By Hisham Aidi
03 Feb 2016
On January 30, Latino Muslim leaders from around the United States gathered in Houston, Texas, for the opening of IslamInSpanish, a spacious, state-of-the-art community centre. As children bounced around in an inflatable castle, hundreds sat under an awning decorated with flags from across Latin America, listening to community elders describe just how historic this occasion was for Latino Muslim history.
"This is a dream come true. Never did I think I would see this happen," said Nahela Morales, the outreach coordinator for the centre, describing how she had moved to different parts of the country looking for a Spanish-speaking Muslim community and had finally settled in Houston.
Rising Islamophobia Concerns US Muslims
Speaking in Spanish, English and Arabic, Mujahed (Jaimie) Fletcher, the founder and chief executive of IslamInSpanish, explained how the centre grew out of his own efforts, more than a decade before, to create material on Islam for his Colombian family who wanted to understand the faith that he had embraced as a 22-year old.
Reminiscent of Cordoba
After the cutting of the ribbon, the audience were given a tour of the centre. Upon entering, visitors see the name Centro Islamico emblazoned, against a backdrop of blue, green and orange azulejo tiles.
Red arches reminiscent of the mosque-cathedral of Cordoba adorn the walls of one hall. The centre boasts different sections - a mosque, an "Andalusian" museum, an information showroom, a lounge and a sleek multimedia studio.
One of the visitors was Imam Ramon Omar Abduraheem Ocasio, a pioneer of Latino Muslim community, who flew in from New York for the occasion.
"What these activists have put together in Houston is exponentially more impressive than anything Latino Muslims have ever had before. Beyond the stunning physical structure, the most impressive thing is the high calibre of Latino activists that have converged here - educated, resourceful, dedicated."
Latino converts to Islam have been part of the US religious landscape since the 1930s, since the founding of Nation of Islam, when Puerto Ricans in the northeast began joining Elijah Muhammad's movement.
In fact, the earliest literary reference to Latino Muslims occurs in Puerto Rican poet, Piri Thomas' classic memoir Down These Mean Streets (1967), about growing up in Spanish Harlem in the 1930s and 1940s.
The author recounts hearing the call to prayer for the first time while in prison: "One night I was sprawled out on my bed cell hearing something that I had been hearing for a long time every night. But tonight I just listened to it harder: Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar…"
Thomas would eventually embrace Islam, but no longer practise it after his release from prison.
Most of the early Hispanic American converts tended to be Puerto Ricans on the East Coast, who would be exposed to the faith through their geographic and political proximity to African Americans. One of the earliest Latino Muslim groups to appear was the Banu Sakr, which formed in Newark in the mid-1970s, influenced by the Black Power movement.
In the late 1980s, the Alianza Islamica was launched in East Harlem, by a cluster of Puerto Rican converts. The Alianza had an activist mission, providing social services and neighbourhood security.
The next Hispanic Muslim community to form appeared in the early 2000s in Union City, New Jersey - a city that according to the Census Bureau is 85 percent Hispanic. Since 2002, the North Hudson Islamic Education Centre has been sponsoring an annual Hispanic Muslim day, a street fair where residents are invited to meet with local Hispanic Muslims and to hear Muslim scholars from Latin America.
One feature that these communities have in common is an adulation of Muslim Spain, and a claim that in embracing Islam, Hispanics are reclaiming the history of "Al-Andalus" that was stripped from them by slavery and imperialism. The Islamic centre in Houston also has a "return to roots" narrative.
Fletcher has long travelled around the country speaking about Muslim influences in Latin American culture.
The Latino Muslim community is growing at a time of rising anti-Muslim political discourse...
"Until now, many Latinos were not aware of the legacy of their Muslim forefathers, this programme allows them to connect to Islam spiritually through their newly found cultural connection," he says.
Fletcher and his colleagues speak to students about mudejar architecture, the scientific achievements of Islamic Spain - inventions such as the astrolabe - and Arabic linguistic contributions to the Spanish language.
"Islam in Spanish helped me not only in my spiritual development, but also made me part of a community and a global citizen," said Jaleel, a Mexican-born convert, who addressed the gathering.
Others spoke about how they simply feel more comfortable in a Hispanic Muslim environment.
"I like [IslamInSpanish] very much because the Latino Muslim community is more open," said Edwin, who came in from Cleveland. "Women and men sit together. There is a cultural closeness which is very important."
The Latino Muslim community is growing at a time of rising anti-Muslim political discourse, from figures such as Trump - who target Muslims and Hispanics - but also from Latino political candidates like Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio. An FBI outreach official was present at the opening of IslamInSpanish, promising that law enforcement would do its best to protect this vulnerable community from threats and hate crimes.
"The Hispanic population is not immune to Islamophobia, but remember Cruz and Rubio are also anti-Hispanic immigration," says Melvin Reveillon who organises Hispanic Muslim Day in northern New Jersey.
"The majority of Hispanic Muslims are the only Muslims in their families. Not only do we face the stigma of being associated with extremism, but we are also seen as defectors, people who abandoned Christianity and family tradition. So all the more reason to have more Latino Dawa (outreach) centres - across the country - to counter media propaganda."
Hisham Aidi is a Harlem-based writer. He teaches at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs.