Latinos find simplicity in Islam

Category: Americas, Life & Society Topics: Family, Islam, Women Views: 11311

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 voice.

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 immigrants.

The men entered the front door. Avelar glided to a side entrance with the other women and vanished inside.

Questioning Catholicism

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 satisfactory explanation.

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 husband.

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 hot."

Ellis, who is tall and slender, walked up and broke out in Spanish. The startled women quickly headed out the door.

Religious Curiosity

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.

Latino Muslims from Los Angeles pose for a group photo

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 smeared.

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 interviewed.)

"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 hyphen.

"I love my country. I love living here. I love being Latina," she said. "But more than anything else, I love Islam."

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 family.

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 said.

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 me.''

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 balance.

 

Sudarsan Raghavan is a Staff Writer at Washington Post


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  19 Comments   Comment

  1. elmi from somalia

    mashallah thats a very nice and intresting stery

    allhamdulilah for ALLAH guiding u to the right path

    as wr wb

  2. Saidon Hadis from Mlaysia

    'Assalamualaikum,

    On reading Avelar predicament I was so moved. While reading her story on the desktop computer screen, profusely I constantly wiping off tears streaming down my face. Though happy but felt the kind of everyday life that Avelar is facing. I am a born muslim. I stayed for 3 years in Midwest Colorado in late 80s. There I had the chace to meet many Latino students like Avelar. Being born muslim we rarely value the sweetness bestowed by Allah through Islam, more often take thing for granted. At the moment I wrote this I pray hard to Allah that your Father and Brother will see the manifestation of Islam beauty through your life.

    Wassalam.

    Saidon Hadis

  3. miftah shemsu from Ethiopia

    I loved this part because it will teach many Muslims. For those who think the westerns culture is a holly one, especially in my country

  4. Fatima from USA

    Asalamu Alaikum to all my brothers and sisters in Islam.First and foremost I would like to thank Islamicity staff for putting together this amazing website. It's really great to see how many people are embracing Islam everyday. In addition, Iam very appreciative to people like Jackie Avelar for giving positive feedback about her journey through finding Islam.

  5. Max from usa

    Sudarsan,,, U posted beautiful article , May Almighty reward you

    for your effort....Max

  6. Muhammad Taufik Arifin from Indonesia

    Assalamualaikum, this is very interesting story. Actually the stroy has been published in local large newspaper 2 weeks ago. Lot of readers like it.

  7. Gh. Rasool Begh from India

    Islam is the only perfect and universal religion. Unfortunately we Muslims donot propogate it in the right perspective. It shapes ones Life after Death and provides u an easy path to earn reward from Allah

  8. Surrayya from USA

    salams

    I have met latino muslims and mashallah I was impressed with their sincerity and integrity. 'This religion will reach where ever there is a night and a day', said Nabi Kareem (peace be upon him), which includes other planets, not just this one. This planett is well on its way towards turning Muslim... Allah Akbar

  9. Ismail Nasheed from Rep.of.Maldives

    Assalamu Alaikum Sisters and Brothers.

    I've read some of the artical that is about how a some embraced Islam.While I was reading,the storeis of those who embraced Islam among famlies of none-muslims,made me cry due to happines I got.Alhamdhu lillahi. May Almighty ALLAH bless them for eternity.

    Yours brother

    Ismail Nasheed

  10. Mustafa from Canada

    May Allah Protect you from the evil and also provide proper guidance to your family and make Islam easy for them too. I wish the best for you and hope you lead a prosperous life

  11. firdeuse from Kosova

    Eselamu alejkum

    I'ts very amesing story elhamdulilah .Allah bless you for givin us the oportinity to become closer to our brothers and sisters in islam.

  12. MOHAMMAD SYED from USA

    Raghavan: I thank you for a wonderful profile of Avelar.It is a rare moment to read a positive story about Muslims or Islam. You brought a joy to me today.

    To sister Avelar: You have been guided by your Creater. You are blessed. May Allah's blessing be upon you and your family. I have nothing but high admiration for you. You are an example for others to emulate. May Allah protect you, have Mercy on you, and give you Happiness for ever.

    Mohammad Syed

  13. Daniel from United States of America

    Assalamu alykum!

    Interesting article. I am a revert myself, latino and catholic background. The experience of the long journey into Islam was not so hard, but long in my case. The most important struggle, i think, is cultural, not entirely religious.

    The religious step was easier, alhamdulillah, just because God in His Mercy enlights the heart and gives you tools to understand the Islam, so one can take the step.

    But culturally is hard. Even today, after several years in Islam, with a comfortable practice of my faith, still so many people, when I openly share my belief say "Oh, I didn't know you were arab..." For some many non-Muslims, being Muslim equals to have arab ethnic background. Or the question "latino Muslim?? how come?". But you know? The confusion and the misconception becomes a tool to start, usually, a good conversation about the universal call of Islam for mankind.

    Salaam.

  14. Cabdul from USA

    Thanks a great deal Islamicity for bringing the News about Muslims and Islam where ever it breaks to our BED-ROOMS. To the best of my knowledge, Islamicity is unparalleled when it comes to honest and fair reporting...Bravo ! Islamicity. Many Muslims including myself, and many Truth-seeking non-Muslims are grateful for the excellent work you are doing in trying to bring humanity together to a common and better goal. Keep it up

  15. Kris from Malaysia

    Assalamualaikum wrbt.

    I find the article very enlightening especially in regards to the life of the new converts. I am a born Muslim myself, yet I see that there are some Muslims today who took the Shahada for granted, lest of all try to improve the spiritual well being of their lives through the faith. I see the immemse potential to spread this message of GOD to the other parts of the globe.

    But Muslims in the Islamic world must show that they are practising Muslims or at least the basic teachings and tenets of Islam must be followed. The horrifying picture of shallow politics and extremism which has none to do with Islam are matters that do not attract the other " yet to be believers " to the arms and embrace of the the truth. We must spread the truth by good example.

    Just look at the compassion that the Prophet Muhamad ( peace be upon him ) showed to the non believers. Just look at the respect that the opponent armies showed to the Muslim soldiers during the early period of Islam. Just look at the Islamic conduct of the Caliphs rulers and their administrators, they ruled countries and nations with a deep feeling of fear and love of GOD in them.

    Just ponder upon the achievement of Muslim scientists, doctors, mathematicians, and other learned people, they had immemsely contributed to the field of knowledge which stemmed from their faith and true following of the Islamic teachings.

    But what do we have now ? Do most of us preach the word of GOD in wisdom to the human race ? Or are we rather embroiled in selfish and self centred politics that we failed to realise that it was actually our selfish political ideology that we are advocating rather than the religion itself ?

    To my Latino brothers and sisters in Islam, please presevere and take comfort in your new found faith. Please continue to search for further knowledge of the religion itself and ALLAH ALmighty Will Guide you, Insya ALLAH.

    Wasalamualaikum wrbt.

    Your

  16. Shahana (16) from England (UK)

    Mashallah im extremely pleased with this story of how many of those Muslim Brothers and Sisters have converted and to have been returning. It does me proud to see how many have fought there battles to try and follow Islam...its all about striving for Allah subhana Wa Tha Alah.

  17. ahmed asgher from bahrain

    there is a story when prophet mohammad pbuh went into kabba to smash all the idols, he came across the statue of mother mary with baby jesus, he is reported to have covered this statue with his cloak thus giving immunity to the symbol from being smashed. i think there is a moral to this story: that is jesus was a brother to mohammad peace be upon them all. if anyone truly follows one it is as if he/she follows the other, because they both carried the same message from the same source. except each came at a different time for their own folk - their message though is ONE. worship ONE, none other. likewise: the people of the 3 monolethic religions are brother/sisters unto each others. the same applies to all humanity. it is just how we see each other. do we fulfill our own beliefs or that of our Creator: who created us from one soul.

  18. Kam

    Let us all hope the new converts find comfort, strength and solace in whatever the new finds they stumble upon now that the bridges are burnt down forever and as there is no way to turn back.

    I wonder if a Faith is necessary at all to everyone else!

    Kam