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Latino Muslims: A Clash of Culture, Faith

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  • Zafar Khan
    A Clash of Culture, Faith Latinas Balance Catholic Upbringing, Adoption of Islam By Sudarsan Raghavan Washington Post Staff Writer Monday, June 5, 2006; B01
    Message 1 of 1 , Jun 6, 2006
      A Clash of Culture, Faith
      Latinas Balance Catholic Upbringing, Adoption of Islam
      By Sudarsan Raghavan
      Washington Post Staff Writer
      Monday, June 5, 2006; B01


      Every morning, Jackie Avelar wakes up to a
      predicament. On one side of her bed is a clock that
      sounds the Islamic call to prayer five times a day. On
      the other side is a statue of Mary. As a Muslim, she
      wants to remove it. As a Latina, she can't.

      Her father, who is a Catholic from El Salvador, wants
      the statue to stay.

      "I have to respect him," Avelar said.

      So she has found a comfortable balance: She covers the
      statue with a photo of her family.

      Avelar, 31, constantly struggles to find balance
      within her family, within the outside world, within
      herself. Growing up, she was a beach-going, tank
      top-wearing, salsa-dancing girl. Now, she's a devout
      Muslim who favors Islamic garments and avoids
      socializing with men.

      She is the first Muslim in a family that has never
      known any religion but Catholicism.

      Across the nation, thousands of Latino immigrants are
      redefining themselves through Islam, including a few
      hundred in the Washington region, according to
      national Islamic groups and community leaders. Precise
      numbers are not available, but estimates range from
      40,000 to 70,000.

      The conversions speak to a larger evolution of
      immigrant identity, as a new generation ingests a
      cultural smorgasbord of ideas they were rarely exposed
      to in their homelands. Today, it's easier than ever to
      learn about Islam from Spanish translations of the
      Koran, Islamic magazines and Web sites.

      But as they embrace a new faith, Latinos face
      struggles, ranging from guilt to discrimination, as
      Muslims in a post-Sept. 11 America.

      "Sometimes you feel like you are betraying who you
      are, that you are abandoning your family," said
      Avelar, who is small and round-faced with a soft

      The converts hail from throughout Latin America. In
      Islam, some say they see a devoutness and simplicity
      they find lacking in Catholicism. Like the tightknit
      Latino culture, Islam places emphasis on family, which
      can make it easier for converts to adjust.

      Yet some are as motivated by feelings of alienation in
      a nation that is divided over immigration. Latino
      women find what most westerners rarely see -- a
      respect for women, unlike, some converts say, the
      machismo culture in which they were raised.

      On the Friday before Easter, a day that no longer
      holds religious significance for Avelar, she took part
      in the juma , the weekly group prayer all practicing
      Muslims attend. She drove to a small Annandale mosque
      in a silver Honda, with a license plate holder that
      reads "Don't drive faster than your angels can fly."

      Dressed in a pink hijab , or headscarf, and a black
      shoulder-to-ankle garment, she melted into the tide of

      The men entered the front door. Avelar glided to a
      side entrance with the other women and vanished
      Questioning Catholicism

      For Priscilla Martinez, a third-generation Mexican
      American, conversion began with a question. For
      Margaret Ellis, a first-generation Panamanian
      American, it ended with an answer.

      Growing up in Texas, Martinez asked her priest why
      Catholics believe in the Holy Trinity -- the Father,
      Son and Holy Spirit -- but said she never got a
      satisfactory explanation.

      Then more questions, until: "I felt I didn't have a
      relationship with God," said Martinez, 32, who lives
      in Ashburn with her Muslim husband and their children.

      At the University of Texas, she was introduced to
      Islam in a Middle East history course and during
      Muslim student events. At the end of her freshman
      year, Martinez recited the shehada , the vow a person
      takes to become a Muslim. When she told her Catholic
      family, they gave her an ultimatum: Leave Islam or
      leave their house. Martinez left.

      "It was more cultural than anything else," recalled
      Martinez, of medium height and wearing a green hijab.
      "It was something foreign to them, and it solidified
      the fact that I wasn't returning to the church."

      Today, she said, she's on good terms with her family.
      Swimming is the only thing Martinez misses about her
      old life. Now, she swims only in private or with other
      women, and never in front of men, aside from her

      Ellis, too, was unsatisfied with Catholicism and said
      in Panama, the Catholics she knew were not religious.
      She wanted a deeper connection with God.

      After she converted, her great-aunt demanded, "How
      could you leave your mother's faith?"

      In the United States, Ellis kept asking herself: Where
      do I fit in? As a black Latina, she found many black
      Americans didn't accept her. And Latinos she met were
      largely from nations without many blacks.

      "For me, the perfect niche was the Muslim community,
      because for us it doesn't matter where you are from or
      what you look like," said Ellis, 44.

      She is now called Farhahnaz Ellis.

      In public, her Latino identity, like those of most
      converts, is often invisible. Ellis remembers the day
      in a bodega in Reston when she overheard two women
      looking at her Islamic garment and speaking aloud in
      Spanish: "Oh my God, look at her. She's crazy. It's so

      Ellis, who is tall and slender, walked up and broke
      out in Spanish. The startled women quickly headed out
      the door.
      Religious Curiosity

      When the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks occurred,
      Avelar, then a George Mason University student, was
      dating a Pakistani American Muslim. One day, she
      angrily asked him: How could Muslims commit such acts?
      Yet she also grew curious. When her anger died down,
      she asked him to tell her about Islam. After they
      broke up, her interest continued.

      "I absolutely had no intention of converting," Avelar
      recalled. "Even though I felt Islam was inside my
      heart, I didn't want to admit it to myself."

      She was thinking about her father.

      On the night of her senior class photography
      exhibition, Avelar's family and friends sat in the
      audience. Here, a photo of Avelar wearing a necklace
      with a cross, only dangling from her back. There, a
      photo of Jesus on his cross, only his face was

      Millie Jimenez, 31, who grew up with Avelar, caught
      on. "It symbolized that she was turning her back on
      Catholicism," she recalled.

      Avelar wanted her father to understand this. But on
      that night, his children said, he felt something else
      for his only daughter. (He declined a request to be

      "He seemed proud that she had an art show," said
      Selwyn Avelar, 25, her brother.

      Two weeks later, she converted.

      Avelar told her mother, then Selwyn. They gave
      support. But it would take her two months to work up
      the courage to tell her father.

      When she finally did, she said he replied: " 'You're a
      grown woman. I believe I've raised you well.' "

      Then, he said: " 'Before your grandmother died she
      left us specific instructions to never abandon or
      change our religion.' "

      His attempt didn't work.
      'I Love Islam'

      Avelar stopped eating pupusas revueltas, tamales de
      cerdo and any other Salvadoran dishes with pork. In
      her house, she stopped eating any meat that wasn't
      halal , or permissible under Islamic dietary laws.

      Alcohol was out, as were tank tops. On Christmas Eve,
      she drove her family to midnight Mass and dropped them
      outside the church.

      Avelar's beliefs are shaped neither by politics nor
      injustice toward Muslims, she said. In her mind, she's
      still a hyphenated immigrant -- only with one more

      "I love my country. I love living here. I love being
      Latina," she said. "But more than anything else, I
      love Islam."

      Avelar's family held out hope that her conversion
      would be just a phase. That changed the day she came
      home with a Muslim man. He was also Latino. They had
      met two weeks earlier. They wanted to get married.

      Her father angrily said no and blamed Islam. " 'They
      want to marry you off to a man you don't even know,' "
      she remembered him saying. Then, he took away her
      Islamic books and said: It's either Islam or the

      Avelar replied: "Don't ever ask me to choose between
      you and my religion because I won't choose you."

      "That was the day he realized how serious I was," she

      Later, Avelar and her boyfriend had differences. They
      did not marry.
      Portrayals of Women

      After the juma , where Avelar recited verses from the
      Koran in the back of the mosque with the other women,
      she left through the same door she had entered.

      She said it doesn't bother her that women in Islam
      have different roles, roles that many westerners
      describe as repressed. Where they see inequality, she
      sees respect. A respect, she said, she doesn't see
      often in Latino culture.

      "The way Latin men portray women, it's terrible,"
      Avelar said. "You look at Spanish CDs, and you see
      women in bikinis on the cover."

      Before Islam: The day laborers at a nearby 7-Eleven
      whistled and cat-called -- " ¡Oy Mamacita ! " -- as
      she passed them.

      After Islam: The day laborers stared in silence as
      she, in her hijab, passed them.

      "The fact they stayed quiet, I was like, '
      Alhamdulillah! '," said Avelar, reciting the Arabic
      phrase "Praise be to Allah."

      "I love the respect that I get from the opposite sex
      [when I'm] in hijab."

      Her relationship with her brother also changed.

      Before Islam: "We were close," said Selwyn Avelar. "We
      used to go out and have a drink. We used to talk."

      After Islam: "I felt like she was a different person,"
      he said. "She wasn't the girl I had known for 25
      years. . . . I felt like she was trying to convert

      Yet she's also his sister. And he loves her. In recent
      months, he said, he's grown to admire her, for
      learning Arabic, for using her time wisely and for
      living a healthier and more constructive life.

      "Maybe there are times I don't talk to her about my
      life because she'll give me advice on the Muslim way,"
      he said. "But she's become more of an interesting
      person. I can learn more from her."

      And what about Avelar's father?

      Now, whenever a man visits their home, she said, he
      waits to see if his daughter is properly covered. He
      likes it that men don't ogle her and she doesn't drink
      alcohol and stay out late.

      His daughter believes he has found a comfortable
      © 2006 The Washington Post Company

      Meeting in L.A. to Discuss Views of Latinos and Blacks
      Draws Protesters
      Residents and political leaders fill a mosque for the
      first in a planned series of talks seeking unity as
      the Minuteman group rallies outside.
      By Larry Gordon, Times Staff Writer
      June 4, 2006


      A forum to discuss the viewpoints of Latinos and
      African Americans on such issues as immigration and
      jobs attracted about 200 people — and 20 protesters —
      Saturday night to a mosque near downtown Los Angeles.

      The event was intended to be the first of monthly
      "black and brown roundtables" on topics that tend to
      divide and unite the ethnic groups, which share
      neighborhoods in South Los Angeles and other parts of
      the region, according to organizer Najee Ali.

      Ali, an African American activist and director of
      Project Islamic HOPE, a nonprofit civil rights
      organization, said his goal was to have a frank forum,
      even if it triggered verbal fireworks.

      "I don't want a meeting where everyone gets together
      and sings 'Kumbaya.' This is a serious discussion; no
      holds barred," he said before the meeting, which was
      sponsored by the Latino and African American
      Leadership Alliance. "The only way both groups can
      understand each other is an honest discussion."

      In fact, tempers flared before the meeting started.

      Protesters from the Minuteman Project — which wants to
      stop illegal immigration by monitoring the border —
      lined Exposition Boulevard outside the Masjid Omar ibn
      Al-Khattab Mosque near USC. They waved American flags
      and carried placards bearing slogans such as "Secure
      the Border" and "Stop Illegal Immigration."

      As Assemblyman Mervyn Dymally (D-Compton), who is
      African American, walked into the mosque, he was
      taunted by Marvin Stewart, a spokesman for the
      protesters. "You have sold the black man out," said
      Stewart, who also is African American.

      Later, Dymally described the protesters as

      "The immigration issue is a red herring," he said,
      adding that healthcare and education were more
      important to the black community.

      Among the other speakers at the event were Rep. Diane
      Watson (D-Los Angeles), state Sen. Gloria Romero
      (D-Los Angeles), Assemblywoman Karen Bass (D-Los
      Angeles) and mayors Leticia Vasquez of Lynwood and
      Eric Perrodin of Compton.

      Also present was 45th Assembly District candidate
      Christine Chavez, a labor leader and granddaughter of
      United Farm Workers founder Cesar Chavez.

      Tension between blacks and Latinos has risen as
      immigrants from Mexico and Central America have moved
      into traditionally African American neighborhoods.

      Some blacks say they are losing jobs, housing and
      educational opportunities. Blacks and Latinos have
      brawled in the region's schools and prisons.

      Recent mass rallies for immigrant rights brought
      renewed attention to some of these issues.

      Most speakers Saturday appealed for blacks and Latinos
      to stay united.

      "It's important we build relations with each other and
      not let people pull us apart," said Perrodin of
      Compton, where he said the population is 60% Latino
      and 40% black.

      However, Romero said immigration remains a hot topic
      that divides even Latinos.

      "I think it's real. I don't think we can gloss it over
      and say, 'Let's hold hands,' " she said.

      She added, however, that it is still important for the
      two ethnic groups to come together on raising the
      minimum wage, keeping good jobs in the United States,
      improving education and reducing the
      disproportionately high number of minorities who are
      incarcerated as a result of the state's three-strikes

      More about Islam and Muslims in Latin America at:
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