Latinos & Islam Conversion

Mailyn Salabarria
July 8, 2006

Hugo Hernández put aside the saints, the host and the
confessions. Nineteen years of Catholic religious
traditions were left behind when he decided to convert
to Islam.

A teacher and political science graduate, Hernández,
26, came to a turning point in his life during his
freshman year of college in Denver.

Born and raised in a traditional Catholic Latino
family from Evans, Hernández says he hasn't talked to
his mother in the seven years since he converted.

"That's the toughest part ..." he said. "It's
something that still hurts me and I know I won't be
able to convince her, but I had to choose my own

He said when he was a child and even a teenager, while
he lived with his parents in Evans, he followed all
the rituals, traditions and ceremonies of the Catholic
religion, including his first communion.

When he finished eight grade, the family moved to
Denver and he started high school in a private Jesuit
school. He said there were only a few minorities
students in the school, and he spent long hours by
himself, reading or studying at the library.

It was there, he said, that he had his first encounter
with Islam. It came through a book about Islam that a
friend lent him.

"I remember my mom saw it and she was pretty upset
because, since I was little, she has always told me
and my siblings the only thing we could never ever
change was our religion," he said. "And I've always
respected that a lot."

However, he said he never believed that much in the
saints, nor the rituals in the Catholic church.

"I've always had many questions and I've never
received an answer that convinced me 100 percent," he
added. "I truly believe those things only take us away
from God."

That closeness with God is what Hernández said he's
found in Islam.

"When we pray," he says, "we do it directly to God;
it's only me and him."

The first time he walked into a mosque, Hernández said
that the experience impressed him so much he wrote out
the details of his feelings.

"It was like if I just walked into my home." Only when
he goes back to Tamaulipas, Mexico, to visit his
relatives, has he felt something similar.

Hernández -- who still lives in Denver and works with
an online education program -- dresses in casual
clothes and wears the Muslim outfits only on special

Still, he has experienced stereotyping (and rejection)
since he became a Muslim. Initially, he said he was
called names like "Taliban", "Osama bin Laden" and

"I think that's part of the ignorance that sometimes
suffers our (Latino) community," he said. "I don't
believe I know more that anyone else, but I have
always asked myself why do we criticize something we
don't know." Besides, there are good people and bad
people in all religions, he added.

As long as he doesn't say anything about being a
Muslim, Hernández says he is "just another in the
crowd." When he mentions it, though, he says that's
when he starts feeling all the eyes staring at him.

The father of two little girls being raised in Islam
as well, Hernández is the head of a family in which
Spanish, English or Arabic is spoken. They eat Mexican
and American traditional meals, "always with the touch
of Egypt," said Hernández.

But after marrying his wife -- a Muslim from Egypt --
Hernández said they lived the same situation with
stereotypes and racism.

"People used to stare at her, because she always wears
the traditional Egyptian and Muslim dresses, and they
treated her really bad."

And even though it's true that he found a new path to
his faith when he converted, Hernández says he still
feels he is "like the black sheep of the family."

His family still doesn't fully accept his wife; that's
why, he said, when you convert to Islam, "the first
thing you have to do is educate your own family."

Despite stereotypes and his family rejection,
Hernández said there hasn't been huge changes in his
life since he converted, except now his has to pray
five times a day.

That's why he said he summarizes his conversion as a
return to the religion's roots and to a true
relationship with God. "That's what I've always try to
reach, the simplest relation with my faith."

In Northern Colorado

Latinos converting to Islam is not very common in
Latino communities in northern Colorado. And there is
almost no research showing the number of Muslims in
the country, although the U.S. State Department has
reported some trends that show Islam is one the
fastest-growing religions in the nation.

The report also predicts that, by 2010, the Muslim
population will be larger than Judaism and the
second-largest religion in the U.S., after

Shakir Mohammed, an outreach community coordinator
from the Islamic Center of Fort Collins, 900 Peterson
St., said there are a lot of people converting to
Islam in the U.S., mainly minorities, but this is a
phenomenon most commonly seen in metro areas, where
minority populations are also larger.

In this area, he said he has heard about four or five
Latinos who have converted, "and most of them are
Latino women that have married Muslims."

"I also think it has to do with stereotypes, because
people in big cities tend to be more open-minded to
accept Muslims," he said. "In smaller cities like
ours, it's not very accepted."

In 2001, the Council of American-Islam Relations
reported that 6 percent of the converted in the U.S.
were Latino.

With the Latino population being the fastest growing
minority in the U.S. -- about 42 million people in
2005, according to the U.S. Census Bureau -- and the
increasing popularity of Islam in the nation, the
number of Latinos converting may also increase.

An African-American born and raised in New Jersey who
has been living in Fort Collins for eight years,
Mohammed believes after Sept. 11 an increasingly and
more stable number of people have been converting to
Islam. "I think all the negative propaganda in the
media had made people doubt, so they start looking for
more information regarding Islam."

He also said the aftermath of the terrorist attacks
totally changed the way Muslims talk about their
faith. They now have to provide more explanations
about it, he added.

"First, you have to produce the quick response people
need to calm down, like not all Muslims are
terrorists," he explained. Later, he said they have to
give more detailed explanations, which usually means
giving more personal information.

William Woody, a UNC professor and specialist in
religion interactions, said Latinos also may face
double discrimination. "Ethnic discrimination exists
in the U.S., and public association with Islam could
be challenging, even before September 11, 2001," Woody

He added that Latinos may also face challenges in
these communities because non-Latino Muslims and
non-Muslim Latinos may have problems accepting Latino

And Mohammed said the first thing they have to deal
with is language barriers when they try to look for
information about Islam in Spanish.

"For those that don't live in big metro areas or
cities, it's also very hard to meet other Latino
Muslims," he added. "And they also have to deal with
the acceptance (or lack of it) from other member of
the Hispanic community with a different faith."

According to him, once a Latino is part of the Muslim
community, they might also have trouble finding a
mentor to teach and guide them, step by step, to learn

"It's not easy for them to find someone that can
understand their background and their culture ...
someone who can really teach them how to apply the
Islam in their daily life, and how to deal with those
that are not Muslims."

Exodus from Catholicism

Even though it's still not considered an outstanding
trend, conversions of Latinos to Islam and other
faiths are worrying the Catholic Church in the U.S.

Latinos are traditionally Catholic, but the number of
parishioners estimated to be leaving the church has
made a lot of people think that there is an obvious

This trend was identified in 2003 in research by
Hispanic Catholic Churches in American Public Life.
The organization first pointed out that Latino
Americans' religious affiliations change with every

It estimated that about 70 percent of Latinos in the
U.S. are Catholics, but within the second and third
generations that percentage tends to decrease, while
the number of Latinos going into non-Catholic
religions increases.

Father Bernie Schmitz of Our Lady of Peace Catholic
Church, 1311 3rd St., Greeley, said for a long time
the church has been concerned that Latinos, when they
arrive in the U.S., can grow lax in their practice of
the faith.

"Some simply stop going (to church) because work seems
to demand too much," Schmitz said. And he added in
some instances, they have trouble finding a Catholic
parish that they are able to relate to, since North
American culture and Latin American cultures are so

He also said in his parish, he hasn't had many people
leaving because they disagree with doctrine, but
"because they may have not had a good experience with
a priest or because another faith reached out to them
in a way that seemed inviting."

Shakir Mohammed of the Islamic Center of Fort Collins
said that, from the social point of view, Latinos
convert to Islam because it's a religion that treats
everyone equally, giving them dignity and respect.
"And all immigrant minorities, one way or another,
always feel underestimated."

From a religious point of view, Mohammed believes
conversion takes place because they're disappointed
with the religion they professed before. "Then, they
come to Islam looking for the simplicity of God; for a
religion where the key point is the direct relation
between the person and God."

The so-called exodus from the Catholic church is not
exclusively happening in the U.S.; Schmitz says it's
happening all over the world.

"The Church in Latin America is also dealing with the
reality of people who were baptized Catholic, but
never really formed in the faith later in life, leave
and associate with evangelical churches," he explains.

In general, Schmitz says some Latinos in the U.S.
leave for emotional reasons, because they feel better
received in another church. Family reasons, he said,
also play a role, when they are seeing someone who is
from a different faith.

"And some, I suspect, leave because of doctrinal
differences of opinion, such as teachings about
marriage," Schmitz said.

Schmitz said bishops have also been concerned about
these trends and they're working with priests and
religious leaders to reach out in evangelization of

"The bishops of the United States have a pastoral plan
which includes establishing active evangelization
groups in parishes," he said. And Our Lady of Peace
Catholic Church already has its group working actively
in the community and doing some door-to-door

"There is always need to do more," Schmitz said,
"especially with our youth."


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