Latino Muslims: Islam gains Hispanic converts - Sun Sentinel, USA
- Islam gains Hispanic converts
Ramadan rite expands with new trend in Florida
By Lisa Bolivar
Posted September 30 2005
This year's Ramadan celebration will be extra special
for members of a Margate mosque who will observe the
holiday in a brand new building instead of inside the
cramped storefront they used to call home.
Masjid Jamaat Al-Mumineen's spacious new building is
just behind the old storefront off Sample Road, where
Margate touches Coral Springs, but this mosque will
allow more families to gather for the traditional
fast-breaking meal, called an iftar, said Bibi Khan of
"Because the space we were in was so small and
congested, now more people can join us in more space,"
Ramadan, which begins around Oct. 4, depending on when
the new moon is sighted, is a monthlong holiday in
which Muslims abstain from food, drink, and any
worldly pleasures from sunup to sundown. The holiday
is part of five requirements, or pillars, of the
Islamic faith. The other four pillars are the
shahaddah, or the witnessing, where a believer
declares three times that there is one God and
Muhammad is the messenger of God; the performing of
five daily prayers; paying the "poor due" or zakat,
which amounts to about 2.5 percent of a person's
monetary worth; and performing a pilgrimage, or hajj,
to Mecca in Saudi Arabia once in a lifetime, if it can
Melissa Matos is among some area Muslims who will be
celebrating the season for the first time.
When she speaks of celebrating her first Ramadan, the
20-year-old clasps her hands excitedly anda smile
spreads from ear-to-ear.
Matos, who took the shahaddah in order to become a
Muslim in April, has started down a path toward a new
way of life, a new circle of friends and a tradition
that, she said, she knows will teach her to be a
"What I am looking forward to for the month is letting
go of a lot of things I do," said Matos, who lives in
Miramar. "I am going to be more sensitive to things I
didn't notice before, like hunger; I am looking
forward to what it is going to do for my sensitivity."
Matos represents a growing number of Latin women who
are taking the shahaddah and donning the traditional
hair covering, called a hijab.
Altaf Ali, executive director at the Council on
American-Islamic Relations in Pembroke Pines, said
Islam is gaining an increasing number of Hispanic
"More so in California, but in Florida it's a new
trend. Yes, there are several Hispanic Muslims that
have been in Florida for some time now, but in regards
to the conversion rate within the last few years, I've
seen an increasing rate in Hispanics converting to
Islam," said Ali, a native of Guyana. "I think the
Hispanic culture itself is very rich in terms of
family values, and that is something that is very
prominent in the religion of Islam.
"Family values play an integral role in the formation
of a Muslim community. Because of those family values,
there is a lot of other norms that are consistent
within the Hispanic community and Islam; for instance,
respect for elders, married life and rearing children,
these are some of the traditions Hispanics have in
common with Islam."
Matos began learning about the faith, and what she
found spoke to her heart.
"Its simplicity and its universality, it's for every
culture, for every time, every country, it's for
everyone," she said.
Zeleina Bakhsh, Bibi Khan's sister, grew up in Guyana
and moved to South Florida with her family. Bakhsh
also likes to celebrate the diversity of her faith,
especially at this time of year.
"Islam is about unity, and we have that here among the
brothers and sisters," she said, speaking of the
fellowship at the Margate mosque. "It makes you feel
very emotional in that month. We read a lot of Quran,
we do dikhir (reciting the names of God) and Allah is
giving you a chance to beg for forgiveness if you have
made a sin."
Matos said she is looking forward to learning the
lessons of the season.
"It's a time when Muslims get to basically learn
sensitivity to others," she said. "During that time
(of early Islam) when the people lived you had large
class divisions, the very, very rich and very, very
poor and it was a way to get people to understand what
it is to be poor."
Ali said Ramadan also offers an opportunity for
starting another year on a better footing.
"What I think is very significant this year is that
taking into consideration all that has happened within
the Muslims who live in America and the challenges
that we faced, the month of Ramadan once again boosts
our morale and it increased our self-esteem," he said.
"And once again we apply forgiveness toward those who
have wronged us in many ways; the negative publicity
and the injustices passed upon us.
"This is a time when we say it's another year, it's a
time of forgiveness, a time of reflection and giving,
and we reflect on the good things we've accomplished
in our country, and what this country has given us,
and we appreciate that. It takes us away from the
constant battle of proving what we are," he said.
Latino women finding a place in Islam
I am doing this for God, one convert says
By Carmen Sesin
Updated: 4:15 p.m. ET Sept. 30, 2005
UNION CITY, N.J. On a hot summer day, Stefani Perada
left work for the day in West New York, N.J., and
stepped outside in her long jilbab, the flowing
clothes worn by many Muslim women.
Meanwhile, other Latinas in the mostly Hispanic
neighborhood were taking advantage of the warm day,
walking around in shorts and midriff-exposing halter
Perada, 19, who converted to Islam just over a year
ago, is still trying to become acclimated to certain
customs, such as the jilbab and the hijab, which
covers her head and hair.
Story continues below ↓ advertisement
"Mostly it's because of how your friends and family
are going to look at you," she said. "They look at you
like, Why is she wearing that, its so hot.
But, she said, I am doing this for God, and one day I
will be rewarded for what I am doing.
And there's an immediate benefit: She's not harassed
as much by men when she walks down the street.
You know how guys [say], Hey Mami, come over here?
I used to always hate that. I would cross the street
just to get away. Now you still get some guys that are
still curious, but its much less, she explained.
They are going to look at me for me, and not for my
Growing number of converts?
Perada is not alone as a Hispanic women converting to
The exact number of Latino Muslims is difficult to
determine, because the U.S. Census Bureau does not
collect information about religion. However, according
to estimates conducted by national Islamic
organizations such as the Council for American Islamic
Relations (CAIR) and the Islamic Society of North
America (ISNA) there are approximately 40,000 Latino
Muslims in the United States.
Likewise, it is difficult to break-down the number of
Latino converts to Islam into male versus female. But,
according to anecdotal evidence and a survey conducted
by the Latino American Dawah Organization (LADO),
whose mission is to promote Islam within the Latino
community in the United States, the number of Latinos
converting to Islam tilts slightly in favor of women
with 60 percent women to 40 percent men.
Juan Galvan, the head of LADO in Texas and the
co-author of a report "Latino Muslims: The Changing
Face of Islam in America," explained that those
numbers are unscientific, but based on the results of
a voluntary survey that has been conducted on the LADO
website since 2001.
From observation and experience those numbers are
correct, Galvan said. From my personal experience,
there are definitely more Latina Muslims than Latino
men. Galvan explained said that there just seem to
be more Latina Muslims at the various events he
attends through his work with LADO.
At the Islamic Education Center of North Hudson, 300
of the people who attend the mosque are converts, and
80 percent are Latino converts. In addition, out of
the Latino converts, 60 percent are women, according
to Nylka Vargas, who works at the mosque with the
Educational Outreach Program.
Peter Awn, an Islamic studies professor at Columbia
University, says there is no doubt that the number of
Latinos converting to Islam is growing.
Louis Cristillo, an anthropologist who focuses on
Islamic education at Columbia University, points out
there are several indicators that reflect the growing
trend of Latinos converting to Islam.
For example, there are a number of regional and
national organizations that cater to Latino Muslims,
and there are even support groups that can be found
on-line specifically for Latino converts in
particular Hispanicmuslims.com, as well the LADO
organization at latinodawah.org.
In fact, last weekend, Latino Muslims in this country
celebrated the third annual Hispanic Muslim Day with
different activities throughout the day.
For women, particular challenges
Converting to Islam can be shocking for families who
are largely Catholic and harbor stereotypes of
Muslims, specifically concerning women.
Perada says her mother, who is Colombian, accepted her
decision to convert because she never really pushed
her into Catholicism. However, her father, who is of
Italian origin, has had a tough time dealing with it.
Sometimes he says things about the way I dress, said
Perada. Hell say, Why do you have to dress that
way. Im Christian. I dont walk around with a cross
in my hand.'
He always complains to my mom about it, but with me
he just keeps it to himself. But I know for him it is
very hard, Perada added.
Story continues below ↓ advertisement
Vargas, 30, from the Islamic Education Center, is of
Ecuadorian and Peruvian descent. She says her family
is already accustomed to the idea of her being Muslim,
since it has already been ten years since she
converted. But she recalls the days in which her
family was dealing with the initial shock of her new
When I started being more visible, thats when things
started getting weird. My sisters couldnt understand
why I would cover myself. They thought I was being
oppressed or brainwashed, said Vargas.
She admits it was difficult at first to adjust to
certain customs, such as wearing the hijab or a
headscarf and having to pray five times a day.
First it felt kind of weird to be covered, but after
a while it [the headscarf] becomes your hair. I refer
to my hijab as my hair.
A return to traditional values
Like other ethnic groups, Latinos convert for a
variety of reasons.
Some, says Cristillo, grew up in inner-city areas
ravaged by poverty, drugs and prostitution, and were
attracted in part by the fact that some Islamic
communities were very active in cleaning up the
Vargas, meanwhile, says she questioned many things
about the Catholic faith in which she was raised and
felt an emptiness in Christianity.
Galvan, from LADO, pointed out that many people come
to Islam through people that they know, "friends,
co-workers, classmates, boyfriends or husbands.
Professor Awn said that many Latinas find there is a
greater sense of economic and social stability in
Islam and that it also represents a return to
In that regard, Awn does not think Islam is any more
patriarchal than other traditional religions, but
recognized that the younger generation is looking for
a more progressive form of Islam."
And Perada does not feel that her adherence to the
Muslim faith restricts her freedoms as a woman.
If I get married, I know I am going to work, but I am
going to be there for my kids, too, said Perada,
dismissing any notions that Islam would prevent her
from living the life of any other modern woman.
Carmen Sesin is an assignment editor on the NBC News
More about Hispanic Muslims at: