Embracing Islam

Why Latinos are drawn to Muslim beliefs, culture.

Members of the Center, a Sunni Mosque, gather on Hispanic Muslim Day at the entrance to the building.
Photo by Christopher Lane.

At first, it was difficult for Damaris Tapanes to wake up before dawn to pray. She also missed eating mofongo, a dish made from fried green plantains and pork.

But pre-dawn prayer and abstaining from pork are part of Islam, Tapanes’s newfound religion.
For Daniel Hernandez, the hardest part of the transition to Islam was giving up Christmas. Shinoa Matos had no such issues—but it took a long time for her mother to accept her in the hijab, the traditional head covering worn by Muslim women.

All three were born and raised Catholic, and each is now a member of the North Hudson Islamic Educational Center, a Sunni Muslim mosque established in 1992 in Union City. The mosque counts about 500 Latino converts among its 2,000 members, says Mariam Abbassi, vice president of the Dawah, or outreach program at the center.

The mosque actively reaches out to Latinos in Hudson County, where more than 40 percent of residents are Hispanic. The center offers English- and Spanish-language classes on the Koran, the main religious text of Islam, and holds an annual street festival with food, vendors, games, and speeches in Spanish about Islam. In September, the center opened Rising Star Academy, a private Muslim day school for youngsters in pre-K through eighth grades. The Rising Star faculty includes at least one Puerto Rican-born teacher.

“The non-Latino Muslims in our [mosque] think highly of the Latino converts,” Mohammed Al Hayek, the imam at the Union City mosque, said in an e-mail message. “They believe they are real brothers and sisters in Islam and they treat them as such. They do this because this is exactly what Islam teaches them.

“The converts in my evaluation are worthy of great honor and praise because of [the] tremendous efforts they made on their own to improve themselves and grow in the faith,” he added.

Like many Hispanics growing up in Hudson County, Tapanes, 34, attended parochial grammar and high schools. Then, in 2004, she started questioning the Trinity, the Christian doctrine that conceives of God as the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. “The whole concept of Jesus being the son of God and being human, and how God let his son die the way he did?”—all of that had lost its appeal to Tapanes. “[Jesus] is a miracle worker, he is one of the prophets, but he is not on the same level as God,” Tapanes says. For her, Islam’s interpretation of God and Jesus “felt right.”

Tapanes, who now lives in Jersey City, converted in November 2005 and embraced Islamic attire, including loose-fitting clothes and the hijab. She also adjusted her diet to eliminate pork. She says her Cuban and Puerto Rican family has accepted her faith, but it has been harder to gain acceptance from others. Some coworkers asked how a Latina could possibly convert to Islam. Her answer: “God is universal; he doesn’t say only Arabs can believe in Islam.”

Matos, 34, converted to Islam in January 2001. “It is something that goes beyond what other-worldly things can do for you,” she says. “It isn’t like a diet or routine, it’s all encompassing. It takes up every aspect of your existence, your reasoning, your doing. Because I chose to live my life this way, or rather that God chose it for me, then I have my answers for any moral issues I deal with.” Matos lives in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, but worships at the Union City mosque.

At 17, Matos felt disconnected from Catholicism. “God was always in my heart, but I could go weeks without thinking about him,” she says. What’s more, “I never made the connection between Jesus and God. I was always praying to God. Jesus was a side note.”

At 24, she met a Moroccan Muslim who introduced her to Islam. “It was as if he was a different person when he would speak about God,” she says. “It held my attention.”

The transition to Islam was not difficult. Matos did not miss celebrating Christian holidays because she had never felt a connection to them. And she remembers doing the sign of the cross more as a ritual than something in which she believed.

Matos, who is married to a Latino Muslim convert, did not start wearing the hijab until 2004, because she worried her Puerto Rican family would not understand her need to cover her head. The hijab is worn to divert attention from the physical attributes of Muslim women and to assure their modesty in public.

“For my mom, this was a problem simply because she liked to see my hair,” Matos says. Five years later, her mother has come to terms with the traditional garb. “Once she realized that it wasn’t a phase, she became comfortable with the fact that it’s now a part of who I am,” Matos says. “She knew that this decision I made was something well thought out.”

And Matos says the hijab is empowering. “For the first time in my life, people look at me and listen to what I’m saying,” she says. “They can’t concentrate on my body.”

Though she and other Muslims share information about Islam so people can better understand the religion, she says, “God makes it quite clear in the Koran that it is he who brings light to whoever he wills.”
Ana Ramos-Zayas, an associate professor in anthropology and Latin and Hispanic Caribbean studies at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, says she is not surprised by the interest in Islam among young Hispanics, especially women.

Some young women may think “being covered generates more respect…they are protected by the symbolic aspects of the faith,” says Ramos-Zayas, adding Latino families have been converting to evangelical churches for several decades. “Many of these storefront evangelical churches have settled in predominantly Latino areas and may be more in touch with the social, and even material, needs of Latino families,” says Ramos-Zayas.

When Daniel Hernandez converted to Islam in 1999, his parents, who immigrated to the United States from Puerto Rico, were amazed at their son’s change in character. “I became more calm, patient, and better spoken,” says Hernandez, who quit drinking and smoking and began fasting, praying five times a day, and giving to charity.

His mother, Gloria, who was a nun before marrying his father, converted to Islam in 2003. “Through the years of listening to me, she became interested herself,” says Hernandez. The 32-year-old Union City man teaches the basics of Islam to the newly converted at the city’s mosque. He spent three years in Egypt learning Arabic and also goes by Abdullah, which means servant of God.

In nearby Paterson, which boasts large Muslim as well as Hispanic communities, Mohamed El Filali, outreach director of the Islamic Center of Passaic County, says between five and ten of the 500 families that worship there are Hispanic converts. “It’s important to reach out to the Latinos,” says El Filali, “They are our neighbors, and the message we’re reaching out with is not exclusive to one particular group or another.”

At the Islamic Society of Central Jersey in South Brunswick, which was founded in the early 1970s, about twenty of the 1,500 families are Hispanic, says Hamad Ahmad Chebli, the mosque’s imam. He says Islam’s simplicity is part of its appeal to Hispanics. “No order comes to them except from God,” he explains.
For Union City imam Al Hayek, the appeal of Islam to Hispanics is the religion’s “clarity, and emphasis on family values, brotherhood, sisterhood, morality, and hospitality.”

There are an estimated 7 million to 8 million Muslims in the United States, but the number of Hispanic converts is hard to determine, says Ibrahim Hooper, a spokesman for the Washington, D.C.-based Council on American-Islamic Relations. There is no official registry for Muslim converts, and in order to convert, a person must simply recite the shahadah, which declares the belief that there is one God and Mohammed is his messenger. Louay Safi, a spokesman for the Islamic Society of North America in Plainfield, Indiana, estimates that about 200,000 Latinos have embraced Islam.

Carmen Cusido is a reporter for The Times of Trenton and a part-time Master of Science student at Columbia School of Journalism. She lives in Union City.

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