Latino Muslims in the Bronx Hope to Carve Out Own Community

Zaynab al-Samat, a native of the Dominican Republic, attends Masjid Annasr, a West African mosque where she is the lone regular Hispanic worshiper. She wants to seek out a Latino Muslim community where she can intertwine her Latino culture and the Muslim religion that she said some Hispanics “think is for Arabs only.” (Photo by Elizabeth Barber/Norwood News)

Latino Muslims in the Bronx make up a fractured group who worship alongside other communities. Elizabeth Barber of Norwood News reports that its scattered members look forward to a day in which they can come together and worship with others from backgrounds similar to their own.

Even as the number of Latino converts is on the rise, Hispanic Muslims say the population is still invisible in the Bronx — more a collection of individuals finding homes at other ethnic mosques than a cohesive group with spaces and customs to call their own. In the absence of a defined Latino Muslim community, there has been little organized debate here on what it means to be both Hispanic and Muslim. Building a duel identity, then, is a piecemeal process of synergizing Hispanic culture and an adopted faith.

Estimating the size of the Latino Muslim population is difficult, since the U.S. Census Bureau does not collect information on religious demographics. According to The Islamic Society of North America, there are roughly 40,000 Latino Muslims in the U.S., while other academic studies put the number as low as 25,000 and as high as 75,000.

“I hear exaggerated numbers of how many we are, but I just don’t buy it,” said Ramon Ocasio, a stationmaster at Grand Central who converted to Islam in 1973 as a university student. “I don’t see them anywhere.”

Ocasio was part of an effort to organize the Latino Muslim community in 1985. He and other recently-coverted Puerto Ricans founded Alianza Islamica, a “Hispanic Muslim organization that rode the energy of the Latino nationalist politics that sizzled in Spanish Harlem a decade earlier.”

Operating out of a small, Spanish Harlem storefront before relocating to the south Bronx in the early 1990s, the group put on its own version of Muslim holiday festivities. At those celebrations, choreographed to conga rhythms, traditional Puerto Rican pork dishes were re-imagined with lamb substitutes, he said.

“We tried to express ourselves as Latinos and as Muslims at the same time,” Ocasio said. “We had to learn to adapt Islam to our culture. And we were the first to do it. We didn’t learn it from our parents.”

But Alianza Islamica shut down in 2003 after internal conflict amongst the leaders splinted its roughly 50 members. The closure left Ocasio “jaded” about the prospect of again uniting the community, he said, especially after a subsequent attempt to duplicate the group floundered.

He added that such an effort now faces the additional challenge of bringing together a group of converts who may primarily identify with a country of origin rather than as “Latino.” Alianza Islamica was entirely Puerto Rican and operated exclusively in English, he said.

Recent attempts have been made to bring together Latino Muslims. Aisha Ahmed Hernandez, who converted 20 years ago, founded the Bronx-based Latin American Muslim Women’s Association in 2007. She also created the Facebook group, “Muslims Who Speak Spanish” to get an idea of the size of the community. It now has nearly 500 members. Hernandez hasn’t completely turned her back on Catholicism, the faith of her Puerto Rican family and friends. In addition to attending mosque, she celebrates Catholic holidays.

“I do Easter egg hunts in my Muslim garb,” she said.

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  1. Pingback: Latina Muslims Face Ridicule, Find Peace - Voices of NY

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