CA: Latinos Embrace Islam, Pray for Acceptance

CA: Latinos Embrace Islam, Pray for Acceptance

CA: Latinos Embrace Islam, Pray for Acceptance
Many Latino Muslims, some raised Catholic, struggle with views of their new faith on the part of the public — and their families.
H.G. Reza, Los Angeles Times, 10/29/05,1,3351584.story

As a college student in Mexico, Marta Khadija Ramirez was so influenced by Marxist and existentialist writers that she stopped believing in God. That changed during a semester at a British school, where she was a visiting student and three Muslim classmates introduced her to Islam.

She decided to convert. But imagine the difficulty of a Latina steeped in Roman Catholic tradition trying to explain Islam to her family in 1983. And imagine that one of her sisters is a Catholic nun.

“Islam was unknown in Mexico then. It wasn’t easy for my family to accept my decision,” said Khadija, the youngest of 11 sisters raised on a ranch south of Mexico City and now a nurse who lives in Los Angeles. “My sister the nun was blaming herself for not teaching me enough about Catholicism.”

Muslims throughout the world are observing Ramadan, a month of daytime fasting and repentance. For many Latino Muslims in Southern California, it is also a time to celebrate Islam’s diversity and their conversion to a religion still struggling against intolerance in the overwhelmingly Christian United States. This year, the holy month started the first week of October. . .

The Los Angeles Latino Muslim Assn., founded in 1999, hopes to find converts through an outreach program to introduce Islam to the millions of Latinos living in the city. The group meets at the Islamic Center of Southern California in Los Angeles, and on Sundays during Ramadan members break their dawn-to-sunset fast together at the Vermont Avenue facility. The group also meets at the Masjid Omar, a mosque in Los Angeles. . .

The association runs Luz del Islam Publishing in Culver City, where Islamic literature is printed in Spanish. Group members pass out that material, including a Spanish translation of the Koran, at Latino book fairs and sponsor mosque tours and seminars for Latinos. They also provide speakers to Latino student groups at area colleges.

Still, Muslims have to overcome some public perceptions that, Khadija said, are unfairly colored by “misunderstanding and fear” since the terrorist attacks by Islamic extremists on Sept. 11, 2001.

Arwa Ayloush, whose name was Vilma Avila before she converted in 1991 while attending the University of Texas, said her parents’ initial apprehension about her new religion stemmed from “fear of the unknown.”

“You just left Laredo and now you’re a Muslim. What happened to you, girl?” is how Ayloush, raised a Jehovah’s Witness, described her family’s reaction to her conversion.

Over time, the families of Khadija and Ayloush, a kindergarten teacher living in Corona, accepted their Muslim identities. Each later married Muslim men. Ayloush’s husband is Hussam Ayloush, executive director of the Southern California chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. . .

Despite the differences that many U.S. Christians believe separate them from Muslims, both sides have much in common, Ayloush and the others said.

“The theological differences are there, but they shouldn’t be a fence that separates us. They should be a bridge instead,” Ayloush said. “I’m a Little League mom. I’m there cheering for my kids who play sports, like the other moms. The only thing that’s really different about me is the hijab.”