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Growing Number of Hispanics Converting to Islam

By Lola Alapo
Knoxville News Sentinel
March 9, 2006

His Puerto Rican parents named him Antonio Alicea. To his Muslim brothers and sisters, he is Abdullah. His new name signifies his renewed life: "Slave to Allah."

"Ever since I embraced Islam, there is a difference about how I was on the streets and how I am now," Alicea said. "I used to think there were no consequences to doing bad things and there was no incentive to change. When I started reading the Koran, (consequences) was a new concept. Now, I'm starting to do more good and eliminating the bad from my life."

Alicea, 26, is among the growing number of Hispanics in the United States who have converted to Islam.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 35.3 million Hispanics live in the United States. The exact number of Hispanic Muslims is difficult to determine because the census does not collect information about religion. Ali Khan, executive director of the American Muslim Council, estimates there are more than 150,000 Hispanic Muslims in the United States based on participation at mosques.

The largest communities of Hispanic Muslims are found in major cities and areas that traditionally have a large number of Hispanics and Muslims, according to Juan Galvan, vice president of the southern chapter of Latino American Dawah Organization, a group whose mission is to promote Islam in Latino communities in the U.S.

Many Latino converts have Catholic backgrounds, Galvan said.

Alicea, a New York-born Puerto Rican, comes from a Jehovah's Witness family. He moved to Knoxville three years ago with his parents and brother.

He first learned about Islam five years ago while stationed with the U.S. Army in Texas. Alicea, who enjoys reading, discovered that Islam influenced a lot of literature, which made him curious so he began searching, he said.

"Through my research, I saw that Islam impacted the world a lot," he said.

He converted shortly afterward, he said.

When his family moved to Knoxville, Alicea's parents learned of the Annoor Mosque in Fort Sanders for Alicea through a Muslim storeowner.

Alicea said the religion has changed his life and his behavior.

Before his conversion, he dabbled in drugs, he said. Now, he spends a lot of time learning at the mosque.

He also is enrolled at the Oak Ridge Truck Driving School.

Alicea's mother was at first displeased with her son's conversion.

"But she took my Koran and started reading and saw that (Islam) was similar to her religion, so she was okay with it," Alicea said.

That's the kind of connection Rafiq Mahdi Henderson, the Imam at the Annoor Mosque, hopes non-Muslims make with Islam.

Henderson also wants the Muslim community to reach out to the growing Hispanic population in East Tennessee.

He invites feedback from members of the Latino community on how Muslims can make themselves accessible to them, he said.

"We welcome the opportunity and challenge to try and present Islam to people of Latino background in a way that enhances the beliefs they already have," Henderson said.

Hispanic culture and Islam share similar characteristics including a strong emphasis on family and religion, Galvan said.

He noted that Islam plays a central role in Spain's history. Moors and other Arabs ruled for more than 700 years. Many Spanish words also have Arabic roots.

"When many Latinos first step into a mosque, they feel as if they have returned home," Galvan said.

Carlos Alvarado, 13, found answers in Islam to many of life's unanswered questions. While living in Tampa, Fla., he attended the Catholic Church for some time but never received satisfactory responses, he said.

He started going to a mosque with a neighbor while his mother, Victoria Hoffman, was at work.

He converted in August 2001. He was 8 and the first one in his family, which includes his 11-year-old sister, Mercedes Alvarado.

"I felt kind of happy," said Carlos, who is of Mexican-American heritage. "I found out the truth before (my family.)"

Carlos' conversion spurred Hoffman to begin reading about Islam and by Sept. 2001, she and her daughter were converts.

The family moved to Knoxville shortly after. Carlos is now a sixth-grader at Annoor Academy in Fort Sanders where Hoffman is a history and English teacher for upper elementary grades.

Islam has drawn her and her children closer together, Hoffman said.

"These two are teens and this is the time of their lives they should be rebellious, but I don't have that problem with them," she said. "They're very open with me."

Alicea wants people to become more "God-conscious," he said, regardless of whether or not they are Islam adherents.

But for him, Islam is the cure for life's ills.

"I use the Koran like medication," he said. "It gives me peace."

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