholars say Matos is part of a growing number of Latin women
Islam for its emphasis on family, piety and clearly defined women's
values converts say were once integral to Hispanic culture but have
after years of assimilation.
The women are among 40,000 Hispanic converts to Islam in the United
according to the Islamic Society of North America. About a decade ago,
Latino converts began forming Internet groups such as the Latino
Dawah Organization and the women's group Piedad that trace Hispanics'
to Islam back to the Spanish Moors.
Grass-roots leaders say the number of converts grew sharply after the
11, 2001, attacks, bucking a trend of thought among Americans that
Islam to terrorism.
Sofian Abelaziz, president of the Miami-based American Muslim
North America, said one indication of the conversions is the demand for
Spanish-language copies of the Koran, which spiked after Sept. 11. In
past two years, the group has filled orders for 5,500 Spanish-language
Korans for schools, cultural institutes and prisons around the country,
of 12,000 orders total.
Matos and other converts say the recent media spotlight on Islam was
first exposure to the faith and spurred further learning.
"[Before] I picked up the Koran, my attitude was, `There's something
with this religion,'" said Matos, 20, of Miramar. A friend gave her a
of the Koran. "But then I saw it was filled discussions of grace from
of the protection of things we talk about as human rights, of a
brotherhood. ... This is a religion that encourages thinking and
contemplation," she said. In May, Matos converted by reciting the
prayer in which converts attest to their belief in Allah and Mohammed
front of Muslim witnesses. Islam now circumscribes her life. She is
Arabic, prays five times a day, wears a hijab and follows Islamic
"There is no conflict between my Dominican heritage and Islam. I grew
a culture where you have a family you love and you take care of one
and Islam complements those values," Matos said.
Matos' conversion rattled friends and family members who linked Islam
Taliban-style oppression, but scholars say Latina converts are
confessional Islam that offers strong moral guidelines.
"People might ask, `Why would women convert to a religion that is so
traditional in its gender roles?' But that's part of the appeal.
recovery of dignity," said Manuel Vasquez, religion professor at the
University of Florida. "Second-generation Latinas are caught between
morality of their parents and the morality of the larger mainstream
Islam offers a clear code. Women ... know they are respected, taken
protected from the negative influences of secular society. It's a kind
empowerment they don't experience in a culture that is constantly
sexualizing them, and Latinas are particularly sexualized."
The converts may be fashioning a form of Islam that meets their needs
country that allows them to do so.
"It's a comment on our society, on the fragmentation of American family
life," said Leila Ahmed, a Harvard University professor who has written
extensively on gender in Islam. "We have to bear that this is happening
America, where there is freedom of choice. These women are not
order to go and live in Saudi Arabia. We also don't know how permanent
conversions are in a country where people convert two or three times in
Like many converts, Matos calls herself a "revert," a reference to the
Muslim belief that everyone is born in a state of submission to Allah.
Hispanic and following Islam now are inextricable.
"When I meet with [my group] we speak in Spanish," she said. "We'll
about what it was like back in Cuba or the Dominican Republic. And yet
all wearing hijabs. It reminds me of the universality of Islam."
Religious leaders say the Latina converts assimilate easily into Islam.
"What they see in Islam is what their parents used to practice: that
for elders, the care and protection that husbands are obligated to give
their wives," said Maulana Shafayat Mohamed, director of the Darul
Islamic Institute in Pembroke Pines. "Many converts tell me, `This is
parents grew up.'"
When a Hispanic Muslim friend slipped a copy of the Koran into her
Marie Hernandez found "a total way of life."
"I started reading about the life of the Prophet Mohammed, and I was
convinced that this is the true prophet of God," said Hernandez, 22, of
Raton. "This is the message I have to follow."
Islam also was a powerful antidote to a troubled adolescence, during
Hernandez left home for two years.
Conversion meant the end of partying, very little television and waking
at 5 a.m. for her first prayers. It also meant reconciling with her
Honduran-born Catholic parents and becoming a Muslim wife. She met her
husband, an Egyptian, through a meeting arranged by her imam. They have
20-month-old toddler, Fatimah, named for the Prophet Mohammed's iconic
"At first my parents thought it was weird, and they were scared,"
said. "They thought I might get too extreme in my worship. But now we
beautiful relationship. Part of being a Muslim is to honor your
I started treating my dad the way I should have."
A strong draw for Hernandez was the idea that for Muslims, Islam is the
culmination of all religions. In the Koran, Jesus is venerated as a
and entire passages are devoted to the Virgin Mary -- a ubiquitous
Latin American culture.
"It's important to know that Jesus and Mary play a role in Islam. Most
Americans are Catholic because that's all they know, that's what their
predecessors were," said Hernandez, who cooks tamales to celebrate the
Converts say they are evidence that Latino identity is in flux.
"One reaction Latinos have with regard to Latinos who come to Islam is,
`You're leaving your religion! You're leaving your culture!' But Latino
culture is evolving," said Juan Galvan, president of the Texas chapter
the Latino American Dawah Organization.
"It's quite possible that Islam will one day be inseparable from Latino
culture just as Christianity is."
Roraima Aisha Kanar, 52, is from a family of Cuban exiles who fled Cuba
1959 and settled in Miami. Dissatisfied with Catholicism, she converted
Islam 30 years ago.
"My mother was devastated. I couldn't go to the beach and wear a
suit. I had to be covered and not wear makeup. I couldn't wear low-cut
dresses. I felt like telling her, `Do you mean to tell me that's what's
important in life?'" she said. "I think Latinas who convert are looking
a culture that we'd always had and then lost: strictness in the family,
respect towards the elderly, moral and spiritual ties and the
having God in your life. Our grandparents had values similar to that.
converts we're just coming back to our roots."
After her conversion, she grew apart from her nightclub-hopping
married a Turkish man with whom she has three children.
For Kanar, wearing the hijab, which some see as a sign of subjugation,
"I lived through the '70s women's-lib movement," said Kanar, who works
accounting and owns a real estate business. "As a woman you wanted to
accepted as a person with a brain and not just a sexual object that had
be looking pretty to men all the time. I saw covering as something that
would give me a lot of self-esteem. It did."
Kanar says she has straddled her Latino heritage and Islam comfortably.
"As soon as you speak to me you forget I'm wearing a hijab. I'm Cuban,
speak with my hands. I love Celia Cruz. We don't go to Calle Ocho and
don't celebrate Christmas. We eat Spanish food, and though we won't
pork, we can do a nice lamb. What does it mean to be a Cuban, really? I
Cuban, but I'm a Muslim Cuban."
South Florida Sun-Sentinel link