At 16 years old, Jason Perez was dealing drugs in his Massachusetts neighborhood. By the time the documentary New Muslim Cool begins, Perez has converted to Islam, changed his name to Hamza Perez, and moved to Pittsburgh to start a Muslim community. The film tracks Perez through intimate and important episodes of his life, including his wedding to a Muslim woman and the birth of their first child. Every moment evokes a larger theme of what it means to be Latino and Muslim in post-9-11 America.
Perez, like many Latinos, grew up Catholic. His mother is quoted in the film talking about the family’s struggle to reconcile her son’s faith with the rest of her Puerto Rican family. With his conversion to Islam, Perez is no longer able to eat the lechong, the roasted pig, which is popular in Puerto Rico.
Conversion to Islam doesn’t mean giving up on Puerto Rican culture, however. As one half of the hip hop duo, the Mujahadeen Team, Perez and his brother Suliman mix Latino and African American influences, often with strong Islamic messages.
Not everyone has found the conversion to Islam as natural as Perez’s. An article for the Brooklyn Rail profiles various Latino converts to Islam and the struggles they’ve encountered. Some Latinos have been made to feel unwelcome in certain Mosques, where speaking Spanish was looked down on. Some Latino families profiled in the piece have refused to accept their children’s conversions to Islam, in one case continuing to serve pig products, knowing of the dietary restrictions.
Estimates vary on the number of Latino Muslims in the United States. According to a Voice of America article from 2007, there are anywhere between 70,000 and 200,000. The group still represents a small minority within a minority, but people like Perez aim to change that by converting more people to Islam.
The Brooklyn Rail quotes Alex Robayo, the host at a Hispanic Muslim Day, who tried to emphasize the similarities between Catholicism “You may say in Spanish ‘dios,’ in English ‘God,’ in Arabic ‘Allah. Is dios and God different?” Robayo added, “Dios es grande.”