What It’s Like Being A Latino Muslim In America

Though it's been more than a decade since César Dominguez visited Egypt, recalling the moment he visited a local mosque still overwhelms him with emotion. When he took a moment there to kneel down in prayer, he says he experienced a level of peacefulness he'd never felt before.

“A year later, I felt it was meant to be, and I embraced Islam,” Dominguez says. For two years after his conversion, Dominguez says he struggled with a coherent answer for his family as to why he converted to Islam. Eventually, he came to the place where he decided maybe there was no answer. Like falling in love, he says, you can describe the person you love, but why you love them is difficult to describe. 

Today, the 54-year-old Los Angeles-based Mexican-American — he grew up in Tijuana, but returned to the state where was born as an adult — he is the imam of the nonprofit group La Asociación Latino Musulmana de América (LALMA), teaching weekly Quran and Islamic studies classes in Spanish at the Omar ibn Al-Khattab Mosque, located in downtown Los Angeles, near the University Southern California. It's one of America's very few Latino mosques.

Dominguez and his congregation are part of a small but growing group of Latino Muslims, forming a unique nexus between two groups that have faced the Trump administration’s most xenophobic rhetoric. According to the Pew Research Center, at 57 million and counting, Latinos are the largest minority in the nation. So perhaps it isn't entirely surprising that Latino Muslims are also the fastest growing segment of America's 3.3 million Muslims in the nation, 6% of whom are Latino. 

“A lot of Latinos who grew up in Latin American countries and immigrated to the U.S., and those who grew up here, don’t like the notion of having to confess their sins, which is part of Catholicism,” says Jaime “Mujihid” Fletcher, founder of Islam in Spanish Centro Islámico, one of the also few Spanish-speaking mosques in the U.S.

“They haven’t liked the fact that the churches ask for a donation, and they feel as if money and religion are one in the same. They go in and come out and don’t feel the fulfillment of having a relationship with God. They look into Islam and realize it’s not dependent on a church or a mosque and can be practiced daily and happens to be in accordance with a lot of the ways Latinos were raised,” Fletcher adds.

Fletcher was born in Colombia, moved to Texas as a child, and converted to Islam in 2001. He founded Centro Islámico in Houston in January 2016. The huge space spans 5,000 square feet, boasting a prayer hall, Islamic museum, a social room, and a gift shop. Fletcher’s wife designed the building to resemble Mezquita de Córdoba in Spain. Congregational prayers are held every Friday, and they draw large crowds. 

A few months after his conversion, Fletcher says he took his father to a mosque. He had to translate for him because he doesn’t speak English or Arabic. Yet, just a few months later, his father converted to Islam. But there was very little information about Islam for him or other Latinos in Spanish. So Fletcher, his wife, and his father started recording audio and video content in Spanish, beginning with their first CD, “La Religión de la Verdad,” “The Religion of Truth.” They’ve since produced more than 500 audio books and about 250 videos that have aired on public access television. 

“When I converted, about two months before 9/11, I was one of a handful of Latino Muslims in Houston. Now, if you count families, it could range to about 1,000, that’s a huge growth, just within the time we opened the center. About 70 people have embraced Islam so far, and before the center, it was about 37 people.” 

“We’re not pushing an agenda to convert people because that’s not what we do. We basically educate people, but they’re very interested, especially when they learn that Islam ties back into their roots,” Fletcher says.

Arab Muslims ruled Spain for several centuries, and the religion's influence has left its mark on Latino culture and language: Thousands of Spanish words have their roots in Arabic. Fletcher believes this history has made a powerful impact on Latino converts. 

It certainly left an impression on Lucy Silva, a volunteer at the Islamic Center of Santa Ana (ICSA) in California. She was born in Chihuahua, Mexico, moved to Santa Ana as a child, and converted to Islam 19 years ago after marrying her Lebanese-born husband. These days, she's an ambassador of several programs at ICSA, primarily one that organizes a food pantry for its neighbors. During Ramadan, ICSA organizes a breaking of the fast meal as part of a national “Taco Truck at Every Mosque” campaign to promote Muslim-Latino unity.

Ironically, by putting these two groups in the crosshairs, it seems President Donald Trump has brought them together. “Latinos can see what Muslims do, and Muslims can see what we do. We’re trying to bridge that gap through food and language,” Silva says. 

Dominguez agrees, though for him, it's immigration bringing the groups together. In March, between Sunday classes, LALMA offered advice to students at Omar ibn Al-Khattab Mosque about their immigration rights. "I have seen more ... Islamic communities reaching out to the Latino community, [ever since] immigration issues became critical within both communities.” 

Fletcher says that at his mosque in Houston, the congregation has used fears of Trump as a jumping off point. "I knew that if he were elected, we would have our work cut out for us. But we are optimistic. This is an opportunity to let people know who we are.” 

- Rebekah Sager https://www.good.is/features/americas-only-latino-mosque

 

Univision interviews Jaime "Mujahid" Fletcher of IslamInSpanish regarding the deadly hate crime in Portland, Oregon...

Univision entrevista a Jaime Mujahid Fletcher de IslamInSpanish en relacion al crimen de odio mortal en Portland, Oregon después de que un atacante gritó insultos racistas a dos mujeres musulmanas para explicar que el tipo de trabajo de dialogo-abierto que Musulmanes Latinos llevan acabo en el Centro Islamico de IslamInSpanish es importante para no aislarnos y odiarnos por no conocernos que eventualmente es lo que conduce a la violencia.

Univision interviews Jaime "Mujahid" Fletcher of IslamInSpanish regarding the deadly hate crime in Portland, Oregon after an attacker shouted racist insults to two Muslim women to explain that the kind of open-dialogue being carried out by Latino Muslims at the IslamInSpanish Centro Islamico is important help not isolate us from one another which leads hate from us not knowing each other which ultimately leads to violence.

 

Latino Muslims get warm welcome at Spanish-speaking Houston mosque By Monica Rhor - Houston Chronicle

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 New Muslims can worship in Spanish at Centro Islamico

By Monica Rhor

After the call to prayer and the sermon in three languages, after members of the Southwest Houston mosque hailed one another with the traditional greeting of Assalam Alaikum and the sort of warm embraces familiar to Latino gatherings, the imam beckoned to the new convert.

Delmi Realegeño, a newly-arrived immigrant from El Salvador, walked to the center of the musalla, the prayer room, and spoke her shahada - the Muslim testimony of faith.

The 51-year-old housekeeper arrived in this country just five months ago and does not yet speak English, so she repeated the words in her native tongue, led by Imam Abdurahman Vega, who is from Colombia.

"I bear witness that there is no god except Allah. And I bear witness that Muhammad is the messenger of Allah."

Then Realegeño repeated her profession in faltering Arabic - a language she is working to master. With that, Realegeño, who first began to research Islam after the 9/11 attacks, was ushered into a new faith.

"Bienvenida a la gran familia de Islam," Vega said, as women wearing hijabs in lemon yellow, cobalt blue, deep black and bright floral patterns wrapped Realegeño in a cocoon of hugs and congratulations.

Translator

To read this article in one of Houston's most-spoken languages, click on the button below.

Welcome to the great family of Islam.

It was a welcome, as well, into a family within that family - into the ranks of the approximately 250,000 Latino Muslims in the United States, the fastest-growing segment of Islam in this country, and into the shelter of the Centro Islamico, believed to be the nation's only Spanish-speaking mosque.

Here, worshippers with roots in Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Mexico and other Latin American countries commune over potluck dinners of empanadas, arroz con gandules and halal tamales. They celebrate Cinco de Mayo and Ramadan. They pray in Arabic, Spanish and English.

"It's a wonderful sight to see," said Isa Parada, Centro Islamico's educational director and first full-time imam. "That's how you break down stereotypes and misunderstanding.

And, in a time of fractured politics and heated rhetoric, they serve as a much-needed bridge between communities often separated by suspicion and hostility.

****

From the outside, Centro Islamico looks like the bank building it once was - all geometric edges and sleek gray-and-glass design. But inside, it brims with touches that recall the architecture and beauty of Moorish Spain.

Red, green and blue stars dot a mural in the entry, reminiscent of decorative Islamic-influenced mosaics. Graceful arches in red and white stripes are patterned on the Mezquita de Córdoba, the 10th-century Spanish mosque where Christians and Muslims once prayed side by side.

The prayer room - Mezquita Al-Hamra - is named after the Alhambra, the Moorish palace in Granada. A classroom and recording studio has been dubbed "Estudio Andalucia," after the region in southern Spain.

The echoes are deliberate.

They speak to the deep connections between the Latino and Islamic cultures - from the Spanish language, which contains approximately 3,000 words with Arabic roots, to a shared history, which dates back to the Moorish occupation of the Iberian Peninsula.

The references to Andalucia and Moorish Spain also symbolize the mission of Centro Islamico, an offshoot of IslamInSpanish, an educational nonprofit started by Jaime "Mujahid" Fletcher in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

The 5,000-square-foot facility, which opened in early 2016, is designed to serve as a gathering space for both Latino Muslims and non-Muslims. The prayer room includes windows and upholstered benches for visitors who want to observe services. A reception area offers educational material in Spanish. Classes, which are streamed online, include Spanish, Arabic and "Islam 101," which introduces non-Muslims the fundamentals of the faith.

On one wall, a pair of plaques encourage all who enter: "Bienvenidos, mi casa es su casa." (Welcome, my house is your house) "Donde esta Dios, no falta nada." (Where God dwells, nothing is lacking.)

"We want to create an environment where people can continue having dialogue and get to know how we function as Muslims," Fletcher said. "That is the essence of what we do."

It is also a personal necessity for many of the mosque members who, like Fletcher, have converted to Islam - a decision many non-Muslim family members grappled to accept and understand.

"We have different cultures within our own families," Parada said, "so we have interfaith dialogue every day."

Parada, whose family is from El Salvador, first discovered Islam when he read the "Autobiography of Malcolm X." At the time, he was 14, treading a dangerous line by mixing with gangs, drugs and drinking. He was intrigued by Malcolm X's journey from petty criminal to black activist to observant Muslim. He could relate to his struggles, his search for redemption.

But it would take several more years and two significant jolts - his father going to jail, and his little sister beginning to dabble in the street life - before Parada, raised as a Catholic, was ready to commit to a new faith. At 19, he converted to Islam, and eight months later, married another convert.

Initially, their conversion rankled both of their families. Then his older sister, a devout Catholic, noticed how Islam had changed him for the better. His mother reconciled that Islam was not a rejection of Jesus. His mother-in-law softened after grandchildren were born.

The key, says Parada, was talking honestly about beliefs and welcoming non-Muslim family members to the mosque for sermons, potlucks and carnivals.

"Our faith teaches us to educate and inform," said Parada, now 39.

****

On a recent Saturday, members of the mosque distributed donations to needy families in the Alief area as part of a "Giving Back to the Barrio" clothing drive. It was a way of doing good while building a sense of understanding and dialogue, Fletcher said.

"When people don't know each other, it's so much easier to isolate each other," he said. "The next step is to hate one another."

For Latino Muslims, the danger of being isolated and stereotyped is even more prevalent now, in the context of the Trump administration's proposed Muslim ban, immigration crackdown and political rhetoric targeting both Muslims and Latinos, Fletcher said.

"We have a double whammy because he started his whole campaign by bashing on Mexicans for being criminals and rapists and Muslims for being terrorists," he said.

The day after the November presidential election, Fletcher heard fellow mosque members tell stories of Latino children afraid that their families would be torn apart, Muslim children worried that they would be killed, parents fearful that they would need to flee the country. A Facebook Live stream of a meeting at Centro Islamico had to be taken down because it spurred so many negative comments.

But, for Fletcher, the election fallout has been a wake-up call - a challenge to continue building bridges, rather than walls.

"We can't be governed by fear. We have to be proud of who we are," he said. "We have to get to know each other and work for common good. That's the clear message."

***

Thirty minutes before the Friday call to prayer, Centro Islamico was already bustling. Women in head scarves and abayas pushing strollers, small children darting down the halls, men in baseball caps and skullcaps slipping off shoes.

They huddled together as if at a family reunion, exchanging hugs and hellos, cooing at babies, catching up on gossip.

Then the adhan - call to prayer - sounded and a hush fell over those gathered in the prayer room. The men moved to the front, the women and children gathered in the back.

Parada, standing behind a pulpit of polished wood, began his sermon, alternating between Arabic and Spanish. An English rendition would come at the end.

"May all praise be for Allah," he intoned.

The upcoming month of Ramadan, Parada preached, presents an opportunity to perform good deeds that bring believers closer to Allah and create a chain linking all those who have helped others.

Realegeño the Salvadoran immigrant about to speak her shahada, listened from a corner.

After 9/11, as stories about Muslims circulated, she began to look into the religion for herself. It was, she says, much different from the negative portrayals she had been seeing. She was further drawn into the faith by seeing the example of her employer, a Pakistani-American surgeon and his family who are observant Muslims.

They brought Realegeño to Centro Islamico so she could practice Islam in her own language.

A few feet away, Monica Morales sat on one of the benches, her hair covered with a bright yellow hijab. Her son, Omar, took a seat on the prayer rug next to the other men.

For Morales, that sight brought comfort she had not found in other mosques. Omar, now 20, is disabled and has trouble speaking. In other masjids, she could not pray in the same room.

At Centro Islamico, Omar has been enveloped with kindness and love. "More than his father has ever shown," said Morales, who was raised in Alief by Mexican immigrant parents.

Here, the atmosphere and culture felt innately familiar. She felt immediately at home.

"Estamos bienvenidos," she explained.

We are welcomed.

http://www.houstonchronicle.com/news/houston-texas/houston/article/Latino-Muslims-get-warm-welcome-at-11177296.php#photo-12981066

 reported by Houston Chronicles - Monica Rhor

“What A Relief” Podcast 50: IslamInSpanish: Empowering An Underserved Community Part II

“What A Relief” Podcast 50: IslamInSpanish: Empowering An Underserved Community Part II

Islamic Relief Usa

B.C. Dodge & R. Mordant Mahon talk to Jaime Mujahid Fletcher in this episode of “What a Relief!” — IRUSA’s official podcast.

“What A Relief” Podcast 49: IslamInSpanish – Empowering An Underserved Community

“What A Relief” Podcast 49: IslamInSpanish – Empowering An Underserved Community

Islamic Relief Usa

B.C. Dodge & R. Mordant Mahon talk to Jaime Mujahid Fletcher in this episode of “What a Relief!” — IRUSA’s official podcast.