In the early 1990s, the media took notice of the estimated 40,000-200,000 Hispanic Muslims living in the U.S. and started to chronicle their stories and their “reversions” (the preferred term of Hispanic Muslims who view conversion as a return to Hispanic roots). Twenty years later, the themes covered by the media remain largely the same.
Typical articles begin with a hook about the oddity of a Hispanic being Muslim, describing, for example, a Latina wearing the hijab or a Latino eating tamales without pork. Most articles continue with a discussion of their demographics before explaining why these Hispanics converted to Islam.
Common elements of reversion narratives include: interacting with Muslims at work or in urban neighborhoods (e.g. Union City, NJ), marriage to a Muslim, questioning the complexity or corruption of Catholic and/or Protestant Christianity, inquiring into Islam following 9/11, Islam’s familiar cultural focus on family, and the simplicity of Islamic faith and practice.
In addition, most feature stories mention the centuries-long history of Moorish Spain, when Islamic culture dominated the Iberian peninsula and influenced Spanish civilization. The stories also highlight the Hispanic reverts’ ubiquitous experience of ostracism by their families of origin and their comunidad.
No doubt, these themes are important to document. Still, it is surprising that the themes covered by the media today remain largely unchanged and unimaginative.
Fortunately, a few substantive resources have become available and they are growing in number. Hjamil A. Martínez Vásquez provided the first comprehensive study of Hispanic Muslims in Latina/o Y Musulmán, and Patrick D. Bowen has supplied invaluable information about their demographic profile and early history, drawing on the preliminary research of Hishaam Aidi.
Key additional resources are narratives, which are the lifeblood of the Hispanic Muslim community. An entire website, and a forthcoming book, are dedicated to the testimonies of reverts—their lives before Islam, their reversions, and their new lives as Muslims.
Pouring over hundreds of “reversion” narratives myself, interviewing Hispanic Muslims, spending time in their community and grounding myself in previous research, I discovered greater complexity than previously assumed.
I noted three distinctions that, with just a bit of effort, could be explored by the media.
First, narrative discourse has shaped the reversion testimonies of thousands of Hispanic Muslims. I found “how regularized the language used to describe [conversion] experiences has become.” These narratives create a theological, historical and social context that enable Hispanic Muslims to make sense of their experiences and locate their new identity within a strongly unified system of beliefs.
Second, these narratives help Hispanic reverts, in the words of Thomas Tweed, “cross” boundaries and orient themselves in their new “dwellings.” The need for “orientation” in the midst of massive cultural, religious, and social upheaval and transition explains the similarities between the many narratives now available. As Hispanic Muslims convert from one faith to another, they are not only switching religions, they are changing social networks and becoming “quadruple minorities.”
As Hispanics, reverts are minorities in the U.S. and in their Muslim ummah (a Pew Survey found that they constitute just 6% of the 2.4 U.S. Muslims); as Muslims, they are minorities in their Hispanic communities and in the U.S. The common allusion to Andalusian roots in reversion narratives helps reverts confirm “Hispanic Muslim” as a distinctive, significant and valid subset of American, Muslim, and Hispanic cultures. By finding this historical vindication they stave off feelings of foreignness in their own families, neighborhood, masjid, and country.
Third, a generational approach to understanding Hispanic Muslims reveals the subtleties of the Hispanic-Muslim reversion experience. In his research, Bowen noted that African-American Muslims from communities like the Nation of Islam heavily influenced the “first wave” of Hispanic Muslims, particularly Puerto Ricans in and around New York who formed the first Hispanic Muslim organization, Allianza Islamica.
During the four decades that followed this first wave, some patterns emerge. There are, in my view, three other generations of Hispanic Muslim reverts: 1) a slow trickle through the 1980s and 1990s of those who reverted due to the rising profile of first-generation Latino Muslims, 2) the initial “post-9/11 effect” reverts who discovered Islam due to increased, general interest in Muslims and 3) a new generation of Hispanic Muslims, currently emerging, who are reverting because of da’wah missionizing efforts directed at them; these efforts are led by organizations like IslamInSpanish, LADO, LALMA, etc.
It is time, in the quest for quality, comprehensive, religious news writing, that commentators begin to provide more nuanced information about this important religious minority.
Investigations of the ways in which multicultural elements interact in local masjids, accents in Latino Islamic da’wah, specific demographics, generational differences, the role of narrative and testimony in the reversion experience and even the influence of the media would be good places to start.
For further reading:
Howell, Brian. Short-term Mission: An Ethnography of Christian Travel Narrative and Experience. Downer’s Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2012.
Bowen, Patrick. “Conversion to Islam in the United States: A Case Study in Denver, Colorado.” Intermountain West Journal of Religious Studies 1, no. 1 (2009). http://digitalcommons.usu.edu/imwjournal/vol1/iss1/4.
Morales, Harold. “Latino Muslim by Design: A Study of Race, Religion and Media in American Minority Discourse." Prezi, March 20, 2013. http://prezi.com/bb3r1ff-dtwy/lmos/.
Naili, Hajer. “Latina Converts to Islam Growing in Number.” Womens E-News, July 16, 2013. http://womensenews.org/story/religion/130715/latina-converts-islam-growing-in-number#.UnCe-hZDMmw.
Chitwood, Ken. “Houston’s Hispanic Imam Bridges Cultures.” Houston Chronicle, July 5, 2012. http://www.chron.com/life/houston-belief/article/Houston-s-Hispanic-imam-bridges-cultures-3686129.php.
Vourloumis, Eirini. “Islam en Español: In Conversion, a New Identity,” The New York Times. January 7, 2011. http://hispanicmuslims.com/articles/ conversion_identity.html
Martinez-Vasquez, Hjamil. Latina/o y Musulmán. Portland: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2010.
Tweed, Thomas. Crossing and Dwelling: A Theory of Religion. Boston: Harvard University Press, 2008.
Aidi, Hishaam. “Olé to Allah: New York’s Latino Muslims.” Africana.com, November 11, 1999. http://hispanicmuslims.com/articles/oletoallah.html.
Zeya, Uzra. “The Growing Presence of Islamic Converts to Islam.” The WashingtonReport. January 1990. http://hispanicmuslims.com/articles/growingpresence.html.
Photo Credit: M.A.J. Photography.
Author, Ken Chitwood, is a religion newswriter, book reviewer, theological commentator and graduate student in Theology and Culture at Concordia University Irvine, CA. His research focuses on U.S. Hispanic Muslims. He lives and works in Houston, TX.
Editor, Myriam Renaud, is a Ph.D. Candidate in Theology at the University of Chicago Divinity School. She was a 2012-13 Junior Fellow in the Marty Center.