For most Americans, the U.S.-Mexico border town of Tijuana exists as a temporary escape from life—a city where Americans young and old can partake in weekend revelry with few restrictions.
Tijuana, however, is more complex than that.
On Avenida Revolución, one of its busiest boulevards and a main thoroughfare, you can simultaneously rub shoulders with a white middle-class family from Orange County, middle-aged camera-wielding Chinese tourists, and a teenager from Mexico City selling trinkets with hopes of saving enough money to pay for a “coyote”—a human smuggler—for safe passage across the border.
And once a month at the Omar Mosque, you’ll find an unusual group of American tourists, people who cross the border not for alcohol or other forms of debauchery but for a commitment to a higher calling.
Approximately 30 American Latino Muslims travel each month from California to this mosque in Playas de Tijuana, a suburb a few miles west of Tijuana. They come from San Diego, Los Angeles, and even as far north as San Francisco to help facilitate monthly information sessions about the Islamic faith.
They’re a close-knit, multiracial, and multigenerational group whose dedication is steered by both their love for each other and an unwavering duty to their fellow Muslim brothers and sisters in Mexico.
For Southern California native Leslie Henderson, 33, traveling to Tijuana every month provides her with a sense of purpose and community. “I come to support the Mexican Muslims,” she said during a recent interview at the Omar Mosque. “The Muslims here don’t have that much support. They go through a lot. And not just the adults, but the children as well. They go through a lot of bullying, so we are here to support.”
As a part of the Muslim and Latino communities—two of the fastest growing demographics in the U.S.—Leslie said she’s been the target of both anti-Latino prejudice and Islamophobia. She said she believes that the work she is doing in Tijuana is an example of a “brotherhood and sisterhood [that] goes beyond borders.”
For others in the group, like Myree Mustafa, who converted to Islam in 2011, traveling to Tijuana has been guided by challenges with Mexican relatives who believe their loved ones have strayed from Catholicism. “Being Muslim and Mexican is a very difficult journey,” Mustafa said, “because it’s not seen as something that is in the norm. For the world, it’s not a normal combination.”
The Omar Mosque—officially the Islamic Center of Baja—opened in 2012, and it’s considered by many to be the largest mosque in Northern Mexico. Nestled on a busy boulevard between an abandoned used car lot and a swimwear store, the two-story building (the top floor is for women, while the bottom floor is for men) stands out among its neighbors with its Arabic-inspired architecture and effervescent orange, red, and white hues.
Like most mosques throughout the world, the Omar Mosque requires attendees to take off their shoes before entering the prayer areas. What separates this mosque from others is the assortment of shoes one may find there on a daily basis: athletic shoes, sandals, cowboy boots, and leather huaraches, traditional Mexican sandals.
The Muslim presence in and around Tijuana is burgeoning, but it’s small.According to the Pew Forum, there are an estimated 110,000 Muslims in Mexico, a country with deep Catholic ties and a population of about 122 million.The mosque’s American supporters also spend time in surrounding cities like Rosarito and Mexicali, providing them with Spanish Qurans, clothes, food, and other vital necessities.
Abdu Salam, the Omar Mosque’s imam, attributed the growth of Islam in Tijuana to a series of factors, including social media and increased access to other forms of communication.
“Every week someone comes into this mosque and converts,” he said. “Because of social media, you can now be sitting here and talking to someone in China. Some people meet each other on Facebook, and they talk about Islam, and then they start looking for a place to learn about Islam, and then they eventually find our mosque.”
But Salam’s views about the role of social media, he later explained, have not always been positive. It can sometimes lead to negative stereotypes about the Islamic faith.
“Another thing that is happening in social media is that a lot of people are saying that all Muslims are terrorists. We always hear about the terrible things Donald Trump says about Mexicans and Muslims. But Islam is different than the things that he says. When people do their, research they find that Islam is a religion of peace.”
While Salam worries that Islam is “often misunderstood,” local government officials, he said, have shown support for the mosque and its events.
Humberto Cardenas, a 49 year-old Tijuana resident, spends two to three days a week at the Omar mosque. The mosque, according to him, has given him more than a sense of religious peace—it has also created a semblance of the community he was forced to leave behind in the U.S.
“I immigrated to the U.S. in 1988 from Sinaloa and lived there until 2013,” he said over the hum of prayers. “I was deported in 2013. My wife and two sons still live in North Carolina, and I haven’t seen them since. But before I was deported, I was in prison for a while, and that’s where I found Islam.”
Cardenas went on to speak about the sacrifices that many of the mosque’s attendees have struggled with. He cited religious, culinary, and social differences between Islam and mainstream Mexican culture, but said the biggest barriers Mexican Muslims face is seeking acceptance from their families.
“A lot of Muslim converts clash with their Mexican relatives who disagree with their conversion to Islam,” he said.
Happily, Cardenas’ family’s reaction to his conversion has been almost entirely different.
“My family is happy with my new religion, because they say that before I converted I was an entirely different person. They know I’m a better person because of Islam today.”
Directly across the street, at a convenient store known as OXXO, seven locals, mostly middle-aged men, took a break from their lively discussion of local politics to share some of their views on the Omar Mosque and its relationship to the community.
One of the men, Marco, a 56 year-old construction worker who had lived in the neighborhood since the mosque opened, said it’s “never been a problem.” He went on: “We have nothing against Muslims. They treat us with respect, and you know what? At the end of the day they are Mexican people just like us. And that’s all that matters.”
Marco’s sentiments appeared to be representative of the group; many exhibited interest in attending a future event.
As the last prayer came to a close, and as the sun began to set on the mosque, a few of the volunteers began to unveil an assortment of savory, freshly-cooked Mexican and Mediterranean dishes that had been donated by a visitor.
As each person was served, they gathered to speak one another. Some spoke in Spanish, others in English, and others used a combination of both.
The chatter soon subsided, and one by one each person sat down with their plate of food and appeared to quietly ruminate over the day’s events. Some conversations continued, but, for the most part, an overwhelming silence filled the room.
Meanwhile, the world outside of the mosque continued—at a frenetic, Tijuana pace.
Walter Thompson-Hernández is a Los Angeles-based writer, photographer, and researcher.