Thursday, February 08, 2007

Latinos find simplicity in Islam

By: Sudarsan RaghavanWashington Post* -

Every morning, Jackie Avelar wakes up to a predicament. On one side of her bed is a clock that sounds the Islamic call to prayer five times a day. On the other side is a statue of Mary. As a Muslim, she wants to remove it. As a Latina, she can't.Her father, who is a Catholic from El Salvador, wants the statue to stay."I have to respect him," Avelar said.So she has found a comfortable balance: She covers the statue with a photo of her family.Avelar, 31, constantly struggles to find balance within her family, within the outside world, within herself. Growing up, she was a beach-going, tank top-wearing, salsa-dancing girl. Now, she's a devout Muslim who favors Islamic garments and avoids socializing with men.She is the first Muslim in a family that has never known any religion but Catholicism.Across the nation, thousands of Latino immigrants are redefining themselves through Islam, including a few hundred in the Washington region, according to national Islamic groups and community leaders. Precise numbers are not available, but estimates range from 40,000 to 70,000.The conversions speak to a larger evolution of immigrant identity, as a new generation ingests a cultural smorgasbord of ideas they were rarely exposed to in their homelands. Today, it's easier than ever to learn about Islam from Spanish translations of the Koran, Islamic magazines and Web sites.But as they embrace a new faith, Latinos face struggles, ranging from guilt to discrimination, as Muslims in a post-Sept. 11 America."Sometimes you feel like you are betraying who you are, that you are abandoning your family," said Avelar, who is small and round-faced with a soft voice.The converts hail from throughout Latin America. In Islam, some say they see a devoutness and simplicity they find lacking in Catholicism. Like the tightknit Latino culture, Islam places emphasis on family, which can make it easier for converts to adjust. Yet some are as motivated by feelings of alienation in a nation that is divided over immigration. Latino women find what most westerners rarely see -- a respect for women, unlike, some converts say, the machismo culture in which they were raised.On the Friday before Easter, a day that no longer holds religious significance for Avelar, she took part in the juma , the weekly group prayer all practicing Muslims attend. She drove to a small Annandale mosque in a silver Honda, with a license plate holder that reads "Don't drive faster than your angels can fly."Dressed in a pink hijab , or headscarf, and a black shoulder-to-ankle garment, she melted into the tide of immigrants.The men entered the front door. Avelar glided to a side entrance with the other women and vanished inside.Questioning CatholicismFor Priscilla Martinez, a third-generation Mexican American, conversion began with a question. For Margaret Ellis, a first-generation Panamanian American, it ended with an answer.Growing up in Texas, Martinez asked her priest why Catholics believe in the Holy Trinity -- the Father, Son and Holy Spirit -- but said she never got a satisfactory explanation.Then more questions, until: "I felt I didn't have a relationship with God," said Martinez, 32, who lives in Ashburn with her Muslim husband and their children.At the University of Texas, she was introduced to Islam in a Middle East history course and during Muslim student events. At the end of her freshman year, Martinez recited the shehada , the vow a person takes to become a Muslim. When she told her Catholic family, they gave her an ultimatum: Leave Islam or leave their house. Martinez left."It was more cultural than anything else," recalled Martinez, of medium height and wearing a green hijab. "It was something foreign to them, and it solidified the fact that I wasn't returning to the church."Today, she said, she's on good terms with her family. Swimming is the only thing Martinez misses about her old life. Now, she swims only in private or with other women, and never in front of men, aside from her husband.Ellis, too, was unsatisfied with Catholicism and said in Panama, the Catholics she knew were not religious. She wanted a deeper connection with God.After she converted, her great-aunt demanded, "How could you leave your mother's faith?"In the United States, Ellis kept asking herself: Where do I fit in? As a black Latina, she found many black Americans didn't accept her. And Latinos she met were largely from nations without many blacks."For me, the perfect niche was the Muslim community, because for us it doesn't matter where you are from or what you look like," said Ellis, 44.She is now called Farhahnaz Ellis.In public, her Latino identity, like those of most converts, is often invisible. Ellis remembers the day in a bodega in Reston when she overheard two women looking at her Islamic garment and speaking aloud in Spanish: "Oh my God, look at her. She's crazy. It's so hot."Ellis, who is tall and slender, walked up and broke out in Spanish. The startled women quickly headed out the door.

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