Tucked away in a quiet rural neighborhood in Somerset, N.J., is an old brownstone that houses the New Jersey Chapter of the Islamic Center of North America’s WhyIslam Project.
Within its confines, in a second floor office decorated with rose-colored walls, sits the administrative assistant and only female employee of the department, Nahela Morales.
In a long black garment and gray headscarf, Morales sits in front of a computer entering notes and taking phone calls from the program’s hotline, 1-877-WhyIslam, a resource for individuals hoping to learn more about the religion. A Mexican immigrant and recent convert, Morales is the national Spanish-language outreach coordinator for the program, part of ICNA’s mission to disseminate information about Islam nationwide.
But Morales’ efforts go beyond U.S. borders: the 37-year-old recently led a trip to bring Islamic literature, food and clothing to her native Mexico.
Morales, who was born in Mexico City but later moved to California and then New York, is part of a growing population of immigrant Muslim converts from Latin America, many of them women, now helping to bring the religion back to their home countries.
Immigrant Latinas find a place in Islam
“Many immigrants are here by themselves,” said Morales, noting that Latina immigrant women are drawn to Islam because of the sense of “belonging” they find within the Muslim community. “When they come into the mosque and see smiling faces, they feel welcome.”
According to WhyIslam’s 2012 annual report, 19 percent of the some 3,000 converts it assisted in 2011 were Latinos, and more than half of those (55 percent) were women. The 2011 U.S. Mosque Survey, which interviewed leaders at 524 mosques across the country, found the number of new female converts had increased 8 percent since 2000, and that Latinos accounted for 12 percent of all new converts in the United States in 2011.
Experts attribute the phenomenon to recent migration trends.
Muslim and Latino immigrants are increasingly living side by side in urban neighborhoods across the country, from California, Texas and Florida to New York and Illinois, states that according to data from the Migration Policy Institute constitute 72.5 percent of the total foreign-born population from Latin America in the United States. At the same time, these five states are also home to the highest number of mosques, The American Mosque 2011 Report shows, reflecting a growing Muslim presence as well.
Wilfredo Ruiz, a native of Puerto Rico who converted to Islam in 2003, is an attorney and political analyst specializing in the Islamic world. In addition to working with various non-profit organizations, including the American Muslim Association of North America (AMANA), he also serves as the imam at his local mosque in South Florida.
“More women than men convert, both in AMANA offices and in the mosques in Southern Florida,” Ruiz said.
Latina immigrants, he explains, often feel exploited both in Latin America and the United States. The higher status afforded women in Islam and their modest dress, he believes, offers a sensible alternative.
“I have heard from Latina women that they seek protection, and they find (that) protection and respect in Islam,” he added.
Juan Galvan, executive director of the Latino-American Dawah Association and author of Latino Muslims: Our Journeys to Islam, believes that Islam may also hold another, distinctly religious appeal to Latino immigrants because it reveals to them what he calls a more profound understanding of monotheism.
“Most Latino Muslim converts have had personal experiences with Muslims that first drew them closer to Islam,” he said. “These Muslims may be their friends, acquaintances, classmates, coworkers, bosses, marriage partners or others. By interacting with Muslims, a non-Muslim learns about Islamic monotheism for the first time.”
Because Islam emphasizes God’s, or Allah’s, oneness, Galvan says, it presents Latinos with a unique alternative to traditional Christian theologies that accept the existence of holy deities – Jesus, the Holy Spirit, saints and miracle workers — which are connected to, yet distinct, from God.
“While Protestantism may have fewer intermediaries than Catholicism, Latinos come to Islam because they believe in a concept of God that acknowledges him as the most powerful and therefore, needs no son,” said Galvan, who is himself a Mexican-American convert to Islam.
Morales found her own place in Islam after a turbulent past.
In 1979, Morales’ mother risked crossing the border into the United States illegally and alone, leaving her infant daughter behind in Mexico under her grandmother’s care. When Morales was 5 years old, she was finally reunited with her mother, who by that time had settled in Los Angeles. Mother and daughter gained amnesty under the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986. However, even as a U.S. citizen, Morales recalls feeling out of place.
“It was a very difficult adjustment since I did not speak English,” Morales said. “I remember entering the school system and not being able to communicate with my teachers or peers. I wanted to go back home (to Mexico).”
Adding to her difficulties, Morales was the victim of years of neglect and abuse at home, and as a pre-teen she was removed from her mother’s custody and placed in foster care and group homes, until ultimately she was able to settle on her own and finish college.
She moved to New York in 2001. Shortly after her relocation, the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks occurred. When news reports blamed Muslim extremists, Morales began to research Islam.
“I was watching the news and they were always showing (Muslim) people shouting ‘Allahu-akbar,’ God is great, so I thought, if your God is so great, why is he allowing you to kill people? If Muslims say Islam (is about) peace, then this doesn’t make sense,” she said.
She decided to find the answers herself and purchased a copy of the Quran, Islam’s holy book. Morales also began befriending Muslim women on MySpace.
“They were so nice, and I became more curious. One of the Muslim women I met happened to be Puerto Rican, and she got in touch with someone in California that could send me an information package about Islam with books, a Quran, a prayer rug and a hijab (headscarf)," Morales recalled.
Morales continued to make contact with Muslims through the Internet and searched online for the closest mosque to her new home in North Bergen, N.J. She began visiting the mosque and eventually converted in 2003. She continues to be an active member of the North Hudson Islamic Educational Center, or NHIEC.
Situated in a predominantly Hispanic neighborhood, 30 percent of NHIEC’s congregants are Latinos. The Latino influence is so great that the mosque offers simultaneous Spanish translation of its Friday sermons and Islamic studies classes, and even hosts an annual “Hispanic Muslim Day.”
During one of her visits to the NHIEC mosque in 2009, a WhyIslam worker overheard Morales speaking Spanish and asked if she would be interested in a bilingual position with the company.
“I asked (God) to please send me a job where I would be able to worship and wear my veil. I knew right then my prayer was being answered,” Morales said.
She's been working with NHIEC for more than three years, and recently led a campaign to deliver Islamic literature and audio, clothing, and toiletries to a needy Muslim community in Mexico City.
During that trip, Morales met with her own family members, who are mostly Catholic. She says that initially they were not accepting of her decision to practice Islam or of her modest style of dress. They accused her of turning her back on her culture. But on her most recent trip to her hometown of Cuernavaca, she took the opportunity to talk to them more about her religion.
“It is obvious that Islam is still very strange in Mexico,” said Morales, adding that since her last visit her own family has become more receptive. “But it is also very clear that people want to learn about it.”
Latina Muslims, at home and abroad
Isabela Duarte has been in the United States since the age of seven. A Muslim convert living in Chicago, the 30-year-old left Mexico with her family in 1990, crossing the border illegally and moving to the Windy City, where she attended school while her parents worked. After high school, she says, she had no other choice but to follow in her parents’ footsteps.
“I figured that there was no possibility of furthering my education because I’d lack assistance due to my status,” she said.
She eventually landed an administrative position in a social services agency, but thanks to the recession she lost her job.
“That’s when my real struggles began. I searched for jobs everywhere. Immigration laws became tougher ... most places of employment denied me any type of opportunity regardless of the experience I had,” she said.
She ultimately settled for babysitting jobs that paid under the table.
In the winter of 2008, while her parents faced foreclosure, unemployment and a divorce, Duarte had an emotional breakdown. Seeking help, she came upon a YouTube video of Quran recitations. Her best friend, who was Puerto Rican, had already become a Muslim and Duarte soon followed in her footsteps.
But while she has found solace and community, participating regularly in events held by the Latino Muslims of Chicago, an Islamic group that serves the needs of Latinos, she says her immigration status continues to be a struggle.
“This is my home,” she said. “Chicago has been my home and I don’t recall any other.”
Part of a growing Hispanic population in the United States, Duarte is also among a Muslim community that, according to the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion and Public Life, is expected to increase dramatically over the next 20 years, thanks largely to immigration from South Asia, the Middle East and North Africa.
An estimated 5.3 million Muslims live in North and South America as of 2010. That number is expected to more than double by the year 2030.
Liliana Anaya, a 34-year-old Muslim convert from Colombia and a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., is familiar with the trend. The mosque in her hometown, Barranquilla, Colombia, reports an average of four conversions a month.
Anaya, who converted to Islam in June 2002, is a graduate of Rollins University in Orlando, Fla., where she majored in political science and international relations. She later attended American University to complete a master’s degree in international peace and conflict resolution.
After graduating, she got a job at a non-profit organization offering mediation for court systems in northern Virginia. At the same time, she met her husband, a Muslim convert from Argentina, and together they applied for U.S. citizenship.
While Anaya was expecting their first child, she decided to travel back to her country to give birth. After their arrival, she and her husband discovered the Othman bin Affan Mosque in Barranquilla, a small Muslim community that lacked adequate resources. Because Anaya’s husband had earned a degree in Islamic Propagation from Umm Al Qura University in Saudi Arabia, they became involved in the mosque, organizing and teaching classes.
“I felt that Muslims in the states are already part of the fabric of the society,” Anaya said. “But here (in Colombia), we are in the baby steps. If I want something, I have to create it. If I want Islamic classes for my children, I have to create them.”
Anaya and her husband are now in the process of establishing an Islamic school for the Muslims of Barranquilla. Both say that given their commitment to the work, return to the United States is unlikely.
“The Muslim community here needs us,” Anaya said, “so we can’t move.”
This story was made possible by a grant from Atlantic Philanthropies and was produced as part of New America Media’s Women Immigrants Fellowship Program. It was edited to conform with New America Media’s and Public Radio International's style guidelines. This story also appeared in The Muslim Link.