From Cross to Crescent

Why Latinos are increasingly converting to Islam

Islamic prayers mingled with the bustling sounds of traffic as he prostrated himself in prayer in a little mosque in Havana, Cuba, recalls Diego Santos, a Cuban-American who traveled to the communist state not long ago to visit his family.

A recent convert to Islam and a writer who prefers not to use his real name, Santos says that Islam in Cuba—like in America—is becoming more visible and that during his stay he found no attempt to repress it.  In fact, after jum’a, Friday prayers, Santos talked openly in Spanish about Islam with fellow Muslims while strolling down the crowded streets of old Havana, even passing the government offices of the Cuban Community for the Defense of the Revolution, which has a notorious reputation for being the snitch center for Cuban rule breakers. “Nobody was hiding their Islam in Havana,” says Santos.

Back in Los Angeles, Santos attends meetings of the Los Angeles Latino Muslim Association (LALMA), an organization working to help inform the Latino community about Islam. Santos says as a Cuban-American that he has been well embraced by the Muslim community in America because his conversion confirms Islam as a universal religion. Santos hopes that more people will understand that Islam is for everyone whether they live in Europe, America or even Cuba. 


Spanish Roots

And for many Latino Muslims living in America, Islam has brought them closer to a community they’ve long felt estranged from—Muslim Spain. Ramirez, leader of LALMA, says that the Catholicism brought to the indigenous people of the New World by the Spanish was not voluntary. It was forced, brutal and genocidal.

On the other hand, Ramirez says, Islam represents a religious tradition brought to Latin America via Muslim slaves that was much more accepted and self-sustained, despite continuous efforts by the colonial powers to viciously stomp it out.

“I think my learning about Islamic Spain gave me an impetus for learning more about Islam, and may have played a role in my conversion,” says Juan Alvarado, a spokesperson for the Latino American Dawah Organization (LADO), a national organization based in New York that promotes Islam among Latinos.  Alvarado lives in a rural part of Pennsylvania with no Muslims and has to travel an hour to the nearest mosque.


Muslim Renaissance

A great source of pride for Latino Muslims is the understanding that many major advances in the areas of science, medicine, mathematics and philosophy have Arab and Muslim origins. In fact, John L. Esposito, Islamic scholar and author, says, “Many of the great medieval Christian philosophers and theologians—Albert the Great, Thomas Aquinas, Roger Bacon—acknowledged their debt to their Muslim predecessors.”

“Rivera went on the popular Christina talk show and said that you canít blame Islam for 9/11 any more than you can blame Christianity for what Timothy McVeigh did in Oklahoma.”

The Latino-Arab connection is also evident in other areas. According to Alvarado, many common Hispanic surnames have Arabic origins. For example, Garcia comes from the Arabic word Gharsiyya; Medina from Madina; Padilla from Abdillah and Ventura from Ben Tura. Latino Muslims say that up to 4,000 words in Spanish are Arabic in origin.

Converts and Challenges

Despite the historical nexus between Muslim and Latino traditions, there still remain cultural challenges and stereotypes for Latino Muslims to overcome. Jurlio Moreno, 58, who lives in Los Angeles and is a member of LALMA, says that when he converted to Islam his wife asked him if he was a terrorist. Moreno responded: “You have known me my whole life. You know I’m no terrorist.”

After 9/11, the headscarf-wearing Khadijah Rivera, founder of the Florida-based PIEDAD, says someone spat in her face and others shouted obscenities at her. “I could have taken off my hijab (head scarf) or spoken out,” says Rivera. Rivera chose to speak out and went on the popular Christina talk show and said that you can’t blame Islam for 9/11 any more than you can blame Christianity for what Timothy McVeigh did in Oklahoma.

As Latino Muslims, Pena says they share in the same persecution that other Muslims face in America. The only difference, says Pena, is that Latino Muslims can remain concealed if they choose. “Because my name is Ricardo Pena and not Osama Al-something, people generally assume that I am anything else but Muslim.”

Pena adds, “I always joke that people react to us as though they had just seen a Leprechaun. ‘Look honey! It’s a real live Latino Muslim.’”

Keeping the Culture

Dawud Khalil-ullah Abdullah, 54, a Muslim educator in Los Angeles, says that Allah did not send Islam to destroy any culture, but to purify it. “You’re free to stay in whatever culture you were born into,” says Abdullah. “You can be a Mexican and keep eating burritos and tacos, and you don’t have to change what you eat or how you dress as long as it fits within Islamic perimeters. You can’t eat menudo with pork in it, but you can eat menudo without the pork.”  

Khadijah Rivera says that there are still challenges for Latinos Muslims, but some things don’t change. “I may have converted to Islam,” she says. “But I haven’t lost my salsa, my zest for life.”

[Some readers may wonder why Busted Halo®—which is sponsored by a Catholic organization—addresses various approaches to belief (or non-belief) and spirituality like the one above. Busted Halo® is an online magazine for the millions of spiritual seekers who already live in a competitive marketplace of ideas, philosophies and beliefs; our mission is to empower them to explore their own faith journeys through an open, honest discussion of their fellow seekers’ experiences. -Editor]