Latino Muslims: A Clash of Culture, Faith
- 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
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
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
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
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
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: