Spain's Islamic Past & Today's Latino in America
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If it’s a surprise that many Latinos are moving from a predominantly Roman Catholic culture to an originally Arab faith, perhaps it shouldn’t be. For one thing, like African-Americans in the 1960s, Latinos are discovering their own historical and cultural ties to Islam and the Arab world. And that starts with what most defines Latinos: Spanish.
“Our language is nurtured by more than 4,000 words that come from Arabic,” says Wilfredo Ruiz, a Puerto Rican-born Muslim who converted a decade ago and is a lawyer for the South Florida chapter of the Council of American-Islamic Relations. “Every word in Spanish that starts with ‘al,’ for example, like alcalde, alcantarilla, almohada.”
That’s because Arab Muslims ruled Spain for some 800 years during the Middle Ages – and made the Iberian Peninsula one of the most advanced civilizations of its time. A millennium later, Ruiz says that past is an inescapable part of the Hispanic DNA.
The American Muslim Association of North America, based in North Miami, says heavily Hispanic South Florida in particular is home to a rising number of Latino Muslims.
“What most Latinos who have embraced Islam find most amazing is their cultural affinity to the Muslim culture,” says Ruiz. “It’s like rediscovering your past. That area of our past has been hidden from us.”
Ruiz points out that both Latinos and Arabs highly value the extended family and traditions like offering hospitality to strangers. In religious terms, Latinos like Gonzalez say Islam provides a simpler, more direct form of worship than Catholicism does. They also feel more structure than they see in the evangelical churches so many Latinos join today.
“The connection I have with God now is better than before,” says Gonzalez.
Yet many take comfort in the overlap between Catholicism and Islam. Muslims, for example, venerate the Virgin Mary as well as Jesus, at least as a prophet.
“At the beginning when I was reading the Koran I said, “Oh, [Muslims] believe in the hereafter, in angels,’” says Liliana Parodi, a Peruvian-American surgical technician in Miami who converted 24 years ago. “You know, it’s not so much difference.”
Latino Muslim leaders from around the United States gathered in Houston, Texas, for the opening of IslamInSpanish, a spacious, state-of-the-art community centre. As children bounced around in an inflatable castle, hundreds sat under an awning decorated with flags from across Latin America, listening to community elders describe just how historic this occasion was for Latino Muslim history.
In the late 1980s, the Alianza Islamica was launched in East Harlem, by a cluster of Puerto Rican converts. The Alianza had an activist mission, providing social services and neighborhood security.
The next Hispanic Muslim community to form appeared in the early 2000s in Union City, New Jersey - a city that according to the Census Bureau is 85 percent Hispanic. Since 2002, the North Hudson Islamic Education Center has been sponsoring an annual Hispanic Muslim day, a street fair where residents are invited to meet with local Hispanic Muslims and to hear Muslim scholars from Latin America.
One feature that these communities have in common is an adulation of Muslim Spain, and a claim that in embracing Islam, Hispanics are reclaiming the history of "Al-Andalus" that was stripped from them by slavery and imperialism. The Islamic centre in Houston also has a "return to roots" narrative.
According to organizations like WhyIslam.org, Latinos are one of the fastest growing segments of the Muslim community. About six percent of U.S. Muslims are now Latino – and as many as a fifth of new converts to Islam nationwide are Latino.