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Spanish-Speaking Muslims Find a Home

By Sameera Iqbal
ABC News
June 13, 2008

Hispanic Family in N.J. Makes Leap of Faith From Catholicism to Islam

A common misconception about Islam is that all Muslims come from the Middle East. In fact, there are an estimated 6 million Muslims living in America. Not only do they come from all corners of the world, but many are born and raised in the United States. Here is one Spanish-speaking family's story.

These days, the Hernandez family starts the day at 6 a.m. The children get dressed and ready for school, while parents Danny and Marleny take advantage of their time together to enjoy breakfast.

But before all this, in the early hours of the morning, the family of five come together for the morning prayer. Facing east, they rest their foreheads on the ground and raise their hands in supplication together. Like thousands of other Hispanics, the Hernandez family followed a path that led them to Islam.

The family lives in North Bergen, N.J. , a city with a Hispanic population approaching 60 percent. Indeed, Hispanics are the nation's largest and fastest growing minority, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, emerging as a potentially pivotal constituency in the presidential election.

The exact number of Hispanic Muslims in the United States is difficult to pinpoint, but the population appears to be growing. Separately, both groups are concerned about issues such as immigration, job security, civil rights and heath care. They also share similar family values, helping Hispanics, who are generally rooted in Roman Catholicism, manage the transition from the faith of their upbringing to Islam.

Such a conversion is common in the United States, where 40 percent of Americans leave the faith with which they were raised, according to a recent study by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

Danny Hernandez, 30, was born in Queens, N.Y., to Puerto Rican parents who raised him as a Roman Catholic. As a teenager, he became involved with gangs and eventually landed briefly in jail. It was behind bars where he made the decision to change his life. "I'm here in this cage living like an animal," he said to himself. "I don't want to do this."

The transformation began with the holy book of Islam, the Koran. He stole a copy from a library. After studying it for nine months, Hernandez decided to become a Muslim.

His path was not easy. With a bottle of beer in hand, Hernandez headed to the nearest mosque, waiting for a good opportunity to enter. He hoped the beer would throw any friends he might run into off his path, convincing them that he was just "hanging out." He never made it to the mosque that day; his apprehension holding him back from walking in alone.

The following week, a friend introduced him to the religious leader of the Islamic Education Center in North Bergen. By this time Hernandez had given up drinking and smoking. As the congregation stood up to pray, he was instructed to sit and watch, to which he replied, "I didn't wait nine months to watch. I want to pray." He joined the prayer and accepted Islam in 1999.

He adopted the name Abdullah, or "slave of God," to his given name. He also started teaching Islam to his parents and brothers, who accepted the religion shortly thereafter.

His wife's path to Islam also started with a Koran from the library. Born in Hackensack, N.J., to Dominican parents, Marleny Vargas grew up as a Catholic. At the age of 18, she had her first child, Bianca Rosa, and moved out on her own.

She first learned of Islam when she met Muslim men at work. Impressed by their conduct, she pressed them with questions until they told her more. She went to the local library and picked up the Koran. Like her future husband, she made the decision to become Muslim after reading it on her own. It was a 2002 decision she would keep to herself for the subsequent 12 months. It would take that long for her to work up the courage to tell her family about her life-changing decision.

Marleny Hernandez, 25, adopted the Muslim name Fatima. Her family was not happy with her decision and she was shunned. She went to the local mosque, looking for support. She found it in the form of other Muslims, of all backgrounds.

"There's such diversity," said Hernandez, who attends the Islamic Education Center in North Bergen. "We have people from all over, united for the same reason."

She started attending a class to learn the fundamentals of Islam. It was taught in Spanish by her future husband. With her dark brown eyes, dewy skin and a million-watt smile, she attracted plenty of admirers before she married. But what drew her to Danny Hernandez was his spirituality. Friends joked that the two of them were meant to be and a few months later, they were married. Shortly after the wedding, her mother came by with a wedding present and reconciled with her daughter. They have been fixtures in each others' lives ever since.

In 2005, Danny and Marleny Hernandez, now with three children, moved to Cairo, Egypt. For the next three years they studied Arabic and the fundamentals of the religion, hoping to instill Muslim morals and etiquette in their children before returning to the United States. Of their time there, Marleny Hernandez said, "We were fortunate. We had a lot of time to ourselves to study and to spend with the children."

Arriving home at the height of holiday season last year, the family faced their first challenge: Christmas. Marleny Hernandez told people, "I believe in Jesus, Abraham and Moses," but insists that the children celebrate the holidays of their faith. "I just think all of these things are materialistic, " she said. "We celebrate other things."

To help the children deal with the pressure they experienced at school, the parents did their best to make the children's Eid holiday as special as Christmas. Eid is the Muslim holiday marking the end of Ramadan, the holy month of fasting.

The house was decorated, the presents stacked. The Hernandez clan spent the day with family and friends, and spent the evening on Broadway, with a performance of "Mary Poppins."

For Danny Hernandez, it was a lesson worth teaching. "This way they learn how to respect other people's holidays and other people respect their holidays," he said.

As the sun sets, the family sits down for dinner, a traditional spread of rice and beans, grilled meat and Marleny Hernandez's childhood favorite, a dish of plantains called mangol.

If there's time they'll watch a television show, carefully chosen by the parents, who insist the kids only watch educational programming. As they prepare for bed, the parents read Koran with the children, ages 9, 7 and 4, in place of a bedtime story.

Marleny Hernandez says when most people meet her they assume, "You must be married to an Arab," she said.

She responds that her husband is a "boricua," or proud Puerto Rican, and that she is an equally proud Dominican. She surprises people around town, often breaking out in Spanish while onlookers listen wide-eyed in wonderment to the strong, veiled Hispanic woman.

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