Of Mexican heritage, Marta Khadija, president of LALMA, La Asociacion Latino Musulmana de America, or The Latino Muslim Association of America, converted to Islam in 1983. She had been unhappy with her spiritual life and when she moved to the United States, her Muslim friends began sending her Islamic texts and she visited a mosque. Emotional and powerful, this experience gave her peace. Another Latino American, writer, innovator and self-identified indigenous Muslim, Mark Gonzales, bases much of his work on the issue of identity. Gonzales, who is of Mexican and French Canadian descent and was raised Catholic, began to explore Islam after practicing Christianity in a very deep way. He says, “In that process, I realized I didn’t like the idea of a gatekeeper.” At that time he was also working on restorative justice with families who were deported after 9/11. He began building relationships with people practicing Islam and converted.
America has always been recognized for its diversity, and is seen as a country composed of minorities who intersect with one another on a regular basis. As a result, the steadily growing number of Latino Muslims in the United States is inevitable. According to Reuters, 2.6 million people practice Islam, one of the fastest growing religions in our country, and Hispanics, another rapidly growing group, currently comprise 17 percent of the total U.S. population. Of course these two populations would eventually begin to intersect, and what may at first feel like an uncommon link, seems almost natural.
When asked about her Mexican family’s reaction to her conversion, Khadija says, “My mother thought I had joined some sort of cult.” But she soon came around after speaking to her priest who reassured her that her daughter was on the right path. Khadija says she generally doesn’t feel judged by other Latinos and that she is able to live with both identities without any challenges. She thinks that part of it may be because she is still very connected to her Mexican roots and doesn’t cover her hair. “I kept my culture,” she says. “I didn’t adopt any dress from the Middle East.” Her organization, LALMA, also maintains a good relationship with the Catholic Church in Los Angeles.
Gonzales’ experience is similar. “Specifically, my work is about reshaping people’s idea of identity,” he says. And as a poet and scholar, he travels around the world to spread his message. When asked about navigating the Latino Muslim identity he says that identity only becomes a problem when his heritage and spirituality don’t fit other people’s expectations.
There are no definitive statistics on the number of Latino Muslims in the United States, but estimates range from 100,000 to 200,000, depending on the organization. Attorney and chaplain, Wilfredo Amr Ruiz says that his organization, the American Muslim Association of North America, has seen an exponential increase in requests for Spanish language Qurans in the last 10 years. They also receive hundreds of requests for Islamic texts from prisons every week, indicating that some converts come from the prison system.
Not a homogenous group, Latinos find Islam in myriad ways. Some convert as a result of romantic relationships. Others want to reconnect with religion or are academically interested. For Wilfredo Amr Ruiz, it was curiosity that led him to Islam. He was looking to reconnect to religion when he saw an Islamic center being built in San Juan, Puerto Rico and decided to explore.
Ruiz says that some Latinos initially reject Islam because of the unfavorable images formed by the media, but some come to find that they share many of the same moral values as Muslims. He also points out that some Latinos with a connection to Spain are attracted to the religion because of the long history of Muslims in Spain.
Latino Muslims like Gonzales, Ruiz and Khadija are creating a unique American identity. “Islam is a religion that, at its core, has to be culturally relevant to those who practice it,” Gonzales says. “Latinos are forming a culturally relevant form of Islam.” As Americans, we need to make space in our minds for these new communities.
Erika L. Sanchez is a poet and freelance writer living in Chicago. She is currently the sex and love advice columnist for Cosmopolitan for Latinas and a contributor to the Huffington Post, NBC Latino and others. THE DAILY STAR publishes this commentary in collaboration with the Common Ground News Service (www.commongroundnews.org).