The Latino Crescent

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image by Gerard Burkhart / The New York Times

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.

Although Islam has not permeated Latino culture to the extent that it has permeated black culture–24 percent of Muslim Americans are black–its influence is evident. Characters in the Spanish-language telenovela El Clon (The Clone) often discuss Islam and the prerequisites for becoming a Muslim. The appeal, Latinos who have converted say, comes from their search for a simpler and more intimate experience of God. They find the Muslim emphasis on family and conservative values familiar and, beyond that, Latinos often share neighborhoods with black and immigrant Muslims, and in turn develop strong ties as neighbors, friends, and coworkers.

The pale blue balloons floating on strings above the tables match Alex Robayo’s baby-blue collared shirt. As the Hispanic Muslim Day emcee, he speaks in both Spanish and English and directs his remarks primarily to the non–Muslims in the crowd.

“Are there any Catholics in the room?” he asks. A young dark-haired woman with a copy of El Coran, the Koran in Spanish, resting on the table in front of her quietly raises her hand and cringes slightly under the attention that turns in her direction.

Repeatedly, Robayo stresses the similarities between Christianity and Islam–the belief in one God and the many common prophets, including Jesus. Many converts say that they find the Christian idea of the Trinity complicated and that the monotheistic simplicity of the Islamic concept of tawheed–the “one true oneness of God”–has great appeal.

Robayo shares a story about his mother, a Roman Catholic, whom he picks up after Mass most weeks. He admires the beauty of the Catholic statues of Jesus and the saints but appreciates that in Islam there are no images. He likes the Islamic notion of a direct, unmediated conversation with God, a straightforward approach that appeals to many converts to Islam.

 “You may say in Spanish dios, in English God, in Arabic Allah,” Robayo tells the crowd. “Are dios and God different?”

“Dios es grande,” he says.

Excerpted from The Brooklyn Rail (Sept. 2009), an incisive, eclectic, free journal of arts, politics, and culture.

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