Salwa (née Silvia) Del Carmen has been asked a lot of silly questions since becoming a Muslim at the age of 15, but she insists that there are few contradiction between Latino culture and Islamic beliefs, and those that exist are minor. “No more arroz con salchichón,” she jokes. “We change that to fried keilbasa.” Contrary to popular belief, less than 10 per cent of the world`s 1.3 billion Muslims are Arabs. The American Muslim Council conservatively estimates that there are 25,000 Latino Muslims in the United States while a 2001 study of mosques in the U.S. estimated that about 6 per cent of American converts to Islam are Latinos.
Young Puerto Rican activists in New York founded Alianza Islamica, the first Latino Muslim association in 1975, and similar organizations exist in major cities across the U.S. However, the religion`s history in Latin America dates back to the Moriscos of Northern Africa who came to Spain in the 8th century and forced to convert to Christianity.
Given this extensive history, Latino Muslims often claim to “revert” to Islam – return to their ancestors` religion. “Muslims can identify and sympathize with the Aztecs, Mayas, Incas and other Native American peoples in that we were all victims of the crusading mentality of Catholic Church and the brutal armies of the Spanish crown,” says Felicitas Ramirez de Galedary, president of the Los Angeles Latino Muslim Association. Born in a small village in Guerrero, Mexico, Galedary turned to Islam in the summer of 1981 when she went to England to study English and met three Muslim men from Brunei.
“They never talked to me about Islam. The most important factor that attracted my attention was the way I was treated as a woman. With respect, kindness, and a clean attitude. I had the feeling of being safe with them,” she explains. “When I returned to Mexico City, we kept correspondence and finally one day I asked them how to communicate with their God. In response I received a book. Islam in Focus.” That began the two-year process that ended in December 1983 when at the age of 29, Galedary gave her testimony of faith.
Del Carmen`s introduction to Islam came from another Latino who gave her the Qur`an and to this day may not know the lasting impact he had. “I never saw that brother again. May Allah bless him for giving me that Qur`an to further understand after I dissed him left and right! I said to myself let me read it before I discard of it. I never discarded it, and I have it on a stand.”
Born in Brooklyn, NY and now living in Springfield, MA, Del Carmen admits to harboring once the same stereotypes of Muslims. “Before I became Muslim I viewed Arabs and Muslims as terrorists,” she says. Now Del Carmen and her husband – an Arab of Yemenite descent – worry for their six children. “They are all homeschooled since we have so many patriots, it`s scary sending your kids to school,” she says. “My daughter also wears a headscarf, and it`s especially hard for her. Though I told her she didn`t have to cover up, she refused to give up the hijab.”
The pain is worse when the attacks come from one`s own. Del Carmen tells of another Latina who told her family to go to hell. “My children are the most hurt,” she says. They ask, `Mami, why that lady was cursing at us? Isn`t she Spanish also? Why she told us to go to the Shaytans palace?`” She sees the current war on Iraq as the Bush Administration`s quest to control its oil and Americanize its people. “Just like they`ve been after Puerto Rico. I can fully relate with the Iraqi I saw on TV who said `OK, America, you finish, now go home and let us run our own country,`” she says. “My views on America are not on the Americans, but its political ways. Thousands of Muslims voted for Bush. I didn`t. I knew he was going to finish what his father started.”
Galedary agrees, citing the U.S. expansionist policies in Latin America as evidence of its history of ignoring the sovereign right of any nation to remove a tyrannical regime. “We – the U.S.A. – do not have to fix the world`s problems with war. The Qur`an teaches that God created human beings into different nations and tribes so that we could get to know one another not to despise each other.”
“All I changed was my religion, not my culture, mi paíz, mi tierra,” says Del Carmen. “My over garment doesn`t say I`m not Latina anymore. It says open your arms to me again. I miss mi gente.”
Sofia Quintero is a freelance writer living in New York City.