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Latinas Embrace Islam - Tampa Bay Online

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  • Zafar Khan
    Latinas Embrace Islam By CLOE CABRERA ccabrera@tampatrib.com Published: Mar 30, 2005 http://news.tbo.com/news/MGBUW0G2X6E.html TAMPA - As a child, Amy Perez
    Message 1 of 1 , Mar 31, 2005
      Latinas Embrace Islam
      By CLOE CABRERA ccabrera@...
      Published: Mar 30, 2005

      http://news.tbo.com/news/MGBUW0G2X6E.html

      TAMPA - As a child, Amy Perez attended different
      Christian churches, praying at Catholic Masses and
      singing at Baptist revivals. But she never felt
      satisfied with the answers those faiths provided to
      her questions.

      At 12, Perez left Webb Middle School for the Universal
      Academy of Florida, a Muslim school in Tampa, because
      she did not like the cliques and social scene at Webb.
      And she wanted to learn more about Islam.

      Perez read about the Muslim faith and asked her
      classmates questions.

      After much research and contemplation, Perez took the
      Shahada, the declaration of faith to become Muslim.

      She was 14.

      ``I finally found peace,'' said Perez, 22, who is of
      Dominican and Puerto Rican descent. ``A peace that I
      had never known. Everything made sense to me. Every
      question I had, there was an answer for. It was truly
      remarkable.''

      Perez's sentiments seem to resonate with U.S. Latinas,
      who are embracing Islam in increasing numbers. They
      join a faith dominated in the United States by blacks,
      who make up about half the estimated 6 million
      followers, according to a 1990 study by the American
      Muslim Council, the most recent available. Followers
      of South Asian and Arab descent constitute about 35
      percent.

      Numbers of Muslims are difficult to determine since
      faith is not included in the U.S. census, but there is
      abundant anecdotal evidence that more Hispanic women
      are adopting Islam.

      ``We're definitely seeing more Latina converts,'' said
      Ahmed Bedier, director of the Central Florida Office
      of the Council on American Islamic Relations. ``It's
      really a phenomenon because the stereotype is that
      Islam oppresses women, so why would they want to
      choose a religion that would restrict their
      lifestyle?''

      Helping fuel the growth is an increase of information
      available to Hispanic converts, Bedier said.

      Korans written in Spanish and other works are
      available, and distribution has been on the rise, he
      said.

      There is support online for Hispanic Muslims from
      groups such as the Latino American Dawah Organization
      and Hispanicmuslims.com.

      Familiar Culture

      Mohamed Moharram, head of the local Muslim American
      Society, is not surprised by the growth in Latina
      converts.

      ``At the last open house we had four Latinas in one
      day convert to Islam,'' he said. ``The fact is, Islam
      elevates the status of women. Muslim women see it [the
      faith] as a liberation from undue hardships that
      society puts upon them.''

      When Perez converted eight years ago, she was one of a
      few Latinas at her mosque. Now she sees more.

      ``When I converted it was me, my mother, and four of
      my friends and their moms,'' Perez said. ``Now there
      are a lot more.''

      Some convert because they marry Muslims; others are
      searching for a more fulfilling spiritual path. Most
      say Islam's teachings mirror many of their Latino
      values.

      ``Growing up it was all about familia,'' Perez said.
      ``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
      that's Islam. When I wasn't a Muslim, that's the way
      we did things.''

      Islam has a history in Spain stretching back to the
      rule of the Muslim Moors from the 700s to the 1400s.

      Spanish words such as abuelo (grandfather), arroz
      (rice) and naranjas (oranges), have Arabic origin.

      A Questioning Catholic

      Alexandra Briones was a Catholic from birth. She
      attended church regularly with her parents and
      received her first communion. But as a teenager, she
      began to question Catholic doctrine.

      ``Why should I confess to another human being when
      they are the same as I?'' she asked. ``I was just
      supposed to believe and that's it.''

      She began looking for answers in Islam, researching on
      the Internet and reading the Koran.

      Briones, 30, of Ecuador, says Islam's teachings,
      particularly its respect for women, spoke to her.

      ``I had to work out and look good so men would want to
      be with me,'' she said. ``God didn't create me for
      that. If a man wants to be with me because of my body
      and how I look, that's not the man I want to be with.
      It all made sense to me.''

      When Briones visited a mosque for the first time, she
      found it life-altering.

      ``I cried,'' she recalled. ``I felt like I belonged
      there. Everything was logical and seemed to be what I
      needed and couldn't put into words. I felt very
      comfortable for the first time.''

      She converted a month later.

      Eventually, she married her boyfriend, Radouane, who
      was not a practicing Muslim at the time.

      Briones stresses a woman should never accept Islam to
      please a Muslim boyfriend or husband.

      ``I would never have converted for a man,'' she said.
      ``I would never make such a dramatic change to please
      somebody else. I did it for myself - because it was
      right for me.''

      Leslie Centeno, 23, of Puerto Rican descent, said she
      felt a similar disconnection from her Pentecostal
      Christian faith.

      A friend invited her to visit a mosque, and she began
      reading the Koran. When she told her family and church
      pastor of her new interest, they encouraged her to
      remain true to her faith.

      Six years ago, she converted. The lack of
      intermediaries between God and the Muslim faithful
      appealed to her.

      ``I can have a direct relationship with God,'' she
      said. ``It sounded so interesting and intriguing to
      me. It was different than anything I had ever heard. I
      thought about it for days before I made the decision.
      I'm not an impulsive person.''

      Family ReactionsFor the most part, the three women say
      family and friends have supported their decisions to
      convert.

      But explaining the hijab, the head covering, to her
      grandmother was difficult, Perez said.

      ``She told me to take that trapo [rag] off my head. I
      told her this is an order by God for me to wear and I
      wouldn't take it off,'' Perez said. ``In the end,
      they're family, so they learn to deal with it.''

      Many Latinas have a more difficult transition.

      ``The biggest challenge they can face is telling their
      families they've converted,'' said Jane I. Smith,
      professor of Islamic Studies at Hartford Seminary in
      Connecticut and author of ``Islam in America.''

      ``It cuts two ways, religiously and culturally.''

      For conservative Protestant and Roman Catholic
      families in particular, the news may come as a blow.

      ``It's a sense of leaving the family itself. And all
      of a sudden, the person acts differently,'' Smith
      said. ``Often it is very painful and difficult.''

      Also, the Sept. 11 attacks put the religion under more
      scrutiny.

      ``The events of 9/11 raised the curiosity of Americans
      [including Latinas] about Islam,'' Bedier said.
      ``However, the anti-Muslim backlash created as a
      result of the same events caused relatives of new
      Muslim converts to be worried for their safety.''

      With her long, loose dress, and hair tucked neatly
      inside her hijab, Perez said she often is mistaken for
      a Middle Eastern woman, until she speaks her native
      language.

      ``When they [non-Muslim Hispanics] hear me speak
      Spanish, they're like, `Oh my God, you speak Spanish?'
      '' she said. ``It's really a chance to educate people
      and show them you can be Hispanic and be Muslim; you
      don't give up your ethnicity to become a Muslim.''

      She hopes her daughter, Anisah Miranda, who she often
      cradles in her arms as she is praying, will someday
      embrace the religion she shares with her husband,
      Michael Miranda, and calls her salvation.

      ``I don't miss the partying, the clubs, the drinking,
      any of that,'' she said. ``I don't need to be out
      there. Islam isn't just about religion; it's a way of
      life.''

      Reporter Cloe Cabrera can be reached at (813)
      259-7656.


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