BY LEAH BINKOVITZ · AUGUST 29, 2016
It’s a typical Friday afternoon service inside the mosque on the western edge of Houston. Children slip their shoes off outside the worship space and run ahead of their parents as they find a spot on the vibrant green carpet inside. Women in the back. Men in the front. Everyone facing East.
People greet each other with the customary “Assalamu alaikum,” but what follows is less typical.
“Cómo estás, hermana,” the women say to each other as they embrace. And to the men, “hermano.” A donation box asks for money for Qurans in Spanish to send to Latin America.
Located in the shadow of Highway 6 passing over the Westpark Tollway, the organization Islam In Spanish opened Houston’s only Spanish-language mosque earlier this year, called the Centro Islámico.
Already 15 years old, Islam in Spanish has produced hundreds of video programs — produced in Spanish and available online as well as on local public television channels — about the religion. It also distributes information via CDs and other means in order to reach Spanish-speaking populations across the world.
But it makes sense that’s it here, along what may be Houston’s most diverse thoroughfare, that Islam in Spanish came to be. A parade of strip malls passes by the windows of the cars speeding up and down six lanes of traffic on Highway 6 near the mosque. All the big chain stores can be seen — but so too can the diversity of the area.
Opened inside a nondescript office building, Islam In Spanish shares a parking lot with a small Muslim school and sits across the street from an African food market and another mosque. Down the street, there’s a Fiesta, the now-defunct Bollywood Cinema 6, and Mercado 6, a sprawling indoor flea market.
“I can’t think of a better location,” said Jaime Mujahid Fletcher, founder of Islam In Spanish. Houston is home to growing Muslim and Latino communities, and — though much smaller than either — Fletcher says the area also hosts one of the nation’s emerging Latino Muslim communities.
He estimates there are roughly 1,000 Latino Muslims in the Houston area. But with its new center and a Latino Muslim convention — with programming in Spanish — planned for December at the George R. Brown Convention Center downtown, Islam In Spanish hopes to become an international hub for the Latino-Muslim movement.
Latino converts are hardly unique. About half of all American adults have changed their religious affiliation at least once in their lifetimes, according to Pew Research. And of Muslims born in the United States, an estimated 10 percent are Hispanic, compared to only 4 percent of Muslims born in another country. There are growing communities of Latino Muslims in New York City, Miami, Chicago and Los Angeles.
When Hjamil A. Martínez-Vázquez, a religious studies scholar, wrote about Latino Muslims in his 2010 book, Latina/o y Musulmán: The Construction of Latina/o Identity among Latina/o Muslims in the United States, he estimated that there were between 50,000 and 75,000 Latino Muslims in the United States, describing the community as still emerging and made up largely of converts who tended to be women.