Muslims make effort to welcome Hispanic `reverts'

The Dallas Morning News

DALLAS - (KRT) - The Espinoza family was eagerly
awaiting its first observance of Ramadan, the
month-long Muslim period of fasting that began Sunday.

Anticipation swelled into a smile on Ericka Espinoza's
face. Raised a Catholic, the 27-year-old Hispanic
mother of two said she is ready to rise at 4 a.m. and
abstain from eating and drinking from sunrise to

She is also looking forward to the three-day
celebration, Eid al-Fitr, breaking the fast. Most of
the Dallas Muslim community will mark the end of
Ramadan in late November with a prayer service in
Centennial Hall at Fair Park.

She wants to embrace every aspect of the fast-growing
religion that is reaching out to the fast-growing U.S.
Latino population.

"I have been looking forward to this (Ramadan)," she

Espinoza is one of a growing number of Hispanics who
are leaving Catholicism for Islam, for Protestant
churches, for other faith traditions - or who are
dropping out of any religious practice. Exact numbers
are impossible to come by, but some national Latino
Muslim associations claim "reverts," their term for
converts, in the "tens of thousands."

In the Dallas area, officials estimate there are at
least 100 to 150 Latino Muslims - and they say the
number is probably much higher. Some people, they say,
consider themselves Muslim even if they don't visit a
mosque regularly.

Andrew Greeley, the well-known Catholic sociologist
and author, estimates that 60,000 to 100,000 Hispanics
in the United States leave the Catholic Church

"We know some are going to Islam," said Ronaldo Cruz,
executive director of the secretariat for Hispanic
affairs of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
"Some are going to Protestant faiths."

Numbers on converts can be misleading, said Anna Maria
Diaz Stevens, a professor at Union Theological
Seminary in New York. She and her husband, Anthony
Stevens Arroyo, of Brooklyn College, have researched
the role of Hispanics in the Catholic Church.

"Our work estimates that anywhere from 57 to 62
percent of Hispanics are still in the Catholic
Church," she said. "Others put the numbers much
higher. This is a moving target."

Citing a phenomenon she called "revolving-door
Christianity," she said many Hispanics "like to try
several religions at the same time." Some leave
Catholicism only to return later.

Islam claims 6 million followers in the United States
- though some studies conclude that the number could
be half that - with about 25,000 converts annually.
Ericka Espinoza wants that number to grow.

"I want people in my community to know about Islam. I
am proud to be Muslim, and I want our community to
know that this is our religion, too," she said.

"It can be odd sometimes. People think I am Arab, but
when I start speaking Spanish, I get a puzzled look -
especially from Hispanics."

Sitting in the women's prayer area of the Dallas
Central Mosque in Richardson, Texas, she said: "I have
found peace. This is where I belong. This is where I
come from."

Espinoza's husband is Christian, but their children,
Katheline, 11, and Eldridge, 6, take classes at the
mosque, and she is teaching them the meaning of
Ramadan. "They will grow up Muslim," she says.

Espinoza, who is from Honduras, has relatives from

The potent connection between Spain and Islam was one
of the things that intrigued her about the faith.
Muslims from northern Africa, whom the Spanish called
Moors, ruled Spain for more than 700 years. Arabic
influences remain strong in Spanish language and
culture; some Muslim scholars claim the exclamation
"ole" comes from "Allah."

So, rather than using the term "convert," many Muslims
say Latinos who embrace Islam are "reverting" to their
spiritual roots.

Such a message holds appeal for Hispanics across the
demographic spectrum - from the boroughs of New York
to the barrios of Los Angeles, among Central American
immigrants, recent arrivals from Mexico and Puerto

One measure of the outreach is the proliferation of
Web sites and nonprofit groups serving the needs of
Latino Muslims. In addition to the Latin American
Dawah Organization, there's Latin American Muslim
Unity; the Latino Committee of the North American
Islamic Council; and the site,

The phenomenon extends to Latin America. Mosques and
Islamic centers are growing in the cities of
Argentina, Bolivia, Panama, Peru, Honduras, Columbia
and other countries. Mexico has the largest such

The Islamic Association of North Texas held an open
house for Latinos recently. Before the event, fliers
in Spanish were posted at the Richardson mosque and
distributed in Spanish-speaking neighborhoods of

The open house drew about 150 people. "We were hoping
for 300, but this is a good start," said Alaedin
Bashiti, one of the event's coordinators.

Muslims call such outreach activity "dawah," a call to
Islam. The Quran instructs Muslims to "invite to the
way of your Lord with wisdom and fair preaching, and
argue with them in a way that is better."

"Dawah in the Spanish-speaking area is very
important," Imam Yusuf Ziya Kavakci of the Dallas
Central Mosque told open house attendees.

"We Muslims have to spread dawah all over the world.
This is a very good opportunity for us in North
America, where we mix and mingle easily with
Spanish-speaking people."

Some Latinos who dropped by the open house said they'd
been especially curious about Islam since Sept. 11,
2001. Across the country, Muslim organizations have
hosted community events in hopes of erasing what they
say is a stigma from the terrorist attacks.

"We have been stereotyped as terrorists, as people to
be afraid of and to suspect," said Bashiti.

Gerrado Lobato brought his wife, Luz, and their
children, Cesar, 5, and Leslie, 4, to the open house.

"I saw the signs, and I wanted to check things out,"
he said.

"This is very different from the Catholic Church. But
so far I like what I am seeing. I like the emphasis on
family life. There is a lot of controversy in the
Catholic Church. Some priests abusing kids. This not
good for kids."

Espinoza, the "revert" about to observe her first
Ramadan, was one of those whose interest was sparked
by 9-11.

"I had friends who were telling me things about
Muslims," she said. "I wanted to know for myself."

Before embracing Islam, she said, "I had the same
dream three times. I was at Mecca, and I was wearing a
hijab (the scarf that many Muslim women wear to
demonstrate modesty)."

She added, "I know that coming here has produced a
change in me. All the sisters are so close. They are
helping me with Ramadan, teaching me what I need to
know to prepare my home.

"The closeness and family are what remind me of my

Maritza Flores, 48, came to the open house "to learn
for myself as an adult what my spirit needed." Flores,
who came to Dallas from Mexico eight years ago,
expressed disenchantment with the rigid instruction
she received as a Catholic child. "When you are young,
your family tells you have to believe this, and this
is the way, the tradition," she said.

Through the afternoon, she visited with Muslims. At
one point she sat in a large hall filled with children
eating cotton candy and snow cones. As the visitors
were starting to disperse, Imam Kavakci called people
to take their seats.

"We have something very special," he said.

Flores had decided to convert on the spot. Guided
through the Shahadah, the Islamic declaration of
faith, with the imam helping her speak Arabic, she
became a Muslim.

Amid clapping and tears, the women in the room rushed
to circle around her. Having said the words is
important, she was told by her new Muslim sisters.

But the first real test of Flores' dedication would
begin with Ramadan.


 2003, The Dallas Morning News.


Back To Islam Awareness Homepage

Latest News about Islam and Muslims

Contact for further information