Latino Muslims Build Identity

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Yolanda Rodriguez considers herself a Muslim first, then Mexican- American, but on her regular walks down 18th Street in Chicago, she does not wear a hijab, the traditional head covering worn by many Muslim women.

Well known in the Pilsen community as general manager of Radio Arte, a youth-oriented offshoot of the Mexican Fine Arts Center offering Spanish-language radio experience, Rodriguez, 33, often finds herself negotiating between her public persona and her personal faith.

She is comfortable in both worlds, but has chosen not to make her religious beliefs stand out. At least, not for now.

That decision is common among Chicago’s Latino Muslim population, a group consisting of perhaps tens of thousands of Spanish-speaking individuals who share Islam, but privately, without an overarching network or broad cultural background to support them.

Among more established Muslim groups in Chicago and nationwide, however, a growing conviction has emerged that this subset of American Islam deserves a greater voice. One sign is that issues particular to Latino Muslims will headline a series of lectures and presentations at an Islamic Society of North America convention beginning in Chicago Friday.

“The phenomenon is so big, but it’s not unified. It’s not in one place, they don’t know each other,” said Sayyid M. Sayeed, secretary general
of the society. The convention at the Holiday Inn O’Hare in Rosemont will feature lectures on Islamic literature in Spanish, religious education
for Latino Muslims, and profiles on Islam within various Latino cultures.

“There may be thousands, but we don’t have a sense of them,” Sayeed said.

“This is our way of providing a forum for those of them who are Muslims–they can come and share and interact and discuss their problems and issues…”

More established populations of Latino Muslims in Los Angeles and New York City have their own cultural centers and community support groups. In Chicago, activities are coordinated through informal webs of individuals.

Entrance into those networks is often gained through personal introductions, and often by chance meetings. Few know precisely who or
how many are in the groups, or how exactly to contact them.

Nevertheless, their existence is invaluable to Latino converts, said Rami Nashashibi, director of the Inner-City Muslim Action Network on West
63rd Street. His storefront religious center acts as an informal clearinghouse, introducing this teen to that mentor, or this Islamic group to that
neighborhood association or religious printer. People, Latinos included, literally walk in off the street…

Also taking notice are established Muslim organizations like the predominantly African-American Muslim American Society, said Ayesha K.
Mustafaa, editor of the Muslim Journal in Chicago. Cultural centers affiliated with the society have begun deliberate efforts to reach out to the expanding Spanish-speaking populations who live on the West and Southwest Sides.

Edmund Arroyo, 27, a school social worker who married an Indian Muslim, said Hispanic Muslims in America cannot yet draw on a distinct culture of their own for comfort.

“People ask, `What’s Latino Muslim culture like?’ And really, it hasn’t been created yet,” Arroyo said. “We’re just kind of figuring out what it
is, exactly, that works…”

* An Islamic conference hopes to give greater voice to a developing group that lacks a large cultural background or network in the Chicago area James Janega, Chicago Tribune, 7/5/02


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