When Zulayka Martinez left the Roman Catholic Church and converted to Islam six years ago, she was happy and at peace with her decision. But she felt like an outsider in her new faith. Looking back, she realizes her problem was more of a cultural and language barrier. Most members of Houston mosques were of Arab or Pakistani backgrounds. She didn't know any Spanish-speaking Muslims. And as a single woman, she found it especially hard during holidays. "My first two Ramadans, I felt very alone," she said, referring to the holy month. At first, she was afraid to tell her parents that she had converted. "But after I did, my mother would fix me food to break the fast." What a difference six years make. In that time, Martinez has become the center of a close-knit group of Latina Muslims who support each other throughout Ramadan and the rest of the year. For today's festive Eid al-Fitr, the day that ends the month of fasting, she is organizing the women for morning prayers and a celebratory brunch. "She is the mole that holds us together," Adriana Castillo-Shah said. "She is like me, always saying we are doing this or that, always supportive, always getting us together."
During Ramadan, the women often met for sunset prayers at local mosques and to break the daily fast. They gathered weekly at different homes for festive Iftar dinners. As the early evening sky began to darken from rosy pink to deep blue on a recent Saturday, Martinez anxiously looked at her watch. "They're always late," she said. "We work on Mexican time." No sooner had she spoken than her Iftar guests arrived, several holding small children by the hand. As they entered, each woman took a date from a bowl and ate it to break the fast, then took a sip of water. In the corner of the living room they set up a prayer rug. Castillo-Shah whipped a compass out of her purse to determine the direction of Mecca. At 7 p.m., she called out the prayers as the women bowed, stood up and bowed again. "We each take turns calling the prayers," Castillo-Shah said. "I'm terrible with directions so I take my compass everywhere. At home I have an alarm clock that sings out the call to prayers, so I can't forget." Reasons for conversion The lively group chatted in Spanish and English while Martinez prepared chicken enchiladas and lamb in her sister's kitchen, borrowed for the evening. No one seemed bothered by the large picture of The Last Supper behind the table or by the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe on the wall.
Castillo-Shah said that removing pictures like that from the walls of her home was one of the hardest things she did after converting three years ago. They told a visitor of their reasons for converting: they were attracted by the simplicity of Islam; the fact that they could pray directly to God without an intermediary (something they could do under Catholicism as well); Islam's focus on close family ties, similar to that generally found in Latino culture; and respect for women. Some felt they were discovering lost roots from Islamic Spain. "Before I was Muslim, I used to wish I was covered," said Maria Franco, a native of Monterrey, Mexico. "Back home, people would say, 'Oooooh, you good-looking girl,' and make many other rude comments. I hated that." Franco was a single mother with a son when she converted to Islam in 1998. Her father once made fun of her decision, but became so impressed with his daughter's devotion that he eventually converted to Islam, as did one of her brothers. Castillo-Shah converted to Islam seven years after marrying a Muslim. She had not planned to convert and said she never felt pressured to do so by her husband, a native of Pakistan. But the more she learned about Islam, the more convinced she became that it was the right path for her. She converted and surprised her husband. "He was so excited and called all his family," she said. Over dinner, the women chatted about the upcoming wedding of fellow convert Nyelene Ismail. Others talked about the challenges of fasting from sunrise to sunset during Ramadan. Castillo-Shah, for example, has diabetes and under Islamic law is not required to fast. But she wants to please Allah, she said, so she has fasted since converting. Her friends keep close watch over her and her blood sugar. Also on their minds was fashion, and what they might wear on Eid al-Fitr.
Martinez, who is known for her color-coordinated, sparkly headscarves, will choose one that matches the outfit she wears. It might be a stylish hijab made by her mother. "At the beginning, I didn't want to wear the scarf and long dresses," Martinez said. "... When Hurricane Rita was coming, the first thing I packed was my scarves and my pictures. Clothes I can buy, but I can never replace all those scarves." It took more than a year for Martinez to make her first Hispanic Muslim friend. Then, three years after her conversion, a class in Spanish for female converts and others interested in learning about Islam began at El Farouq, the mosque she most frequently attends. Now, Martinez said, she is meeting Latino converts, both new and old, almost weekly. Just recently she was at Starbucks when a young Hispanic woman asked about her head scarf. The stranger said she had always been interested in Islam. Several days later, she accompanied Martinez to evening prayers at a mosque. At the Iftar gathering, several women said they had converted because they were searching for something they could not find in Catholicism. That was not the case for Martinez, who initially tried to convince a Muslim acquaintance that Catholicism was a better choice. "Before I could do that, I felt I needed to find out more about his religion," she recalls. "So I got a Quran and some books."
Looking for answers During a Catholic retreat, she found herself reading the Quran instead of the Bible. To Martinez, the Quran was similar but more descriptive. It also answered questions she had not found in the Bible. "I was scared, though my heart felt so at ease and I thought: 'Is this from the devil?" she recalled. "I went to the priest to make confession, and I started crying. That's when he said: 'I have read the Quran. I understand it. But you need to follow your religion. Muslims are not bad people, but they are not right. We are correct. Don't question your religion; practice it, but don't question it.' " Martinez didn't like the answer. As she continued her research, she realized that Islam respected and honored Jesus as a prophet. That removed the last stumbling block. "To me, I didn't abandon Christianity, I discovered a religion that continued it," she said.
The women are sometimes criticized by other Hispanics about their decision to convert. That's why Martinez felt it was important for them to be united as Latinas and Muslims.