SHAFAQNA – With a hijab on her head, Puerto Rican and Mexican flag keychain dangling from the ignition, Diana Serrano sings along to salsa music while driving through the multicultural streets of what used to be the most American of all cities. When in the mood for something more spiritual, she’ll switch to a voice recording of the Quran.
Serrano is a Hispanic-Muslim, a rapidly growing yet largely unknown segment of Orlando, the site of the June 12 massacre at a gay nightclub that killed 49 people, the majority of whom were of Hispanic descent.
“When people find out I’m Hispanic it fascinates them because they don’t expect to see a Latino-Muslim,” Serrano says. “They assume I’m an Arab who speaks very good Spanish.”
Though the Latino culture and the Muslim religion have influenced each other for more than 800 years, it has only been in the last few months that the two have attempted to band together — at least in Orlando — largely because of the current political conversation.
Presumed Republican nominee Donald Trump’s insistence that a wall be built on the Mexican border has alienated many Hispanics, an important demographic of the voting population, while his call to ban Muslims from immigrating to the United States in the wake of the Orlando and San Bernardino shootings has drawn the ire of many worldwide.
In Orlando, the two communities formed an informal partnership called the “Black and Brown Coalition,” and for six months they have been working on solidarity as well as empowering both communities to vote in November and become more politically engaged.
“After the attacks by Mr. Trump, we felt it was important to further our communications and work together to oppose bigotry against us,” says Bassem Chaaban, director of outreach for the Islamic Society of Central Florida.
Reports that Omar Mateen, the killer in the Orlando massacre, pledged his allegiance to radical Islam during the shooting, has not frayed the relationship between the two groups, officials say.
“This is not about one community against the other,” says Carlos Guzman, president of Orlando’s Puerto Rican Leadership Council. “Historically we share blood. Politically we are both tagged as minorities so we have a lot in common and we both need to help and protect each other.”
While the presence of iconic Disney World has long given Orlando the reputation of an All-American city, it is in fact rapidly becoming among the most diverse.
Many of the tourist shops in town can be found on the aptly named International Drive, on the west side of the city.
Latinos make up 30 percent of Orange County, while Florida has the third-largest Hispanic population in the country, at 24 percent and rising, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.
Orlando has a seen a large influx of people from Puerto Rico move to the city in recent years as the island has gone through some of its most troubling economic times in the last 50 years. Entry-level jobs in the tourist industry and at Disney have appealed to a large number of young Puerto Ricans.
On Goldenrod Road, on the largely industrial east side of town, you can find the Old Cuban Café, where all of the employees greet you first in Spanish. On a chalkboard near the bakery, people have written such sayings as “Viva Cuba Libre,” which translates to “Long Live a Free Cuba.”
A half-mile away from the café is the Islamic Society of Central Florida, where to enter you first pass a security guard. On the premises are a mosque, a school, nursery school, free clinic and cemetery. Farther up the street, the group holds a food bank each Saturday. An overwhelming majority of the people served are Hispanic, many of whom live in low-income housing nearby. The weekly food bank draws about 300 people, says Serrano, the office manager.
Rasha Mubarak, a regional coordinator for the Council of Islamic-American Affairs, or CAIR, said that many Muslims were present when the names of the victims were read aloud at a public vigil. Many of the victims’ families spoke only Spanish.
CAIR created a group chat on the messaging app Whatsapp. They asked for Muslims who could translate. Dozens of Latina Muslims came out, wearing “I speak Spanish” stickers below their hijabs.
“The Muslim community in Central Florida is growing so fast,” Mubarak says.
There are at least 39 mosques and Islamic schools in the Orlando metro area alone — and it’s not like they’re concentrated in one area. Mosques are sprinkled over the map, built near churches and Cuban bakeries, temples and Mexican grills. “There’s not, like, a Muslim neighborhood. We’re very integrated into the society here in Central Florida,” Mubarak says.
The city — as well as Central Florida — is full of immigrants from many different countries. The alleged shooter at Pulse demonstrates that: Mateen was born in America, but to parents from Afghanistan, while his first wife is from Uzbekistan. His second wife was born to Palestinian parents.
The SWAT team that killed Mateen had two Hispanic members, according to the New York Times. The Orlando Police Department is 18 percent Hispanic, while many of the doctors, technicians and nurses who tended to the victims are of immigrant families as well as members of the gay and lesbian communities. Most of the victims were of Hispanic descent, and several immigrated directly from Mexico and Puerto Rico.
While there has been a large outpouring of support from around the world for the gay and lesbian communities, there are some who feel compassion and support for the Hispanic community has lagged behind.
“Although the overwhelming majority of the victims were Hispanic, that was largely omitted from the narrative,” Zoe Colon, director of the Florida chapter of Hispanic Federation said at a news conference. “The fact that it is not stressed and not emphasized in Central Florida makes it really difficult.”
There has been debate over whether Hispanics were targeted. At least one account indicates that they may have been. According to one survivor, Mateen walked into the bathroom and told hostages that he didn’t have a problem with black people. “You guys have suffered enough,” he reportedly said.
Clean to meet her God
Serrano awakens each morning at 4:30 a.m. It is time to wash away her sins.
She washes her right hand three times, her left hand three times. She washes her elbows three times and her feet three times. She washes her face. She must be clean to meet her God.
She kneels down on a rug in her home facing the northeast — to remember the direction, she just says “Titusville, that way” — and prays in Arabic. Her head touches the ground, as if becoming one with the earth.
She prays five times a day. She has an app on her phone that gives off a “call to prayer,” which is a voice singing in Arabic “Allah is great, Allah is great.” The app also has a compass so she will know which direction to face. Sometimes the app goes off when she is at the movies.
She grew up in New York, the daughter of a Mexican mother and Puerto Rican father, both devout Catholics. She was also a Catholic, though there were parts of the religion she felt unsure about. Serrano searched for a new direction in adulthood.
She became a Jehovah’s Witness for a short time, and when she attended a Muslim service six years ago in Florida, she knew she belonged. She returned home wearing a hijab, wondering how her parents would react. Her blind father ran his hands over her head and gave his blessing.
Serrano — whose Muslim name is Miriam, which means “Mary” in Arabic — says the sexual abuse scandals involving Catholic priests are among the reasons Hispanics are departing the church.
“When a lot of things started to surface about priests, that was problematic and then they started questioning the church,” Serrano says. “Why do I have to confess my sins to a man who was committing atrocities worse than the sins I am committing?”
According to Pew Research, 4 percent of Muslims in the United States are Hispanic, or about 112,000.
“The highest number of converts in our mosques are Latinos,” says Chaaban, of the Islamic Society of Central Florida.
Serrano lived in New York during the 9/11 attacks. Her then-husband, who worked at the stock exchange in one of the towers, survived. She says she held no animosity toward Muslims in the months that followed. But now that she is a Muslim, she says she feels the eyes upon her after every incident.
As she drove to work Monday, the day after the Orlando shooting, she was worried about people’s reaction to her. She had been visiting Epcot one day when she overheard someone in Spanish say to another, “Do you think she has a bomb?” Of course, that person had no idea Serrano spoke Spanish, too.
“After every event that has taken place — San Bernardino, Fort Hood — yes, you are worried, coming out of the house, driving or whatever,” she says. “But it happened here.”
After work she drove to Publix, and before she entered she said a small prayer. She made a particular effort to keep her head up and her eyes focused on people she encountered, which is normal for her anyway, she says, as people who look down are perceived to be someone hiding guilt. She said she received mostly smiles.
That night Serrano attended a vigil for the victims in downtown Orlando, and again she was somewhat worried, calling her friends already there to see where they were standing. At the vigil, she said, people came up to her and handed her cards that said, “You Matter.”
“We have to stand up and unite, especially with this upcoming election,” Serrano says. “Because if not, then what’s going to happen to us?
“Where am I going to get shipped to?”
An American citizen, she grew up in Queens — the birthplace of Donald Trump.