Latinas Embrace Islam - Tampa Bay Online
- Latinas Embrace Islam
By CLOE CABRERA ccabrera@...
Published: Mar 30, 2005
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
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
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
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
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
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
There is support online for Hispanic Muslims from
groups such as the Latino American Dawah Organization
Mohamed Moharram, head of the local Muslim American
Society, is not surprised by the growth in Latina
``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
``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
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
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
``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
``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
Reporter Cloe Cabrera can be reached at (813)
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