Many Hispanics finding faith in Islam

Sunday, February 26, 2006
By ELIZABETH LLORENTE
STAFF WRITER

http://www.bergen.com/


Last year, Gaby Gonzalez wore black nail polish and
black eye shadow. She had a messy room, standoffs with
mom and occasional drinks.

Today, the Honduran-born 20-year-old is known as
Sister Gaby.

She proudly wears her jade-green hijab, which forms a
nearly perfect frame around her delicate features and
large brown eyes. She prays several times a day and
does not wear makeup, eat pork or even utter the
phrase "happy hour"  that is all haram, she said, or
prohibited in Arabic.

"In my past, I focused on myself. I didn't think about
other people, about my parents, just myself and my
circle of friends," she said. "Now, every day I strive
to be better, to do good, to help others. I stopped
being selfish and arrogant."

Gonzalez, who majors in anthropology at Montclair
State University, is one of thousands of Latinos who
have converted to Islam. So many Latinos have thronged
to Islam in recent years that many mosques, including
some in North Jersey, have set up special "Latino
Muslim" groups within their congregations. And many
now offer simultaneous Spanish translations as part of
their religious services.

After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, mosque
leaders saw the fear and anger mushrooming against
Muslims and decided to reach out to non-Muslim
organizations and community groups to demystify Islam
and to condemn terrorism.

"When we reached out, we weren't even thinking of
Hispanics; we didn't know much about Hispanics," said
Mohammed Al-Hayek, the imam at the Islamic Educational
Center of North Hudson, in Union City. "But they were
the ones who responded. That's when we realized that
our outreach focus had to be specifically Hispanics."

Al-Hayek brought in the head of a mosque in Ecuador
and asked him to go out into the immigrant enclaves of
Hudson County and talk about Islam. For four months,
the Ecuadorean went out into the crowded streets of
Union City and the surrounding towns, and encouraged
people to ask questions about Islam and Muslims. He
also visited homes and spoke to local organizations.

"Here was a Latino, someone the people in the Hispanic
community could relate to, speaking to them in their
own language about Islam," said Al-Hayek, a thin man
with a friendly face and wide smile. "It wasn't Arabs
speaking to them, and at the beginning especially,
that made a big difference."

The mosque's efforts have paid off. Since Al-Hayek
began the outreach program five years ago, some 500
Hispanics have visited the mosque, sitting in prayer
sessions as guests and attending seminars on Islam.
Many converted, usually from Catholicism. Now,
Al-Hayek said, of the approximately 1,000 people who
regularly worship at the mosque, nearly 200 are
Hispanic converts.

Mohamed El-Filali, the outreach director for the
Islamic Center of Passaic County, held an "open house"
for Hispanics last summer.

"Many of the Latinos who accept Islam are looking for
what many people are searching for when they turn to
religion in general, which is a way out of one kind of
life and a means by which to reach divine acceptance."

Hispanics and Muslims note that their communities have
much in common  tight-knit families, reverence for
their elders and a tendency to dote on children. They
also note that Islam is a core part of the history of
Spain, where Muslim Moors ruled for about 800 years.
And many Spanish words, they say, come from Arabic.

"They're coming back to their roots," Al-Hayek said.

The sound of Spanish now fills the air at many
mosques. On Wednesday night at the mosque in Union
City, a group of Hispanic converts spoke Spanish among
themselves, with the more veteran ones teaching the
newest mosque members how to put on a hijab.

"I don't understand a word they're saying," said
Mariam Abbassi, an Oradell business owner, whose eyes
darted back and forth as she strained to figure out
the conversations. "I'm trying to learn. But it's a
pleasure having them here. They're very enthusiastic,
very warm; we Muslims feel very strongly about seeing
others in our religion as Muslims, not Egyptians or
Colombians or Puerto Ricans or Saudis."

Like many Hispanics who embrace Islam, Gonzalez came
from a family of devout Catholics. Back in Honduras,
her grandmother insisted that Gonzalez strictly adhere
to the religion.

"My grandmother whipped me if I didn't go to church,
if I didn't read the Bible," she said. "It wasn't
something for me that was allowed to develop
naturally."

Here, she discovered punk rock music and the punk
lifestyle, and for a sheltered Honduran in her teenage
years, it was alluring and liberating. "Punk girls
wore tight pants, things that showed their figure,"
she said. "My hair was uncombed."

She was marching to her own beat, but she was still
unhappy, she said.

"I was always stressed out, doing things I shouldn't
do," Gonzalez said. "I prayed to be led to the right
path."

During a college course that looked at different
religions, Gonzalez became intrigued by Islam.

"I read more and more about Islam," she said. "I
wanted to know what it was that led so many people to
submit entirely to this religion. When I read the
Quran, I found the truth. It spoke about serving
others, putting others first."

Islam made her feel anchored.

But Gonzalez learned that becoming Muslim comes at a
price. Some Hispanic converts say they encounter
objections from relatives, some of whom have disowned
their newly Muslim daughters, sons and grandkids. They
find themselves defending their new lifestyles against
taunts and warnings by fellow Hispanics about getting
recruited into terrorist organizations and losing
their freedom to cult-like pressures.

"Most of my family is bigoted against Muslims," said
Vincent Gallardo, a student at William Paterson
University who converted to Islam two years ago. "A
close friend stopped speaking to me," he said. "My
mother was very hurt. A Latino co-worker always called
out to me: 'Hey Taliban, how's it going?' "

Gonzalez's conversion stunned her friends; some
stopped speaking to her. Her parents objected, and she
stayed at a friend's home for a while. Even when she
found acceptance among some relatives and friends, she
said, people disapproved of her veil  a common point
of contention, for it is a very tangible, very public
expression of devotion to Islam.

Gonzalez's family has come to accept her conversion,
she said, and appreciate the positive changes that
have occurred in her.

"Islam means submission to God, not that you are
chosen to go out and bomb a place  that is a specific
group that is not practicing Islam the way it was
intended," Gonzalez said. "We don't drink alcohol, we
don't eat pork, we pray five times a day, and people
look at that and call us fanatics."

E-mail: llorente@northjersey.com








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