Number of Hispanic Muslim converts growing


Copyright 2002 Houston Chronicle Religion Writer

Huevos rancheros for breakfast; fasulye for dinner.

It was not an unusual menu that graced the table one

recent Thursday at Patricia El-Kassir's west Houston


For El-Kassir, a Mexican-American convert to Islam,

starting the day with the Mexican egg breakfast and

ending it with a Lebanese meat-and-bean dinner meant

nothing more than the merging of cultures easily found

in Islam.

"One of the things that brought me to Islam, that I

think is so beautiful, is that Muslims come from all

nations," said El-Kassir, whose husband is a native of


"You can be Mexican and be a Muslim and be happy," she

added. "You don't have to be torn between two things."

Though Muslims may live in all nations, when El-Kassir

first accepted Islam 16 years ago as a 15-year-old

student at Bellaire High School, she was one of few

Hispanic Muslims at Houston-area mosques, she said.

She didn't meet another Hispanic Muslim until she was

an adult living in Lebanon.

Now when El-Kassir looks around at local gatherings of

Muslims, she sees others with roots in Latin America.

She even has friends with whom she can discuss the ins

and outs of halal meat in tamales.

"In the last couple of years, I know more and more

Muslims who are Hispanic," she said.

Some Hispanic Muslims in Houston say the general

public often assumes they are of Middle Eastern or

Pakistani origin because of their religion. But where

they once were an unrecognized "other" in demographic

studies of American Muslim communities, the number of

Hispanic converts to Islam is growing -- if

incrementally, some say.

"This phenomenon is quite old," said Sheikh Zoubir

Bouchikhi, Imam of the Islamic Society of Greater

Houston's Southeast mosque. Bouchikhi also teaches at

Masjid El Farouq, a west Houston mosque where

El-Kassir attends prayers and Quran classes.

"It's not only in Houston but also all over the United

States," he said. "In the last five years we have an

increase in the number of people embracing Islam:


A study of mosques in the United States, published in

2001, indicated that about 6 percent of American

converts to Islam are Hispanic, said Ihsan Bagby, an

author of the report and associate professor of

Islamic studies at the University of Kentucky. About

27 percent of American converts are white, 64 percent

are African-American and 3 percent are a mixture of

other backgrounds, according to "The Mosque in

America: A National Portrait."

Statistics are hard to come by, Bagby said, but

Hispanics are becoming a significant minority of

American converts to Islam.

"I think what we see happening is that many of the

earlier Latino converts have developed more

sophisticated infrastructures, although it is in its

nascent form," Bagby said. "I think there is a lot

more available for Hispanic converts than in earlier


Some of what is now available for Hispanic converts

comes from the Latino American Dawah Organization, a

group started about five years ago in New York City by

Samantha Sanchez and five friends.

Sanchez, who is studying for a doctorate in cultural

anthropology, had just become a Muslim and was

interested in discovering whether she and her friends

were the only Hispanic Muslims out there.

The organization has grown into a support network and

an information outreach that provides Qurans and

pamphlets on Islam in Spanish and runs a Web site, The group now has a chapter in

Austin and is working on chapters in Illinois,

Massachusetts and Arizona.

"I would say (the Hispanic Muslim community) continues

to grow, and the more people know there is such a

thing as Latino Muslims the more it grows," Sanchez


Part of the group's goal is to connect Hispanic

Muslims and offer services for new converts, said

Austin resident Juan Galvan, president of the group's

Texas chapter.

"When you go to a mosque and everyone is, essentially,

a foreigner, it can be a lonely type of experience,"

he said.

Hispanic Muslims in Houston sometimes still find

themselves victims of mistaken cultural identity --

especially women who wear traditional Islamic head


Juliette Oliva Enchassi has run into the confusion in

her job as interpreter at Texas Children's Hospital.

When she arrives to interpret for Spanish-speaking

patients, she has been mistaken for an Arabic


She has also been able to listen in on conversations

not meant for her ears, said Enchassi, who wears the

head covering called a hijab.

"I have been in stores where people were talking about

me in Spanish," she said.

In some ways, the confusion comes from a clash of


Cristina Martino, who became Muslim about six months

ago, said that Americans immediately associate Islam

with Middle Eastern countries.

"A lot of people think I'm from Iran when they see me

wearing the hijab," the 21-year-old Venezuela native


But recent converts also buck cultural stereotypes

that assume all Latinos must be Catholic, Sanchez


"I think because they have never heard of such a thing

in a way, the Latino community is so stereotyped as

being Christian," she said. "There are not only

Christians, but there are also Latino Buddhists,

Latino Jews."

Many Hispanic converts to Islam once considered

themselves Christian.

Enchassi grew up in a strict Catholic family in

Mexico, but even as a child felt distanced from the

faith. As a teen, she challenged her mother on matters

of dogma.

"I had many doubts in my heart and my mind about my

religion," Enchassi said.

But Enchassi also thinks there were elements of her

upbringing that fit well with Islam.

The Latino culture of Enchassi's youth was very

family-centered. She was taught to obey her parents

and to believe in and fear God. As in Islam, even

simple tasks such as cooking involved prayer, and her

mother taught her that an egg was perfectly poached in

the time it took to recite the "Our Father," she said.

"My mother, without knowing it, was a Muslim,"

Enchassi joked.

Enchassi, 47, said she was introduced to Islam by a

Muslim brother-in-law and converted in 1993 after

marrying a Muslim. For her, Islam is a shield "we have

in a society worldwide that has lost its moral


Bouchikhi said that some Hispanic Muslims become

interested in Islam when they hear that Jesus is

considered a prophet in the faith -- though not the

divine son of God and the path to salvation as

Christians believe.

El-Kassir's brother, Felipe Ayala, always questioned

the Christian idea of the Trinity. Finding Jesus as a

prophet -- but not divine -- in Islam felt like a

comfortable spiritual fit, he said.

"I already believed that Jesus was a special

messenger," said Ayala, who became Muslim about seven

years ago, inspired by his sister and the works of

Yusef Islam, the former rock singer Cat Stevens. "This

confirmed it. For me, it was a natural development."

El-Kassir's family moved to Houston when she was 8.

The family attended Catholic and Lutheran churches,

but they were never orthodox in their observances or


"My parents are not very religious," she said. "They

believe in God; they are good honest people who do


As a teen, El-Kassir never felt spiritually lost or as

if something were missing in her life, she said. In

high school, she had friends of many faiths and found

herself intrigued by Muslims.

"I saw how they dressed; that sparked a curiosity,"

she said. "I went into a mode of wanting to learn. I'm

an avid reader, so I read and read."

What she found was "a religion of common sense," she


Islam's emphasis on one God and belief that one's

deeds will be judged after death spoke to her.

El-Kassir, now 31, met and married her husband when

they were both students at the University of Houston.

She works as a bilingual fifth-grade teacher in the

Spring Branch school district. Though there are many

ways to hyphenate a demographic description of

El-Kassir, she describes herself simply as a Muslim.

But she tries to offer her four children the full

array of their cultural and spiritual identity,

teaching them Spanish and making sure they annually

visit relatives in Lebanon.

"They are American," she said. "Their mom is Mexican.

Their dad is Lebanese. They are Muslims. They get the

best of everything, I tell them."


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