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.
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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.
reported by Houston Chronicles - Monica Rhor