Two days had passed since the Islamic State’s attacks in Paris, which took the lives of over 120 people. While citizens from nearly every corner of the globe mourned the deaths of the victims and braced for a military response to the attacks, four Muslim Latinas and I met at the Long Beach Islamic Center in Long Beach, California, to talk about their journeys to Islam.
Prior to arriving to the mosque, I wondered if rescheduling would have been a better decision, given the somewhat hostile climate that had dawned upon us. Nevertheless, I continued to drive to the mosque and arrived just in time for our meeting.
I was greeted by a jovial group of women who, despite exhibiting some natural reluctance, were eager to commence the interview. This would be the first time that each of them had spoken about their experiences as Muslim Latinas with other Latina converts in a group setting. There were supposed to have been eight women in our group, but only four made the trip that day. Each woman was between the ages of 21 and 36 and drove to the meeting alone, except for one, Noelia, who was accompanied by her Jordanian husband and their small child.
The women had arrived to Islam in various ways. One of them, Lina, was born into the religion but often struggled to reconcile it with her mother’s Peruvian culture, which she felt was more “liberal.” Two others, Myree and Noelia, converted as a result of marriage. Miriam, the daughter of a Mexican mother and an Egyptian father, converted to Islam on her own accord. (Part two of this series will delve into the lives of Latinos, who are more likely than women to have converted outside of marriage.)
The women asked for their last names not to be published; they felt that exercising even a small amount of anonymity would be wise given the current racial and political climate.
A few weeks later, the shooting in nearby San Bernardino would cause simmering anti-Islamic sentiment to spike. But listening to each woman describe her experience, as well as those of other Latinas who had also embraced the Islamic faith, signaled that perhaps the Latino conversion to Islam was a phenomenon that would continue to grow.
And according to some organizations, there is strong reason to believe that it in fact will.
Islam is considered one of the fastest-growing religions in the United States with approximately 2.6 million members. One Muslim organization, whyislam.org, estimates there are approximately 200,000 Muslim Latinos in the U.S., and that the number is growing.
Like the Muslim faith in the U.S., the Latino population is also growing quickly. Latinos currently represent roughly 18 percent of the population, a figure slated to grow to one fourth of the U.S. population by 2050, according to data projections.
Yet the pulse of our current racial and political climate has presented unique sets of challenges for Muslim Latinas.
Anti-Islamic rhetoric has been rising in the wake of the Paris attacks and the shooting in San Bernardino, which was carried out by two Muslim shooters. And anti-Latino sentiment has been a central theme in the Republican presidential primary. Being a Latina Muslim in the United States today means simultaneously navigating the dangers of nativism, sexism, and Islamophobia, to name a few.
But while the increase in Latino converts to Islam in the U.S. (and Latin America) may suggest that this relationship recently began its genesis story, a quick perusal through the archives of world history suggests an entirely different picture: Islam- and Spanish-influenced cultures have co-existed for centuries.
Historians believe that Islam can be traced to the Iberian Peninsula (or what today is Spain and Portugal) in the year 711, when the Moors conquered the region and remained for nearly 800 years. This was a time period when Islamic influences spread quickly throughout the region and helped create prominent educational systems, intricate architectural designs, and, according to some, religious and ethnic tolerance between Muslims, Jews, and Christians.
The Moorish conquest of the Iberian Peninsula also resulted in the influence of Arabic words into the Spanish language, which linguists believe has resulted in the adoption of over 4,000 Arabic words.
Each woman at the Long Beach Islamic Center spoke about this historical relationship and a slew of shared cultural values between their Latino and Islamic cultures. There was also a grounded understanding that embracing the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad and the expression of their Latina identities could mutually co-exist, albeit with some challenges.
For Myree, embracing Islam was a process that “took some time,” because she was raised in a Latino household fervently devoted to Catholicism. Her path to Islam began when she married her Muslim husband at the age of 20. She took her Shahada (conversion process) three months after her marriage.
But being Muslim in a Latino community also came with the realization that she had to constantly educate her family and friends about Islamic faith and her motivation for embracing the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad.
“I was brought up by my Latino side of the family, which is Puerto Rican and Mexican and Catholic,” she explained. “When you stray away from that you get the side looks, and it’s not the norm for you to be Muslim.”
While Myree’s decision to convert to Islam was scorned by most of her immediate family, one person in her family celebrated her decision.
Her uncle was a practicing Catholic until he was incarcerated in the 1970s and read The Autobiography of Malcom X, the acclaimed book about the civil rights-leader who converted to Islam in 1964. When Myree’s uncle learned she had converted, he wrote her a letter describing the beauty of Islam and explaining how proud he was of her. She continues to read the letter when challenges arise.
Despite some of the challenges that she has faced, Myree is confident that Islam will continue to grow within the Latino community. “I see Islam growing in the Hispanic community because more people are aware,” she said. “The knowledge will grow and we are a gate for them. We speak both languages and can educate them. Muslims and Latinos have similar cores and certain aspects that we already hold.”
Lina took a slightly different route to Islam than the other interviewees. Her parents converted to Islam prior to her birth, and staying connected to her Latino background has, for her, been one of the biggest challenges she has faced.
“I’ve always been Latina and Muslim, I’ve never been anything else,” she explained. “My mom is from Peru and we would go back a lot. My relatives would go to parties, go clubbing, and go to the beach. I would be faced with a cultural tug of war, but they all knew I didn’t drink so I didn’t feel any pressure, but it was hard to find where I could fit in with my family without losing my religion and faith.”
Finding the balance between her Latina cultural practices and her religious faith was a struggle for Lina when she traveled to Peru with her family, but this tension also existed in Los Angeles where fellow Muslims would “question her commitment” to Islam.
“People always want to gauge my Islam and find out exactly how Muslim I am. And it’s really unfair. We go into an Egyptian mosque and boom, you’re Egyptian. And people start to speak to you in Arabic and then ask us how we’re Egyptian if we can’t speak Arabic? Well, I’m not Egyptian. And they ask you all these questions. It’s like you’re living a double life almost.”
Islam, however, according to her, is much bigger than any ethnic or racial identity.
“We’re a religion and a faith that isn’t based on the color of your skin. It’s a faith and it’s a lifestyle. It’s much bigger than being Latino, or Asian, or black, it’s something much more special than that.”
Navigating a Muslim identity for Noelia began with a thorough research process. Before marrying her husband, Noelia frequently attended a mosque in Los Angeles where, according to her, she was “the only Latina in the mosque asking all types of questions.” She was fascinated by the talks, and it helped that her sister-in-law provided her books about Islam. She eventually did her Shahada when she was pregnant because she wanted to start her family with a good foundation.
Still, some of the challenges that she has faced have been carrying some of the stigmas that have been placed on Latinos and Muslims in the U.S.
“In America you carry such a huge burden and you’re pinpointed as a Muslim. As a Latina you’re also examined. We are already a minority, and with the hijab it makes me much more of a minority. I have to carry such a huge load because of the stereotypes.”
Converting to Islam answered many of the questions that she had growing up as a devout Catholic. “Being raised in a small town, I had so many questions,” she explained to the group. “But I learned that the Bible and the Quran are very similar. There’s the prophet Moses, the Prophet Muhammad, and a lot of other similarities.”
But while she found similarities in both religious texts, traveling to visit her husband’s family in Jordan was one of the most enlightening experiences and culturally defining moments for her.
“I was the first Latina they had ever met in Jordan. One of the first things that I experienced was a big family party where, of course, everyone had to come and see the only Latina. One of the most interesting things that happened was that my husband’s niece walked up to me and asked me if I prayed. It was a powerful moment and it made me want to teach my son Arabic and know the Quran.”
That moment impacted Noelia and also helped her realize how similar her husband’s culture was to her own.
“When I think of Islam and Hispanics, I think of love and family. Latinos are proud of our family. We have that respect for elderly people. You also find that in Islam as well. I’ve never seen such love. It’s the best combination.”
Miriam was raised by her Mexican single mother and practiced Catholicism until her early 20s but felt constrained because she was not always allowed to question her religion.
“When I was practicing Catholicism,” she explained, “The answer was always: don’t ask questions. So the thing I learned in Islam, is that it pushes you to know and seek knowledge. You have the right to know and research and find out things.”
Her introduction to Islam was through a sixth grade Jordanian friend who would teach her how to put her hijab on and also taught her a lot about the Quran.
But Miriam has not felt alone through a conversion process that occurred earlier this year.
“I converted in April of 2015. I wanted to do it years ago but for some reason life takes you on a different course. This has been my journey and I am grateful for that. I will never be able to repay Allah.”
And like the other women in the group, Miriam also believed that there would be an increase in Latinos who embrace Islam in the future.
“We are building our nation for years to come. This is something we can build. This is the start of it. We are bringing the Hispanic community to Islam. We are a gate to them. We’re building Islam within the Hispanic community and how many people can say that? But if it’s hard now to be Muslim and Hispanic, I can only imagine what the future will look like.”
Walter Thompson-Hernández is a Los Angeles-based writer, photographer, and researcher.