SOMERSET, New Jersey — Finding themselves in Islam, a growing number of Latino immigrant converts are working to bring the religion back to their home countries, becoming special ambassadors of Islam.
“I asked [God] to please send me a job where I would be able to worship and wear my veil,” Nahela Morales, an administrative assistant at New Jersey Chapter of the Islamic Center of North America’s (ICNA) WhyIslam Project, told New America Media on Friday, January 19.
“I knew right then my prayer was being answered.”
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.
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 now helping to bring the religion back to their home countries.
“It is obvious that Islam is still very strange in Mexico,” admits Morales, who says 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.”
Same as Morales, Wilfredo Ruiz, a native of Puerto Rico who converted to Islam in 2003, also found a new role in his community after finding Islam.
Ruiz, an attorney and political analyst specializing on the Islamic world, works with various non-profit organizations, including the American Muslim Association of North America (AMANA) as well as serving as the imam at his local mosque in South Florida.
He believes that the higher status afforded women in Islam and their modest dress offers a sensible alternative.
“More women than men convert, both in AMANA offices and in the mosques in Southern Florida,” Ruiz said.
“I have heard from Latina women that they seek protection, and they find [that] protection and respect in Islam,” he adds.
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 US Mosque Survey, which interviewed leaders at 524 mosques across the country, found the number of new female converts to Islam had increased 8 percent since 2000.
Of that number, Latinos accounted for 12 percent of all new converts in the United States in 2011.
While many Latino Muslim immigrants tried to serve their community in the United States, Liliana Anaya, a Muslim convert from Colombia, returned to her home country.
“I felt that Muslims in the states are already part of the fabric of the society,” thirty-four-year-old Liliana Anaya, a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., said.
“But here [in Colombia], we are in the baby steps.”
Anaya, who converted to Islam in June 2002, is a graduate of Rollins University in Orlando, Florida, 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.
Meeting her future husband, a Muslim convert from Argentina, she returned later to her country to give birth for her first child.
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.
“If I want something, I have to create it. If I want Islamic classes for my children, I have to create them,” she said.
Anaya and her husband are now in the process of establishing an Islamic school for the Muslims of Barranquilla, as returning to America became less likely.
“The Muslim community here needs us,” says Anaya, “so we can’t move.”
Though there are no official figures, the United States is believed to be home to nearly seven million Muslims.
According to the Pew Research Center, 6 percent of American Muslims are Hispanic.
Further, one of 10 American-born converts is Hispanic, and that figure is growing.
The American Muslim Council puts the number of Latino Muslims in the US at about 200,000 in 2006.
The largest communities of Latino Muslims exist in areas with the highest concentrations of Latinos, such as New York City, Chicago, Los Angeles and Miami.
Yet, California is the state with the most Latino Muslims.
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