SHAFAQNA – Though it’s been more than a decade since César Dominguez visited Egypt, recalling the moment he visited a local mosque still overwhelms him with emotion. When he took a moment there to kneel down in prayer, he says he experienced a level of peacefulness he’d never felt before.
“A year later, I felt it was meant to be, and I embraced Islam,” Dominguez says. For two years after his conversion, Dominguez says he struggled with a coherent answer for his family as to why he converted to Islam. Eventually, he came to the place where he decided maybe there was no answer. Like falling in love, he says, you can describe the person you love, but why you love them is difficult to describe.
Today, the 54-year-old Los Angeles-based Mexican-American — he grew up in Tijuana, but returned to the state where was born as an adult — he is the imam of the nonprofit group La Asociación Latino Musulmana de América (LALMA), teaching weekly Quran and Islamic studies classes in Spanish at the Omar ibn Al-Khattab Mosque, located in downtown Los Angeles, near the University Southern California. It’s one of America’s very few Latino mosques.
Dominguez and his congregation are part of a small but growing group of Latino Muslims, forming a unique nexus between two groups that have faced the Trump administration’s most xenophobic rhetoric. According to the Pew Research Center, at 57 million and counting, Latinos are the largest minority in the nation. So perhaps it isn’t entirely surprising that Latino Muslims are also the fastest growing segment of America’s 3.3 million Muslims in the nation, 6% of whom are Latino.
“A lot of Latinos who grew up in Latin American countries and immigrated to the U.S., and those who grew up here, don’t like the notion of having to confess their sins, which is part of Catholicism,” says Jaime “Mujihid” Fletcher, founder of Islam in Spanish Centro Islámico, one of the also few Spanish-speaking mosques in the U.S.
“They haven’t liked the fact that the churches ask for a donation, and they feel as if money and religion are one in the same. They go in and come out and don’t feel the fulfillment of having a relationship with God. They look into Islam and realize it’s not dependent on a church or a mosque and can be practiced daily and happens to be in accordance with a lot of the ways Latinos were raised,” Fletcher adds.
Fletcher was born in Colombia, moved to Texas as a child, and converted to Islam in 2001. He founded Centro Islámico in Houston in January 2016. The huge space spans 5,000 square feet, boasting a prayer hall, Islamic museum, a social room, and a gift shop. Fletcher’s wife designed the building to resemble Mezquita de Córdoba in Spain. Congregational prayers are held every Friday, and they draw large crowds.
A few months after his conversion, Fletcher says he took his father to a mosque. He had to translate for him because he doesn’t speak English or Arabic. Yet, just a few months later, his father converted to Islam. But there was very little information about Islam for him or other Latinos in Spanish. So Fletcher, his wife, and his father started recording audio and video content in Spanish, beginning with their first CD, “La Religión de la Verdad,” “The Religion of Truth.” They’ve since produced more than 500 audio books and about 250 videos that have aired on public access television.
“When I converted, about two months before 9/11, I was one of a handful of Latino Muslims in Houston. Now, if you count families, it could range to about 1,000, that’s a huge growth, just within the time we opened the center. About 70 people have embraced Islam so far, and before the center, it was about 37 people.”
“We’re not pushing an agenda to convert people because that’s not what we do. We basically educate people, but they’re very interested, especially when they learn that Islam ties back into their roots,” Fletcher says.
Arab Muslims ruled Spain for several centuries, and the religion’s influence has left its mark on Latino culture and language: Thousands of Spanish words have their roots in Arabic. Fletcher believes this history has made a powerful impact on Latino converts.
It certainly left an impression on Lucy Silva, a volunteer at the Islamic Center of Santa Ana (ICSA) in California. She was born in Chihuahua, Mexico, moved to Santa Ana as a child, and converted to Islam 19 years ago after marrying her Lebanese-born husband. These days, she’s an ambassador of several programs at ICSA, primarily one that organizes a food pantry for its neighbors. During Ramadan, ICSA organizes a breaking of the fast meal as part of a national “Taco Truck at Every Mosque” campaign to promote Muslim-Latino unity.
Ironically, by putting these two groups in the crosshairs, it seems President Donald Trump has brought them together. “Latinos can see what Muslims do, and Muslims can see what we do. We’re trying to bridge that gap through food and language,” Silva says.
Dominguez agrees, though for him, it’s immigration bringing the groups together. In March, between Sunday classes, LALMA offered advice to students at Omar ibn Al-Khattab Mosque about their immigration rights. “I have seen more … Islamic communities reaching out to the Latino community, [ever since] immigration issues became critical within both communities.”
Fletcher says that at his mosque in Houston, the congregation has used fears of Trump as a jumping off point. “I knew that if he were elected, we would have our work cut out for us. But we are optimistic. This is an opportunity to let people know who we are.”