Praising Allah -- en espaņol

Catherine Garcia enters the mosque barefoot
Jeannette Rivera-Lyles | Sentinel Staff Writer 
Posted August 19, 2006,0,922182.story

Catherine Garcia enters the mosque barefoot and finds
a spot on the floor. She kneels and leans forward.
Palms, nose and forehead touch the ground. Her lips
move, almost imperceptibly, whispering words in

Three years ago, she would have been in a Roman
Catholic church, murmuring prayers with her rosary
beads. Today, she invokes Allah while reciting
portions of the Quran.

Garcia, 33, is among an estimated 70,000 Hispanics
nationwide embracing Islam, blending with apparent
ease two cultures seemingly at odds.

They are renouncing salsa dancing, roasted pork and
Christmas. But they are making their tamales with
halal meat, reading the Quran in Spanish and sharing
their faith at Hispanic cultural events.

"I am a Latino woman," said Garcia, who was born in
Colombia and now lives in east Orange County. "I
prefer to read the Quran in Spanish, and I praise God
in Spanish. It's the language that I feel."

Cities throughout the nation, but especially in
Florida, California, New York and Texas, are seeing
the conversion rate to Islam among Hispanics grow
every year.

The exact number of Hispanic Muslims is hard to
measure because the U.S. Census does not ask about
religion, and mosques do not keep membership rolls.

Muslims are still a small percentage of the 41 million
Hispanics in the U.S. But some experts think that
since 2001, the number of the nation's Hispanic
Muslims has increased from an estimated 40,000 to
about 70,000. That calculation is based on a 2001
survey of mosques by Muslim scholar Ishan Bagby of the
University of Kentucky.

A testimony to their growing presence is the dozens of
Hispanic Muslim groups throughout the nation, and even
a national group, the Latino American Dawaah
Organization. (The Arabic term dawaah refers to
inviting non-Muslims to Islam.)

"As a rule of thumb, the size of the Latino Muslim
population within a particular area generally
corresponds to the size of the overall Muslim
population within that area," said Juan Galvan of
Orlando, vice president of LADO, in an e-mail.

That would explain why east Orange County, which has
the county's highest concentration of Hispanics, has
the largest mosque in Central Florida.

Imam Muhammad Musri, president of the Islamic Society
of Central Florida, said there weren't any Hispanic
faces at the Masjid Al-Rahman mosque on Goldenrod Road
when he came here in 1993.

"Now I see many on a regular basis, and that's just on
the men's side," Musri said. Muslim men worship in a
separate room from women, who watch the sermon on
closed-circuit television.

Bassem Chaaban, who teaches classes for new Muslims at
Masjid Al-Rahman, says that just about every group he
teaches has several Hispanics in it. He encourages
them not to abandon their cultural roots.

"We have members called Jose and Fernando," he said.
"We tell them, 'You don't have to change your name or
who you are.' [The purpose of] Islam is not to change
your identity; it is to improve your life."

Some explain the phenomenon of Hispanic conversions as
the inevitable fusion of two groups already converging
because of population growth.

"Where Islam would have contacted with Hispanics,
earlier on, would have been in bigger cities," Bagby
said. "Places like New York City, for example. But the
growth of the communities have allowed for more
contact with one another."

Bagby thinks Hispanics are more likely to convert now
because some of the traditions associated with their
native countries have weakened.

"Second- and third-generation Hispanics are not
necessarily thinking that to be Hispanic is to be
Catholic. They can separate the tie between religion
and culture," Bagby said.

Others, such as Musri, point to the historic and
cultural links between the Spanish and Muslim worlds.

"It is a renaissance, if you will," Musri said about
Hispanic conversions. "It's in their blood."

The Moors were North African Muslims who governed most
of what is now Spain and Portugal for more than 700
years beginning in the 8th century.

 The Spanish language retains hundreds of words that
derive from Arabic, and many traditions associated
with the culture can be traced to the Moors.

This historic connection, Musri thinks, makes the
transition from Christianity to Islam easier for

"From skin color to food to family values, Hispanics
and Muslims have much in common," Musri said. "We
believe in Jesus [as a prophet] and in the same
commandments. It's easy to reconcile [both cultures]."

The events of Sept. 11, 2001, also might have
contributed indirectly to many conversions.

"A lot of people became curious about the teachings of
Islam, and for some that resulted in conversions,"
said Galvan of the dawaah organization.

Garcia said she was happy in her Catholic faith. She
even considered becoming a nun. But the more she
studied the Bible, the more she felt as if the Vatican
had gotten some things wrong in its modern
interpretations. She became familiar with Islam
through friends and liked its "simplicity."

Being a Hispanic Muslim makes Garcia a minority within
a minority, but that doesn't intimidate her.

Wearing her customary attire of a hijab -- a head
covering -- and long-sleeved tunic, Garcia went to a
Latin bodega on a recent afternoon. She attracted
curious looks as she pushed a shopping cart toward the
Goya beans display, but she didn't seem bothered.

"I felt more like a foreigner before, than I do now,"
she said of her experience as an immigrant. "I feel
like family now. I'm completely at ease."

Praising Allah -- en espanol

Hispanic converts to Islam give up roasted pork and
Christmas but say they can combine their culture and

Jeannette Rivera-Lyles can be reached at 407-420-5471


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