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Latin Muslims In America, The Rebirth Of Community

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Latin Muslims in America, the rebirth of community

By Aaron Siebert-Llera


This paper represents the beginning phases of research originally intended as part of the author's PhD thesis in Sociology at Northwestern University. Aarón (or Haroun) now attends Loyola Law School in Chicago. His mother is Mexican and his father is Jewish. He converted to Islam two years ago, and considers himself part of the growing community of Latino Muslims in America. The version of the paper presented here has been edited for Islamamerica(contact admin if its a beneficial link) by Zakariya Wright.


Since the 1960s, immigration to America has occasioned unprecedented cultural cross-communication, leading inevitably to intermingling, and, in some cases, to various individuals and communities embracing religions not usually associated with their heritage. There is no better example of this than the Latino1 Muslim population here in the United States, which has grown significantly over the past nine years. This population is one that is apparently new to Islam, but as I will demonstrate, is one that has been able to reexamine the historical record to forge new cultural identities. As such, the advent of Latino Muslims has served to re-interrogate both what it means to be Latino and what it means to be Muslim in America. This paper will examine Latino Muslim identity in America, primarily by examining reasons for conversion to Islam within the Latino community.


Research to this point has demonstrated that Latinos who embrace Islam do so in part because of perceived Spanish (or Andalusian) Muslim heritage. But there are other more immediate doctrinal and social issues that likewise explain Latino conversion to Islam, including a broader flight from the Catholic Church and the perceived threat to traditional Latino values of family and community in America. My own work in the field, examining both immigrant Latinos converting in the United States and American-born Latino converts (such as myself), has supported these conclusions. Of course, conversion within the United States is not the only path to Islam for Latinos, but the long presence of Islam in Latin America itself is unfortunately beyond the scope of this paper.



The point should nonetheless be made that Islam is not a new religion in the Latino experience. Aside from more ancient links to Islamic Andalusia, there has been a large influx of Arabs, particularly from Syria and Lebanon, beginning in the 1860s. The number of Muslims currently in Latin America has been estimated at between four and six million, with 800,000 Muslims in Argentina and 1.5 million in Brazil alone. And Islam has not remained the exclusive domain of Arab or Indo-Pakistani immigrants. Aside from conversions among some of the ethnically African populations of Trinidad or Jamaica, for example, a few "indigenous" Muslim communities have likewise taken root. In the state of Chiapas in southern Mexico, a group of Tzotzil Mayan Indians have embraced Islam,2 establishing their own Masjid and zabiha3 restaurant and butcher shop. Likely, many in Latin America have come to similar conclusions about the relationship between Christianity and slavery/colonial domination that those of African descent have come to in the United States. According to one writer: "Rather than viewing Catholicism as the native religion of their culture, they [Latinos] protest that Catholicism was originally forced on their indigenous ancestors by Europeans."4



There is no doubt that the significant influence of Islam on Spanish culture likewise affected Latin America, despite the best efforts of the conquistadors and Christian missionaries to isolate Islam to the "Old World." The year 1492, in which Columbus "discovered" the Americas with Spanish financial backing, was also the same year that the last Muslim caliph was defeated in Granada by the Spanish Christian forces. This was the beginning of the Inquisition and the end of any hopes for a Spain that embraced all three major monotheistic religions. The antipathy towards Islam and Judaism that helped fuel the Inquisition was present within the early Spanish colonists of the Americas. This fear of Islam is explained by Sylviane Diouf as follows:



The colonists had a genuine fear that the Muslims would proselytize among the Indians. These concerns may not have been rooted in reality, but they were strong enough to make Spaniards try to enforce a rigid segregation of Indians and Africans. Islam did not spread, but the Muslims may have made some attempts to reach out. Accusations and condemnations do not indicate that a deed or offense has been committed, but in 1560 the mulatto Luis Solano was condemned to death and the "Moor" Lope de la Pena to life in prison for having practiced and spread Islam in Cuzco, Peru.5



The amount of influence that Islam had on Spain was very important to how the settlers treated the Indigenous Americans, as well as the future mestizos (those of mixed race), who would soon make up a majority of Latin America. Spanish Catholics no doubt saw themselves in a race to save the heathens of the New World with Christianity before they could be tainted by Islam, which with the Ottoman Empire then at its apex, dominated the Old World.



But the Islamic roots of Spanish civilization could not be so easily forgotten, perhaps in large part due to Muslim Andalusia's reputation as a beacon of civilization and peace. The Andalusian capitol of Cordoba, for example, was described by a contemporary writer as follows: "There were half a million inhabitants, living in 113,000 houses. There were 700 Masjids and 300 public baths spread throughout the city and its twenty-one suburbs. The streets were paved and lit... There were bookshops and more than seventy libraries."6 Such a vibrant heritage of Spanish Islam has obviously played a role in the process of Latino conversion to Islam. An article by Lisa Viscidi on the growing presence of Latinos in the United States illustrates the point:



Many Latinos who convert to Islam believe they are reclaiming their lost Muslim&heritage-which they view more positively than the legacy of Catholicism. Many Spanish intellectuals once disputed the extent of Moorish influence on Hispanic culture, but Latino Muslims who claim Islamic roots question the view of Western society's origins as exclusively European. They point to the African/Islamic influence evident in Spanish literature, music and thought. Thousands of Spanish words, for example, are derived from Arabic.7



The familiarity with influences from the Arab (Moorish) culture and consequently, Islam, have allowed the Latino "reverts" to Islam to create a connection between their present and their past. In much the same way that the so-called "lost tribes of israel" seek recognition by the nation of israel, Latino Muslims seek to be welcomed into the Muslim community not as new converts, but as reverts who are returning to a religion that was once theirs.



The largest Latino Muslim communities follow, as would be expected, the population patterns of the main Latino communities. This means that the largest Latino communities contain the largest Latino Muslim communities. Looking at the current numbers nationwide for the cities with the largest Latino communities, we find the top five are Los Angeles, New York City, Chicago, Dallas and Houston. These cities thus also contain the largest numbers of Latino Muslims.



The exact number of Latino Muslims in the United States is difficult to know, as both the size of immigrant populations and the Muslim community in America are themselves subjects of dispute. In 1997, the American Muslim Council (AIM) estimated that there were 40,000 Latino Muslims in the United States. By the year 2004, this number was estimated at 75,000, statistically an 87.5 percent increase in seven years. But this still represents a relatively small percentage of Americas forty million Latinos.8 However, much as the African-American Muslim population was looked at as an insignificant size in the 1960s (with numbers now estimated at between 1.8 to 2.1 million or thirty percent of CAIR's overall estimate of six to seven million Muslims9), the Latino Muslim population is ripe for similar growth. According to the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR), six percent of the 20,000 annual reverts (1,200) to Islam are Latino.10



The answer to the question of what types of Latinos are converting to Islam is quite complex because there is not one distinct group or personality profile. Based on my own sociological research in the Chicago area, Latino Muslims come from all sorts of backgrounds: new immigrants and first, second or third generation Latino-Americans; both men and women (although there are higher percentages of women); educated and uneducated; and from various Latin American nations including Mexico, Puerto Rico, Argentina and Brazil. What this exhibits is a microcosm of the much larger Latino community. Since the larger community is so diverse and varied in its composition, it is not surprising that the members of this community who are embracing Islam are just as diverse.



The majority of Latinos embracing Islam in the United States of America have begun to do so within the past ten years. Although there is a community that began earlier, in the 1960s in New York City (largely Puerto Rican in make-up), the spread of Islam within the national Latino community did not begin to grow until the mid 1990s. The first Latino Muslim organizations to be created were in New York City. These include Alianza Islamica and the Latino Dawah Organization (LADO), both founded in the 1970s in the Spanish Harlem neighborhood of New York City. They were created in order to address the growing number of Latinos (Puerto Ricans in particular) who were embracing Islam.



In order to answer the questions about why this particular population began to embrace Islam in large numbers we must look at the demographics of the areas where the Puerto Rican populations live.11 The city of New York is one of the most tightly packed urban centers in the world. People are packed into their neighborhoods and live in high-rise apartment buildings that stress a maximization of space and as a result, the citizens of these neighborhoods live very close to one another. Thus, it is more probable for them to have daily contact with a plethora of ethnicities, cultures, and religions. During the 1960s, African-American Muslim organizations, such as the Nation of Islam, were very active in Harlem and black Muslims became an increasingly visible phenomenon throughout the United States. Latinos often live with or near African-American populations. This close contact created an environment where the various populations are able to learn about each other, and Islam is one of the components that was shared with the Latino population in New York City.



More recently, however, Latino-Americans have been mostly affected by the rapidly growing immigrant Muslim communities throughout the United States, which have significantly increased the exposure of Latinos to Islam. This is evident in the largest Latino communities located in Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Dallas and Houston.



The increasing numbers of Latinos embracing Islam in the last ten years deserves a more concrete explanation than links to pre-Inquisition Spain. Latino conversion to Islam can be sociologically explained through (1) a broader disillusionment with the Catholic Church within the American Latino community and (2) the similar set of cultural values shared by traditional Latino families and most Muslim communities.



Islam is of course not the only religion seeing a mass influx of Latinos. There appears to be a more general exodus of Latinos from the Catholic Church in America. According to Chris Jenkins of the Washington Post:


These concerns about Catholicism mirror a trend that many officials in U.S. dioceses have tracked for years: the defection of Hispanics. The Catholic Almanac estimates that 100,000 Hispanics in the United States leave the church each year, although some other experts put the number as high as 600,000. Most have moved to Pentecostal and evangelical Protestant faiths as well as Mormonism, Islam and Buddhism. Converts appear to be both men and women in equal numbers.12




The precise reasons for Latino disaffection with the Catholic Church cannot be thoroughly considered here, but it would suffice to mention recent Church scandals, a Church leadership dominated by ethnic groups unfamiliar with Latino culture, and doctrinal issues surrounding Catholic rituals and theology in general.




Although many non-Latino Americans might perceive Latino culture as a static phenomenon, in fact Latino identity is inherently contested and fluid, and the result of the clash and mingling of a plethora of cultures, ethnicities and religions from 1492 to the present. The result of the presence of Latin Americans in the United States has been the creation of a new label, the "Latino." Even though the U.S. Government classifies "Latino" or "Hispanic" as a single ethnicity, in fact Latinos are by and large all mestizo. We are a hodge-podge of backgrounds: European, Indigenous American, African and even Asian; but with different degrees of influence depending on the community. Latino identity is thus entirely constructed, whose basis is no real ethnic, national, religious or even linguistic uniformity.




It is true, however, that the Latino community has become so intertwined with Catholicism that the mainstream belief seems that one cannot be Latino without being Catholic.13 Indeed, by embracing Islam and leaving Catholicism, some non-Muslim Latinos claim that the Latino-Muslim is leaving behind his culture. Latino identity has been so engulfed by the religion of Catholicism that the two are often considered synonymous. But this assumption belies a more complex historical record that should cause us to rethink the dangerous linking of religion with ethnic identity. According to one interview with a Latino-Muslim convert:




Galvan says that he sometimes feels alienated from the mainstream Latino population, which views Catholicism as intimately tied to Hispanic culture. However, he insists, "Defining culture by religion is not very effective, because our ancestors were Christian, Muslim, Jewish or pagan. Many Hispanics think that leaving Catholicism means rejecting their identity. We should re-evaluate how we traditionally define culture."14



Latino Muslims have themselves indicated the need to create or return to a non-Catholic identity. The formation of such an identity can be expected to mirror other processes of identity formation:



The paradigm of transformation demands our participation in the completion of the self, the undifferentiated source, and the world. Our dialectical process tells us that there are three stages to being or reality: destruction, re-creation, and nourishment.15


The first step in the paradigm of transformation is destruction and by comparing this to the above quotation, we also can view it as a death of tradition. In other words, transformation entails the need to escape or deconstruct the heritage of forced conversions to Christianity which the indigenous Americans, African slaves, Moors, and so many more in the history of the world were subjected. This first step is a way to eliminate the previous belief system. For many Latino "reverts" to Islam, this destruction is a breaking away from the Catholicism that has forcibly monopolized Latino identity.



Following the phase of destruction/deconstruction comes re-creation of Latino Muslim identity. As it is for many Latino Muslims, their goal is to not segment themselves into a Latino Muslim community within the Muslim community. The Latino aspect is of course acknowledged and embraced, but it is not something that has served to separate the Latinos from the other Muslims.



The last step is nourishment. For many Latinos, this step is facilitated by the simplicity of Islamic religious doctrine or attractiveness of Muslim beliefs themselves. But also, ideas of family and community among Muslims closely parallel the traditional upbringing of many Latinos. Islam, as opposed to present-day Christianity, may provide for many a more coherent expression and defense of a traditional way of life more familiar to Latinos.



When many Latino families move to the United States, they encounter various challenges in maintaining the family structure and the morality that they grew up with back in their homelands. According to Hisham Aidi, a research fellow at Columbia University's Middle East Institute:


Latinos in the society at large, due to pressures of modern Western culture are fighting a losing battle to maintain their traditional family structure & Interestingly, the effects of an Islamic lifestyle seem to mitigate the harmful effects of the harmful Western lifestyle and have helped restore and reinforce traditional family values. Latino culture is at its root patriarchal, so Islams clearly defined roles for men as responsible leaders and providers and women as equally essential and complementary, were assimilated. As a result, divorce among Latino Muslim couples is relatively rare.16


Such a sentiment is echoed by a Latina Muslim, Amy Perez, in an article about Latina Muslims in Tampa Bay:


Growing up it was all about familia. You're taught to respect your elders and your mother; you don't even raise your voice to your mother. That's the old school way of thinking, but it's Islam. When I wasn't Muslim, that's the way we did things.17



In addition to an importance of family, there is a very strong emphasis on community within traditional Latino culture that is mirrored in Muslim communities. Within Latin American countries such as Mexico or Puerto Rico, the community cohesiveness is very strong. This means that neighbors look out for each other and help each other. They know each other's names, families, and occupations. In this country, many neighbors do not even recognize each other. It is much less common for people in this society to be as friendly with their neighbors.18 Thus, people such as Latinos who are used to being part of a close-knit community are left searching for something to fill this void when they arrive in America. According to Chris Jenkins in the Washington Post:


In growing numbers, Hispanics, the country's fastest-growing ethnic group, are finding new faith in Islam, the nation's fastest-growing religion. Moved by what many say is a close-knit religious environment and a faith that provides a more concrete, intimate connection with God, they are replacing Mass with Masjids.19




I have often heard people state that when someone embraces Islam, they are trying to fill a void. They say this as if it is a bad thing, but I disagree. I feel that I, for one, was looking to fill a void -- I felt a need of a close community. When I embraced Islam, I saw many actions that reminded me of my family back in Mexico. The men were unafraid to show affection for one another through hugs and kisses on the cheeks. The women greeted each other like sisters with kisses and there was a genuine sincerity to their greetings.




White American culture, constructed as it is in opposition to imagined portraits of non-white minorities, is notoriously incapable of appreciating the subtle diversities within minority populations. The predominant stereotype of the Latino in America of course leaves no room for Islam: Latinos after all are supposed to drive low-riders, drink taquila, eat plenty of pork and be staunchly Catholic. Unfortunately, even some within the Latino community have likewise forgotten the rich texture of their own cultural heritage, a heritage which undeniably includes Islam. In fact, as has been demonstrated above, some Latinos have found in Islam not only a spiritually refreshing alternative to Catholicism, but have seized upon Islam as a salvation to their own traditional way of life, which emphasizes family and community in similar ways to Muslim communities. The advent of Latino Muslims thus presents a welcome reality check to the lazy glossing-over of the larger Latino community. As with the African-American community previously, the growth of Islam within the Latino community demonstrates once again Islam's ability to provide spiritual and social resources to overcome the attempted reification, marginalization, commercialization and basic dehumanization of non-White minority identity in America.


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