LIANE HANSEN, host:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen. Over the past few decades the Catholic Church in America has seen an exodus of Latin American congregants from its pews. Experts point to growing competition from other denominations, primarily evangelical Christianity. However, an emerging segment of the Hispanic population is converting to Islam. And as NPR's Rachel Martin reports, most of them are women.
RACHEL MARTIN: In Union City, New Jersey, Spanish is the language on the signs and on the street corners. Specialty stores sell ornate gold crucifixes and Latin pop hits blare from storefronts. But just around the corner, Spanish conversations mingle with a different rhythm.
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MARTIN: Here at the North Hudson Islamic Education Center, weekly classes on what it means to be a Muslim cater to the mosque's growing Hispanic population. Mosque leaders say 10 years ago there were only a handful of Hispanics at Friday prayers, and today there are roughly 150. On this night a couple dozen new Spanish-speaking converts gather in a small classroom next to the main prayer room.
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MARTIN: Children chase each other around the room while their mothers, wearing different versions of the hijab headscarf, situate themselves at a long table or on the floor. They're here for a lesson on Islamic doctrine, but a different kind of learning takes place after class, when prospective converts talk with mentors. Fifty-seven-year-old Ramona Gravis(ph) is a native of Costa Rica. She started looking into Islam a couple of years ago after her son converted. She's close to making the declaration of Islamic faith, or shahaadah, but she's worried about how her husband is going to deal with it.
Ms. RAMONA GRAVIS (Contemplating Conversion to Islam): (Spanish spoken)
MARTIN: The problem with my husband, she says, is that he's embarrassed by what other people are going to think and say when I start to wear hijab. Deana Santos(ph) nods her head with understanding. Santos converted to Islam more than a decade ago, when she was a teenager, in her home country Spain. She's been pushing the North Hudson mosque to provide counseling to help new converts deal with family relationships, but for the time being she's helped set up an informal women's support network.
Ms. DEANA SANTOS (Convert to Islam): So you try to help. When you see a new convert, you try to talk to the - how is it going to be with their families? And like when I convert, I understood what she's going through. I didn't wear hijab immediately, because I know my family was going to kill me or like make a big deal out of it. You are not an Arab, you're a Hispanic woman. You cannot convert.
MARTIN: Official data on Hispanic conversion to Islam is scarce. The U.S. census bureau doesn't track religious statistics. But according to the Islamic Society of North America, there are roughly 40,000 Hispanic Muslims in the U.S. Experts say there is an increasing trend of Hispanic converts to Islam, much of which has to do with the changing demographics. As the Hispanic population grows, so does the number of Hispanic Muslims. And most of them are women like Wendy Diaz(ph). The native Puerto Rican says she was drawn to Islam in large part because of its strict guidelines on women's appearance, rules she says make her feel honored and protected.
Ms. WENDY DIAZ (Convert to Islam): I found myself to be getting more respect as a woman. I would be able to go to a job interview and get a job based on my intelligence, not on the way that I looked. And likewise, from the opposite sex I wouldn't get that negative attention that a lot of women get.
MARTIN: Yvonne Hadad(ph) is a professor of Islamic history at Georgetown University.
Professor YVONNE HADAD (Georgetown University): Whereas American culture gives them freedom but not respect, Islam may restrict their freedom, but it gives them a lot of respect.
MARTIN: Hadad says Hispanic women are drawn to Islam because it reflects the values of the patriarchal conservative societies of Latin America that have been diluted in modern American culture.
Prof. HADAD: There is a group of women who are very unhappy with the feminist movement that has left them behind. There is some restriction which probably these women want to put on themselves. They don't want to be socially active the way American society demands of them. They're very comfortable in being a wife and a mother.
MARTIN: But they also come to Islam for something more, something they didn't get from the Catholic Church. The Catholic Almanac estimates that roughly 100,000 Hispanics in the U.S. leave the Catholic Church every year. Twenty-year-old Gabby Gonzalez(ph) is one of them. Like other converts, Gonzalez found the Catholic Church too bureaucratic and too impersonal. She also had a hard time with certain aspects of the faith, like the hierarchy of the church, belief in the Trinity and original sin. She remembers going to mass weekly with her grandmother and cousins, and just feeling lost.
Ms. GABBY GONZALEZ (Convert to Islam): We would go and, you know, they would never explain to us, you know, why we have to go to church. They would never explain to us - they would just say, you know, you just have to do it because our grandparents told us to do it. You know, they told us like a generation thing that they had. So okay, but I never had a purpose of, like, okay, why am I kneeling, you know? Or why am I putting my hands together? Why am I exalting the image that I have in front of me?
MARTIN: A couple years ago Gonzalez started visiting Protestant churches, even some synagogues, looking for a spiritual home. Eventually a Muslim friend introduced her to a local imam. He gave her some books and answered her questions, and late last year Gonzalez took her pledge of faith. She's put away her ripped jeans and tank tops. Now she wears the niqab, the all-encompassing black Islamic dress that reveals only her big brown eyes. And she talks about her new faith with all the enthusiasm of a new convert who's found new meaning.
Ms. GONZALEZ: It's about community and unity, you know. Everywhere we go we carry this strong passion, this feeling that, you know, everything we do is for a...
MARTIN: But her decision came as a shock to her family. And she recalls the nerve racking moment when she told her father, a devout Catholic.
Ms. GONZALEZ: I'm like sweating and I didn't know how to tell him, you know, because he comes from - you know, we come from a different culture. And I said, hey dad, you know, I just want to tell you that, you know, I, you know, how, you know, I - I have a love for God and, you know, I just want to tell you that I declare my faith today and, you know, I took Islam. And you know, I'm a Muslim.
MARTIN: At first she says her father dismissed her foray into Islam as a teenage phase. But then Gonzalez stopped eating pork, started praying five times a day and started wearing the hijab, which eventually got her kicked out of the house.
Ms. GONZALEZ: That's when my mom said, okay, you know, that's it. I've had it. You have to speak to her. I can't have her here anymore. You know, she - I feel like she's not, like, with - like us and everything. So my father took me aside and he told me - he asked me either Islam or us.
MARTIN: Yvonne Hadad of Georgetown University says this kind of reaction is not uncommon.
Prof. HADAD: For a lot of families, they see it as a rejection of the values that they had tried to raise their kids on, and they find it very hard. And some people come around eventually.
MARTIN: For other converts, managing family relationships after converting has been a little easier. Dressed in a hot pink trench coat and matching headscarf, 31-year-old Linda Rodriguez stands in stark contrast to the rest of the women at the North Hudson mosque. When the divorced mother of one converted to Islam five years ago, her Puerto Rican family thought they would lose her to a different religion and a different way of life. But over the years she's integrated Islam into her life in a way that reflects her devout faith but leaves plenty of room for her to embrace her identity as a Latina. It's this balance, she says, that's helped her family come to terms with her new religion.
Ms. LINDA RODRIGUEZ (Convert to Islam): As time has passed by, they've seen the difference in me, and they've started to accept it. And they realize that it's not a phase. This is already who I am.
MARTIN: Like other converts, Rodriguez came to Islam not through any organized outreach program but through a friend of a friend and what started as casual conversations about faith. Officials with the Islamic Society of North America say individual mosques are engaging more with growing Hispanic communities, but active proselytizing isn't part of Islamic tradition or doctrine. Instead, they say, they're opening the door to Islam, and Hispanic women are choosing to walk through.
Rachel Martin, NPR News, Washington.
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