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Latino Muslims Live Their Lives At The Intersection Of Three Cultures

By Raul A. Reyes
NBC News
December 20, 2015

Like other Americans, Shafiq Alvarado was horrified by the events of 9/11. But living in Los Angeles, he felt a bit removed from their impact.

That is, until he received a phone call from the FBI, saying they wanted to meet with him. Alvarado agreed. "Next thing I knew, I was eating lunch with an FBI agent," he recalled. "He asked all sorts of questions about my family and my life, and I finally asked him why he was interested in me."

As it turned out, one of Alvarado's co-workers had given the FBI his name. The co-worker told the Agency that Alvarado "probably knew something" about the attacks - because he was Muslim.

Alvarado is one of the thousands of Latino Muslims who live their lives at the intersection of three cultures: American, Hispanic, and Islamic. Hispanic Muslims say that their faith is a source of strength and peace to them, though many find themselves on a regular basis dealing with stereotyping, false assumptions and hurtful words. Yet they are creating their own unique identity.

Since his encounter with the FBI, Alvarado has become more circumspect about his religion. "Since then, I have not been that open about it," he said. "If people know, I am liable to bring stuff upon me. I only tell people really close to me; otherwise, just acquaintances, I will not necessarily let you know. I might just say that I don't drink, or that I don't like pork, rather than explaining it is because I am Muslim. I try to avoid having to go into explanations."

Following the Paris attacks, Alvarado (who now lives in Pennsylvania) heard a neighbor say that the U.S. should destroy the entire Middle East region. "These kinds of comments make me sad," he said. "It's disappointing. Why can't people be better?"

According to the Pew Research Center, there are about 2.8 million Muslims living in the U.S., and Pew estimates that four percent of U.S. Muslims are Latino - about 112,000. Other estimates on the size of the U.S. Latino Muslim population range as high as 200,000 (One reason for this discrepancy is that there has not been a comprehensive national study of Latino Muslims). Meanwhile, a 2015 PBS report called Hispanic Muslims "one of the fastest-growing segments of Islam in the U.S."

Latino Muslims often cringe at reports about their community, such as the recent news that Enrique Marquez, a convert to Islam, was arrested in connection with the San Bernardino attacks.

Still, Alvarado believes that the media plays a role in how people view Muslims. "I think a lot people just automatically assume that Muslims have an agenda that is to take over, or to kill. That is an oversimplification, because of what they hear on the news," he said, noting that it was rare to see a positive depiction of a Muslim on television. "I try to think the best about people, because I know most people want the same thing; to become educated, to raise their kids, to work. Yet some people, they still think Muslims are evil people."

Harold Morales, assistant professor in the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at Morgan State University, said that there are myriad reasons for the appeal of Islam to Latinos. Some converts desire a closer connection with God (than in Christianity), while others say that the simplicity of the faith attracted them. Some Latinos are attracted by the idea of not needing an intermediary (like a priest) to practice their religion.

"Some folks are struggling with theological questions, some people want more direct access to God, and they find things in Islam that are familiar," Morales said.

Morales noted that some Latino Muslims prefer the term "reversion" to "conversion," as some Muslims believe that all people are born Muslims. "Some people strongly feel that Latino Muslims are, in a sense, going back to their roots, all the way back to the Spanish and the Moors," he said. "It reminds us there are different ways of being Latino."

Other Latinos report finding a deep spirituality in Islam that was lacking in their original faith.

"Spirituality is a very personal thing," said Nivia Martinez of Brooklyn, New York. "When I was Catholic, I didn't feel a connection to God, and I didn't feel good about worshipping statues. Islam is about the oneness of God and not going through anything else."

Martinez hopes that someday, more people will see what she calls the "beauty" of Islam and not regard it as foreign or strange. "We believe in Abraham, Noah, Moses, and Jesus as a prophet; the Virgin Mary is mentioned in the Quran. People don't understand that there is an overlap." She cites her daily prayers, "taking five moments of your day to recognize God and to speak to God," as the best part of being Muslim.

Martinez has heard negative comments and seen Islamophobic postings on social media. "I have seen all the Twitter garbage," she said. "It is stupid, really sad actually, that people walk around with hatred and they are content with that."

Martinez' family has been supportive of her conversion to Islam. "My mom said, as long as you have a relationship with God, that's all I care about." Although she no longer celebrates holidays like Christmas, Martinez stays connected to her family. "I still can appreciate the holidays, I love decorations. There are things that I don't do anymore, but I don't want to separate myself from my family because of my faith."

Wilfredo Amr Ruiz, an attorney and Muslim chaplain with the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) in Florida, points out that mainstream society and the media can contribute to feelings of isolation among Latino Muslims.

"I don't know if I would call it a backlash, but we see a spike of bullying and hate crimes whenever these is a terror attack," he said. "To be honest, I cannot say that Latinos get more (discrimination) than other Muslims. But Muslims in America, in general, are subjected to more discrimination, bullying, and hates crimes than other groups."

Ruiz' assertion is backed up by government and police data. A November report from the FBI shows that, while overall hate crimes fell in 2014, anti-Muslim hate crimes rose. In the aftermath of the Paris attacks, CAIR flagged at least 45 incidents of anti-Muslim threats, vandalism, harassment, and violence - despite the fact that nearly every major Muslim group in the country has denounced the attacks.

Ruiz explained that his work was to counter the myths and misconceptions about Islam. "People think that Muslims have an agenda of world domination, or intolerance towards other religions," he said. "On the contrary, the prophet Mohammed ordered us to protect places of worship of other religions, such as St. Catherine's Monastery in Egypt."

Ruiz noted that Hispanic culture and Islam are historically intertwined; about 4000 Spanish words come from Arabic, a legacy of the Moorish influence on Spain. Spanish words like camisa (shirt), pantalones (pants) guitarra (guitar), and azucar (sugar) come directly from Arabic.

Besides CAIR, there are other groups like the Latino American Dahwah Organization (LADO), Los Angeles Latino Muslim Association, and websites like HispanicMuslims.com that seek to educate and inform Latinos about Islam.

It is not uncommon for Hispanic Muslims to have their hyphenated identities collide - such as when they feel isolated from either the larger Latino community or from the broader Muslim population.

"I don't mind when other Latinos ask me a lot of questions about being Muslim," said Will Giron of New York. "They have not been exposed to the faith, so it is normal, natural curiosity." He said that he welcomed questions, because it showed that people were open and willing to learn.

However, Giron said that at times he has felt excluded by fellow (non-Latino) Muslims because he is "not the typical Muslim." "Sometimes, I get questions from Asian and Arab Muslims, and they should know better," Giron continued. "In the Koran, it specifically states that this is a faith for all people. So when an Arab (Muslim) asks me, "But you are Latino how can you be Muslim?" - it is annoying."

One major misconception about Islam, Giron states, is that it is monolithic. "Each of us has our own relationship with God," he said. "In reality, the way someone practices Islam in Saudi Arabia is different from how a person practices in Bangladesh and different from how someone practices in the U.S. And diversity with religious expression has historically been celebrated within the Muslim traditions.

Giron acknowledges that some people accuse Latino Muslims of giving up part of their heritage. But he does not believe that being Latino and being Muslim are exclusive identities. "Being Muslim does not mean I am trying to be Arab or Asian," he said. My religion influences my ethics and morals, but I still have my culture."

"I can speak and read Spanish, I like salsa, I love bachata. I have worked in the Latino community," Giron said. "Me being Muslim does not mean I have sacrificed my Latino-ness," he said. "And it is very important that Latinos let go of this idea - that being Latino means looking or believing or acting only a certain type of way."

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