The Latino Crescent

The changing face of Muslim America

| January-February 2010

  • Latino Musilms

    image by Gerard Burkhart / The New York Times

  • Latino Musilms

A woman wearing a hijab rushes up the stairs of a mosque in Union City, New Jersey. She is frantically murmuring, “Empanadas, empanadas, empanadas!” as if to remind herself to pick up the savory Latino pastries for the crowd waiting inside. The sixth annual Hispanic Muslim Day event is about to begin.

More than 60 percent of Union City’s population is Latino, and the storefronts in this neighborhood proudly display flags from Puerto Rico, Mexico, and the Dominican Republic. This stately columned building used to house the city’s Cuban community center, once a popular venue for traditional Hispanic celebrations like quinceañeras. For 17 years, it’s been the Islamic Educational Center of North Hudson.

Unlike churches and synagogues, mosques do not keep rosters of their worshippers. Where one goes to pray is more fluid in the Islamic tradition. Shinoa Matos, one of the young women in attendance, estimates that of the thousands of people who pray at the Union City mosque in any given week, more than a hundred are Latino. “Just like how there are Albanian mosques in Albanian neighborhoods,” she explains, “we are a Latino mosque because we are in a Latino neighborhood.” Islam, however, discourages differentiation among ethnic groups, she says, so Muslims try not to do it.

Inside the mosque the aromatic scent of steaming empanadas, spiced beef stuffed inside shells of puffed pastry, inundates the first floor auditorium. About a hundred people of various ages mingle around a dozen round tables covered with white plastic cloths and topped with cream-colored ceramic vases holding bouquets of purple silk pansies. Grandmothers coo over infants while a group of young men plug a laptop into the sound system to play nasheed, a traditional form of Islamic music. There are more women than men, and only a few women are not veiled. By what seems like an act of natural separation, the men sit on the left of the auditorium, the women on the right, with a few scattered in between.

Eventually Ramon Omar Abduraheem Ocasio comes to the front of the auditorium to give the keynote speech. He is a family man who found Islam in Harlem in the 1970s and reared his six children as Muslims. He describes what it was like in those days to be ostracized in the neighborhood’s mosques, which members of the Nation of Islam dominated.

Ocasio is one of the 44 million Latinos living in the United States who constitute the nation’s largest minority population, according to 2007 U.S. Census estimates. This, plus the rapid growth in the number of adherents of Islam in the United States, has given rise to the relatively new demographic of American Latino Muslims. In 1997 the American Muslim Council identified some 40,000 Hispanic Muslims in the country, a number that had swelled nine years later to a reported 200,000. A 2008 study by the Pew Forum on Religious and Public Life put the number of Latino Muslim U.S. residents at 4 percent of all Muslim U.S. residents. The figure represents a tiny minority within a tiny minority—just over half of 1 percent of the U.S. population—and a somewhat surprising one. Latinos have long been associated with the Roman Catholic Church and, more recently, with the evangelical Christian traditions. All the same, it is not unusual for Americans to change faith for another denomination, an entirely new religion, or no religion at all. For example, of the nearly one in three Americans raised as Catholics, fewer than a quarter still consider themselves Catholic.

12/29/2009 11:13:37 AM

Religion: if I can't walk freely on the face of the earth with the sun on my face, and the wind in my hair, and say hello to my neighbour, male or female, without being molested by zealots,or if I can't sing the beautiful works of the European baroque (Bach, Buxtehude, et al) or if I then I am NOT INTERESTED. Plain and simple.

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