Embracing Islam, Praying for Acceptance
# Many Latino Muslims, some raised Catholic, struggle
with views of their new faith on the part of the
public -- and their families.
By H.G. Reza, Times Staff Writer
As a college student in Mexico, Marta Khadija Ramirez
was so influenced by Marxist and existentialist
writers that she stopped believing in God. That
changed during a semester at a British school, where
she was a visiting student and three Muslim classmates
introduced her to Islam.
She decided to convert. But imagine the difficulty of
a Latina steeped in Roman Catholic tradition trying to
explain Islam to her family in 1983. And imagine that
one of her sisters is a Catholic nun.
"Islam was unknown in Mexico then. It wasn't easy for
my family to accept my decision," said Khadija, the
youngest of 11 sisters raised on a ranch south of
Mexico City and now a nurse who lives in Los Angeles.
"My sister the nun was blaming herself for not
teaching me enough about Catholicism."
Muslims throughout the world are observing Ramadan, a
month of daytime fasting and repentance. For many
Latino Muslims in Southern California, it is also a
time to celebrate Islam's diversity and their
conversion to a religion still struggling against
intolerance in the overwhelmingly Christian United
States. This year, the holy month started the first
week of October.
The American Muslim Council estimates that there are
about 40,000 Latino Muslims in the U.S. Local Muslims
say there are about 1,000 Latino Muslims in Southern
California, but that an accurate count is difficult
because Islam is a decentralized religion.
The Los Angeles Latino Muslim Assn., founded in 1999,
hopes to find converts through an outreach program to
introduce Islam to the millions of Latinos living in
the city. The group meets at the Islamic Center of
Southern California in Los Angeles, and on Sundays
during Ramadan members break their dawn-to-sunset fast
together at the Vermont Avenue facility. The group
also meets at the Masjid Omar, a mosque in Los
"We're trying to improve the understanding of Islam
and at the same time provide spiritual support for new
Latino Muslims making the transition from
Christianity," said Khadija, president of the
Ramadan is the perfect time for dawah, or outreach,
because it is when Muslims believe the prophet
Muhammad first began to receive revelations of the
holy Koran from the archangel Gabriel, she said.
The association runs Luz del Islam Publishing in
Culver City, where Islamic literature is printed in
Spanish. Group members pass out that material,
including a Spanish translation of the Koran, at
Latino book fairs and sponsor mosque tours and
seminars for Latinos. They also provide speakers to
Latino student groups at area colleges.
Still, Muslims have to overcome some public
perceptions that, Khadija said, are unfairly colored
by "misunderstanding and fear" since the terrorist
attacks by Islamic extremists on Sept. 11, 2001.
Arwa Ayloush, whose name was Vilma Avila before she
converted in 1991 while attending the University of
Texas, said her parents' initial apprehension about
her new religion stemmed from "fear of the unknown."
"You just left Laredo and now you're a Muslim. What
happened to you, girl?" is how Ayloush, raised a
Jehovah's Witness, described her family's reaction to
Over time, the families of Khadija and Ayloush, a
kindergarten teacher living in Corona, accepted their
Muslim identities. Each later married Muslim men.
Ayloush's husband is Hussam Ayloush, executive
director of the Southern California chapter of the
Council on American-Islamic Relations.
But for Richard Silva, 40, and others who converted
after the 9/11 attacks, some friends and family
members are still baffled by their embrace of Islam.
"They ask why I want to change my culture. I tell them
I'm changing religion, not culture. I still eat
tortillas," said Silva, an aircraft worker who lives
in East Los Angeles and converted in 2002.
In spite of their small numbers, Latino Muslims
interviewed said integration into their Muslim
religious community was easier for them than for
Latinos assimilating into society as a whole. "I never
had a problem being accepted," Khadija said. "People
from many different cultures who speak different
languages worship together at our masjid."
Each took a unique path to Islam, but none follows the
strict religious laws observed by some other adherents
in the Islamic world. Some of the women wear the hijab
(head scarf), but their wardrobes include modest
western clothing, including jeans. Although they do
not eat pork, few follow a halal diet, in which food
is prepared according to Islamic dietary laws.
But all said they were looking for spiritual guidance
that they were not getting from Christianity. Each one
also questioned the Christian depiction of Jesus as
divine. Former Catholics questioned the church's
teaching that the Holy Trinity is God existing as the
Father, Son and Holy Ghost.
"I had trouble believing that someone could come to
this world as a man and become God," said Granada
Hills mortgage broker Pablo Calderon, 29, who was
raised Catholic and converted eight years ago. "I
liked the Islamic teaching that says your paradise is
set as long as you are righteous and believe in one
Kathy Espinoza, who grew up Catholic in Riverside and
is now a social worker in San Jose, said the Muslims'
reverence for the Virgin Mary and Jesus made the
transition easier. Muslims believe that Jesus is a
major prophet, and he is mentioned numerous times in
"People think Islam is such a far-out religion, but
it's not. We believe in many of the same prophets as
Christians. We also believe in the Virgin Mary, the
Immaculate Conception, Adam and Eve and creation,"
Espinoza was active in her Riverside Catholic parish,
where she sang in the choir with her father, who
played the guitar. Her brother, who was in the
seminary when she converted in 2001, warned that if
she "didn't accept Jesus as my Lord and savior you're
not going to heaven," she said. The brother, who later
left the seminary and married, came to accept her
The Catholic roots in Espinoza's family are so deep
that she was afraid to tell her grandmother about her
conversion. She died two months ago without knowing.
"My grandmother was a strong Mexican woman who would
probably disown me if she knew I became Muslim," said
Espinoza, who is unmarried.
Ayloush, 35, said Jesus' role as a prophet of Islam
and the Muslim belief that he would play a major role
in conquering evil appealed to Latinos, whose culture
is rich with religious stories and tales about good
and evil and light and darkness.
Despite the differences that many U.S. Christians
believe separate them from Muslims, both sides have
much in common, Ayloush and the others said.
"The theological differences are there, but they
shouldn't be a fence that separates us. They should be
a bridge instead," Ayloush said. "I'm a Little League
mom. I'm there cheering for my kids who play sports,
like the other moms. The only thing that's really
different about me is the hijab."
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