In Their Own Words: Latina Muslims Speak on Faith, Identity, and Liberation
“Faith is the bird that feels the light when the dawn is still dark,” Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore once wrote. But thinking about faith in the 21st century seems, for many, to be a waste of time. Christians, Muslims, evangelicals, and even atheists suffer in silence from the identity and spiritual crisis typical of technological development.
Within the Latino community, once predominantly Catholic, this spiritual crisis seems to find safe harbor in religions from other seas. Such is the case of Muslim Latinos, who number around 200,000 in the United States today, according to estimates by the American Muslim Council of Chicago.
These numbers are particularly important in the post-9/11 world, where the media and ignorance seem to have coincided in making one population the scapegoat of the century.
What, then, has attracted so many Latinos — especially Latinas — to convert to Islam? What is the experience of these women like?
In search of an answer, FIERCE spoke with six Latina Muslims to learn more about this spiritual journey and how it intersects with their Hispanic identity.
Here’s what they told us.
An unexpected discovery
For Wendy Diaz, this spiritual journey is more than 20 years old. Diaz converted to Islam in August 2000 after learning about the religion in high school.
Her first contact with Islam was through Malcolm X’s autobiography, which she read when she was 15.
“I remember being fascinated with how Islam changed his life after he embarked on a spiritual journey to Mecca,” she told FIERCE.
A year later, Diaz met a Muslim woman in her English class. She discovered the family and social dynamics surrounding Islam through her classmate’s family.
“I visited them at their house and went to Muslim gatherings where I observed Muslims praying and asked questions about their faith. Eventually, I was able to get some books, and I converted after studying Islam for four years.”
This Latina Muslim has a B.A. in Modern Languages and Linguistics with a minor in secondary education from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC). She is currently pursuing a Master’s degree in Islamic Studies at the Bayan Islamic Graduate School of the Chicago Theological Seminary.
She is an entrepreneurial woman and co-founder of Hablamos Islam, a pioneering program dedicated to developing educational resources with Islam. Her specific emphasis is on Spanish-speaking Latino families.
For other Muslim Latinas, the experience has been similar
For Kaylee Cruz-Jarjuri, 22, her first encounter with Islam was in high school. She met a sixth-grade classmate who took her to the masjid (mosque).
Similarly, for Jacqueline Cortez, 23, an experience at school sparked her curiosity about Islam.
“During this time, I learned about the Arab Spring three years prior,” she told FIERCE. “Islamophobia was extremely common, and my best friend was targeted by another student and called a terrorist due to her Islamic faith.”
“This incident sparked an interest in me. I wanted to learn what Islam was and why people, like my classmate, reacted to it in such a hateful way. It took me five years of researching before I accepted Islam in my first year of college in 2019.”
For Lourdes Loyola, 36, once an undocumented Mexican, the encounter with Islam was in the military.
“My first encounter with Islam was through another Muslim service member,” she told FIERCE. “He seemed ‘normal’ and not at all what the Western media portrayed Muslims to be, from their race/ethnicity to their ‘character.’ My friend, now a brother, is an African American and one of the most honest, loyal, respectful, and kindest men I’ve ever encountered. He enlightened me with the diversity in Islam and the true essence of Muslim men.”
In matters of faith, these women found the spiritual peace they had long sought
Although Wendy Diaz grew up in Puerto Rico and went to Catholic school before moving to the U.S., she says she never agreed with many of the teachings of the Catholic Faith.
From the idea that “Jesus was the son of God, but also God” to the contradiction between the first commandment and the worship of images and statues in churches, for Diaz, the answers seemed to lie elsewhere.
“Islam had the answers to all the questions I had about spirituality growing up,” she said. “Being Muslim offers one a disciplined life to acquire peace and happiness through purposeful worship. That feeling of peace and purpose makes me feel fulfilled as a Muslim woman.”
Similarly, for Jacqueline Cortez, “Islam offers people a simple way of life. We are encouraged to ask questions and challenge its views, which I could never do in the [Catholic] Church.”
“Islam gave me a sense of purpose in life,” said Cruz-Jarjuri. “Islam is more than just a religion. It’s a way of life. It provides me with guidance in all aspects of life and has a solution for everything.”
For Lourdes Loyola, what she finds most spiritually satisfying about Islam is “the high status of women.”
“Contrary to popular belief, women play a vital role in the start, development, and continuation of Islam,” she assured.
For many people, the image of Muslim women is distorted. Not surprisingly, there are those who consider the female role subjugated to that of men.
For these Latinas, however, nothing could be further from the truth.
“I’ve been asked if I converted for my husband, and the answer is no,” explained Maryám Alim, a communications and marketing professional, who claims to have “heard it all.”
“I’ve even been asked if my friends are my sister wives!” she shared. “Often, I would use the statements of ignorance as an opportunity to educate people, but with the ongoing genocide in Palestine and rise in Islamophobia, I err on the side of caution with strangers.”
For Wendy Diaz, Islam has been about empowerment.
“When I began wearing hijab, I felt empowered like never before because I didn’t feel compelled to flaunt my body as a means to get ahead,” she said.
“I felt free to be myself and got respect for embracing my beliefs wholeheartedly. Nevertheless, I received some criticism from family and friends, especially after 9/11, but they backed off once they saw that I was able to go to school and work like anyone else.”
When faith and education go hand in hand
All six women agreed that, in the end, navigating life as converts is all about education.
“I studied in-depth explanations of chapters in the Quran to understand the context of Allah’s messages,” said Ana Midence, a freelance professional makeup artist born in Honduras. “I’ve studied the life of the prophet for when and why different practices became established in the Islamic faith. This gave me a backbone to stand up for my own choices.”
For Diaz, education is also a way to overcome obstacles.
“As converts, we have to ground ourselves in religious knowledge so we do not become vulnerable to spiritual abuse or fall into neglect or overzealousness,” she explained. “Another challenge is finding your place as a Latina Muslim in predominately non-Latino Islamic spaces. I have overcome this obstacle by being involved in my community, educating fellow Muslims and non-Muslims through my writing, and organizing events through my family’s program, Hablamos Islam.”
For her part, Loyola only deals with people with Western-coded prejudices in one of two ways: “either I take the time to educate, or I make an example out of them, [there is] no in between.”
“While I strive to build bridges within all of the communities I’m a part of, such as the military, Islam, Mexicans, women, mothers, etc. I also like to remind people that they can always catch the same hands I pray with,” she continued.
“When it comes to my CHOICE of dressing modestly and observing the hijab, specifically with Mexican people (who are often Catholic) and their negative opinions, I always refer them to the Virgencita (may God be pleased with her) and ask them the following ‘who is emulating her in clothing?’ Nine times out of ten, this will lead to a positive conversation,” Loyola added.
In reference to the constant narrative that women are subjugated to men in Islam, she responds with facts.
“Men and women in Islam are both asked to observe the hijab. Men are ordered to observe hijab before women, and regardless of what women wear, men are obligated to lower their gaze. This always comes as a shock to people and will also lead to more questions and the opportunity for education.”
When the Muslim and Latino worlds meet
The beauty of these women’s experience has been the syncretism that has enveloped their lives. Between faith and tradition, their Latino identities remain a pillar.
For example, when Maryám Alim decided to get married last year, she and her husband held two ceremonies — one at the mosque and then a smaller reception with her family. “We made our entrance to an upbeat song in Dari, and as soon as we made it to the dance floor, it switched to the Cumbia Sampuesana,” she remembered.
For her part, and after struggling for a long time to find spaces to express her identity, Jacqueline Cortez tries to find ways to incorporate her Latino culture when she celebrates her Islamic faith.
“For example, during the month of Ramadan, people tend to break their fast with cultural dishes, so I break my fast with empanadas, pupusas, and carne asada,” she said.
In the end, faith is a path to liberation and empowerment
Talking with these fierce women, the question that came to mind was the same one that might occur to many others: How do they live the cultural and social codes of a religion foreign to their culture of origin?
For Loyola, the experience has been nothing short of a roller coaster. While she claims to have been blessed not to lose her culture in the process of weaving Islam into her life, the ignorance at times has been harsh.
“Whenever a person is presented with something or someone different than we’re used to, we often allow our biases to get in the way and quickly make negative assumptions,” she explained. “Whether my culture is seen as ‘haram’ (impermissible) by some Muslims or my hijab is seen as a symbol of a ‘traitor’ by my Mexican people, there is no shortage of naysayers with who I am.”
“However, like my mom always said, ‘ni que fueras monedita de oro, pa’ caerle bienle a todos.’ So I just continue with the fierceness passed down by my ancestors and my Muslim women role models.”
Most people Kaylee Cruz-Jarjuri comes across are surprised when they learn she is Latina.
“They can’t fathom that I’m Latina,” she said. “They ask if I was born Muslim, and when I say no, they get surprised. Then they ask if I’m married, and the answer is then again no, and they become shocked. It takes a great amount of explaining that I chose to be Muslim for myself by myself and for no one else.”
This spiritual experience has been intimate and personal for these women
“When I wore the hijab, it was such a beautiful feeling,” Cruz-Jarjuri continued. “I felt as if I was breaking free from the norms of society. My parents didn’t understand at first. I simply explained to them that Mary, the mother of Jesus, wore it as a sign of modesty and virtue and that it was the same in Islam but had more importance.”
“In a society where people judge you based on how you look or on your body shape, I decided to completely remove myself from those expectations. I personally find it more empowering that when I walk out in public, I have control over who sees me and not society.”
Jacqueline Cortez agrees.
“Growing up, I felt the pressure to flaunt my body as a means to show my beauty and my worth. However, when I learned about Islam, I gained a new perspective,” she added. “I realized I did not have to expose myself to feel beautiful. Modesty and the hijab empowered me. The moment I put the hijab on, I felt free, free from society’s expectations of beauty.”
Similarly, Ana Midence feels she has regained control over the narrative around beauty.
“The decision to cover my hair and body is my decision,” she said. “I noticed a difference once I started covering up how less self-conscious or concerned I was about how people would judge my physique. I still enjoy beauty, and I don’t feel the need to impose my standards of modesty on anyone, as it’s their choice.”