Latinos embracing Islam, but 'dirty bomb' case brings unwanted attention

By Daniel González

The Arizona Republic

June 28, 2002 12:00:00

Melissa Morales, a Latina born in Puerto Rico, was

eating in a local Mexican restaurant recently when the

waiter wanted to know why she covered her head in a

long black scarf.

"Eres monjita?" the Spanish-speaking waiter asked. Are

you a nun?

Her answer caught the waiter by surprise. No, she told

him. Not a nun, a Muslim.

Latinos and Islam may seem like a strange combination

to most, primarily because Catholicism is so deeply

embedded in Latino culture. But the combination is

less unusual, believers point out, in light of the

fact that beginning in the year 711, Muslims from

North Africa occupied Spain for more than seven


Still, the estimated 40,000 Latino Muslims in the

United States remained far off the country's cultural

radar until earlier this month when a Latino Muslim

named Jose Padilla was accused by federal authorities

of plotting with Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida terrorist

network to detonate a radioactive "dirty bomb" on U.S.


Authorities said Padilla, the Brooklyn-born son of

Puerto Rican parents, was raised a Catholic, but

converted to Islam.

Padilla's arrest did not bring the kind of attention

the small but growing number of Latino Muslims want.

They are quick to defend their religion as peaceful.

"Islam is peace. Islam is not terrorism," said

Morales, 25, an elementary school teacher at the Tempe

Islamic Cultural Center.

There is no Latino Muslim organization in the Phoenix

area, and Morales said she has encountered fewer than

50 Latino Muslims.

She also wondered why Padilla's ethnicity and

citizenship became an issue when John Walker Lindh's

has not. Lindh is the 20-year-old American from

California who converted to Islam and is accused of

conspiring with Taliban forces in Afghanistan to kill

fellow Americans.

"Why do we have to categorize (Padilla) because he's

Latino? Why don't we do that with John Walker?" asked

Morales, pointing out that Puerto Ricans are U.S.

citizens by birth.

The world's 1 billion Muslims believe that Islam is

the one true religion and that there is only one God,

Allah, whose revelations revealed in the seventh

century to the Prophet Mohammed are contained in

Islam's sacred book, the Koran.

Padilla's arrest shocked many Latino Muslims,

including Juan Galvan, vice president of the national

Latino American Dawah Organization.

Dawah means "the call to Allah" in Arabic, and the

organization works to promote Islam to Latinos.

Galvan believes the publicity over Padilla's arrest

only added to negative perceptions about both Islam

and Latinos.

"Islam is always associated with something negative,"

said Galvan, 27, of Austin, who also heads the Texas

chapter of the Latino American Dawah Organization. "Of

all the people who had to get themselves in trouble,

this guy turns out to be Latino."

Islam is the nation's fastest growing religion and in

many ways the reasons Latinos are converting to Islam

are no different than those of others.

Some, like Veronica Ramirez, 36, of Tempe and Lucy

Chapa, 32, of Phoenix, were raised Roman Catholic but

became disenchanted with many of Catholicism's tenets.

"I was practicing Catholicism, but in my mind there

were always doubts," Ramirez said. "One of my

questions was the Trinity. How could one person be


Ramirez, a native of Mexico, said a Muslim friend from

Lebanon first introduced her to Islam in college. She

said she was attracted to the faith's practicality.

"For every rule there is a reason. It's not just

'because,' " Ramirez said.

Chapa had never heard of Islam until she met a Muslim

man while traveling in Europe seven years ago.

Other Latino Muslims like Sheila Roman, 36, of Tempe

and Katherine Muhammad, 30, of Phoenix converted to

Islam after marrying Muslims.

"My converting was not for my husband," said Roman, a

native of Puerto Rico. "It was by choice."

Morales, a former Pentecostal missionary, prefers to

say she "reverted" to Islam rather than converted.

In fact, she said, many Latinos who embrace Islam feel

that they are reclaiming their Islamic heritage, not

rejecting Latino culture.

"Latino people," she said, "have a legacy of Islam in


In the company of each other, they often blend three

cultures, greeting each other with the traditional

Muslim greeting "salaam alaykum" while conversing in

Spanish and English.

Reach the reporter at or (602) 444-8312.


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