Together in prayer, support

Latina Muslim converts gather to share and forge their
newfound faith, friendship
Copyright 2006 Houston Chronicle
Oct. 23, 2006, 12:43PM

When Zulayka Martinez left the Roman Catholic Church
and converted to Islam six years ago, she was happy
and at peace with her decision. But she felt like an
outsider in her new faith.

Looking back, she realizes her problem was more of a
cultural and language barrier. Most members of Houston
mosques were of Arab or Pakistani backgrounds. She
didn't know any Spanish-speaking Muslims. And as a
single woman, she found it especially hard during

"My first two Ramadans, I felt very alone," she said,
referring to the holy month. At first, she was afraid
to tell her parents that she had converted. "But after
I did, my mother would fix me food to break the fast."

What a difference six years make.

In that time, Martinez has become the center of a
close-knit group of Latina Muslims who support each
other throughout Ramadan and the rest of the year. For
today's festive Eid al-Fitr, the day that ends the
month of fasting, she is organizing the women for
morning prayers and a celebratory brunch.

"She is the mole that holds us together," Adriana
Castillo-Shah said. "She is like me, always saying we
are doing this or that, always supportive, always
getting us together."

During Ramadan, the women often met for sunset prayers
at local mosques and to break the daily fast. They
gathered weekly at different homes for festive Iftar

As the early evening sky began to darken from rosy
pink to deep blue on a recent Saturday, Martinez
anxiously looked at her watch. "They're always late,"
she said. "We work on Mexican time."

No sooner had she spoken than her Iftar guests
arrived, several holding small children by the hand.
As they entered, each woman took a date from a bowl
and ate it to break the fast, then took a sip of

In the corner of the living room they set up a prayer
rug. Castillo-Shah whipped a compass out of her purse
to determine the direction of Mecca. At 7 p.m., she
called out the prayers as the women bowed, stood up
and bowed again.

"We each take turns calling the prayers,"
Castillo-Shah said. "I'm terrible with directions so I
take my compass everywhere. At home I have an alarm
clock that sings out the call to prayers, so I can't

Reasons for conversion
The lively group chatted in Spanish and English while
Martinez prepared chicken enchiladas and lamb in her
sister's kitchen, borrowed for the evening. No one
seemed bothered by the large picture of The Last
Supper behind the table or by the image of the Virgin
of Guadalupe on the wall.

Castillo-Shah said that removing pictures like that
from the walls of her home was one of the hardest
things she did after converting three years ago.

They told a visitor of their reasons for converting:
they were attracted by the simplicity of Islam; the
fact that they could pray directly to God without an
intermediary (something they could do under
Catholicism as well); Islam's focus on close family
ties, similar to that generally found in Latino
culture; and respect for women. Some felt they were
discovering lost roots from Islamic Spain.

"Before I was Muslim, I used to wish I was covered,"
said Maria Franco, a native of Monterrey, Mexico.
"Back home, people would say, 'Oooooh, you
good-looking girl,' and make many other rude comments.
I hated that."

Franco was a single mother with a son when she
converted to Islam in 1998. Her father once made fun
of her decision, but became so impressed with his
daughter's devotion that he eventually converted to
Islam, as did one of her brothers.

Castillo-Shah converted to Islam seven years after
marrying a Muslim. She had not planned to convert and
said she never felt pressured to do so by her husband,
a native of Pakistan.

But the more she learned about Islam, the more
convinced she became that it was the right path for
her. She converted and surprised her husband. "He was
so excited and called all his family," she said.

Over dinner, the women chatted about the upcoming
wedding of fellow convert Nyelene Ismail. Others
talked about the challenges of fasting from sunrise to
sunset during Ramadan.

Castillo-Shah, for example, has diabetes and under
Islamic law is not required to fast. But she wants to
please Allah, she said, so she has fasted since
converting. Her friends keep close watch over her and
her blood sugar.

Also on their minds was fashion, and what they might
wear on Eid al-Fitr.

Martinez, who is known for her color-coordinated,
sparkly headscarves, will choose one that matches the
outfit she wears. It might be a stylish hijab made by
her mother.

"At the beginning, I didn't want to wear the scarf and
long dresses," Martinez said. " ... When Hurricane
Rita was coming, the first thing I packed was my
scarves and my pictures. Clothes I can buy, but I can
never replace all those scarves."

It took more than a year for Martinez to make her
first Hispanic Muslim friend. Then, three years after
her conversion, a class in Spanish for female converts
and others interested in learning about Islam began at
El Farouq, the mosque she most frequently attends.

Now, Martinez said, she is meeting Latino converts,
both new and old, almost weekly. Just recently she was
at Starbucks when a young Hispanic woman asked about
her head scarf. The stranger said she had always been
interested in Islam. Several days later, she
accompanied Martinez to evening prayers at a mosque.

At the Iftar gathering, several women said they had
converted because they were searching for something
they could not find in Catholicism. That was not the
case for Martinez, who initially tried to convince a
Muslim acquaintance that Catholicism was a better

"Before I could do that, I felt I needed to find out
more about his religion," she recalls. "So I got a
Quran and some books."

Looking for answers
During a Catholic retreat, she found herself reading
the Quran instead of the Bible. To Martinez, the Quran
was similar but more descriptive. It also answered
questions she had not found in the Bible.

"I was scared, though my heart felt so at ease and I
thought: 'Is this from the devil?" she recalled. "I
went to the priest to make confession, and I started
crying. That's when he said: 'I have read the Quran. I
understand it. But you need to follow your religion.
Muslims are not bad people, but they are not right. We
are correct. Don't question your religion; practice
it, but don't question it.' "

Martinez didn't like the answer. As she continued her
research, she realized that Islam respected and
honored Jesus as a prophet. That removed the last
stumbling block. "To me, I didn't abandon
Christianity, I discovered a religion that continued
it," she said.

The women are sometimes criticized by other Hispanics
about their decision to convert. That's why Martinez
felt it was important for them to be united as Latinas
and Muslims.


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