Estefania Gonzalez is a Muslim convert. She is also Mexican.
Gonzalez had a difficult time navigating Islam when she converted four years ago. Spanish is her first language, and she struggled to find her place in a community consisting of few Latinos. That was until she visited Centro Islamic, the first Spanish-Speaking mosque in America.
Centro Islamico acts as a safe space for Latino Muslims living in the Houston area, catering to adherents like Gonzalez, who have trouble finding mosques where they feel comfortable. Latino Muslims make up a small sliver of the U.S. Muslim population; making up just 6 percent of 3.3 million American Muslims, according to the Pew Research Center. But the population is growing both domestically and globally, and the founders of Centro Islamico took notice.
Gonzalez regularly attends “jummah”, or Friday afternoon prayers at Centro Islamico. The weekly service begins with a lecture, and ends with a group-wide prayer. It is common in mosques across the globe, but Centro Islamico does it a bit differently. The speaker conducts his sermon in three languages: Arabic, English and Spanish.
About 30 men and women of various ethnic backgrounds — mostly Latino — sat on the carpeted floor and listened to the sermon start in Spanish, move to English and end in Arabic. After prayers, they quietly made their way out to the lounge area decorated in the brightly-colored, geometric patterns unique to the art of the Iberian peninsula. Some stayed behind whispering in Spanish among themselves.
“The fact that we can all understand each other in the Spanish language, it makes it feel like home,” Gonzalez said. “It’s like I can be myself.”
The mosque also caters to the converts who faced backlash from family and friends. Nahela Morales vividly remembers the last time she visited her family in Mexico. Her cousin slapped her across the face, and ripped off her headscarf. She comes from a family of devout Catholics, and they didn’t understand or accept her new way of life.
“I did lose friends along the way,” said Morales. “But the backlash that was biggest for me was when I lost my job for wanting to wear the headscarf.”
Morales converted shortly after 9/11. She was angry, and researched Islam to get an explanation for the attacks. Her anger eventually turned into intrigue, and the intrigue slowly transformed into understanding and acceptance.
Her conversion story is not uncommon. The population of Latino Muslims continues to grow not only in the U.S., but also in Latin America. There were 840,000 million Muslims in Latin America and the Caribbean in 2010, according to the Pew Research Center. And it’s expected to grow almost 13 percent within the next few decades.
Alex Gutierrez is the Director of Development and Operations at IslamInSpanish, an organization that provides Spanish language translation of the Quran. He thinks there are two reasons why some Latinos are converting to Islam.
“Latinos and Muslims share two distinct qualities that are similar,” said Gutierrez. “They’re both God-fearing people and they both have very strong family values.”
There’s one other thing they share. Latino and Muslims are targets of charged political rhetoric from President Trump’s administration and the subject of intense scrutiny.
But that negative national attention has not stymied new converts.
A constant stream of Latino converts continue to visit Centro Islamico. Gonzalez now teaches Sunday classes to those who went through the same process she did several years ago.
At Centro Islamico, “I don’t have to be somebody that I’m not, following some other culture,” Gonzalez said. “You can still follow the same culture, and just be Muslim.”
Ala’a Ibrahim loves trash TV, and she’s not shy to admit it.
She especially likes reality shows – The Real Housewives of Dallas is a favorite (partly because she’s from Texas).
“My secret’s out,” Ibrahim said. “I’m embracing it now.”
Born in Oklahoma and raised in Houston, Ibrahim enjoys visual storytelling so much that she wants to do it professionally one day. She’s studying multimedia journalism at The University of Texas at Austin with hopes of becoming a filmmaker when she graduates.
“I’ve always been interested in telling stories in different forms,” said Ibrahim, who wants to specialize in documentary work. “I just love the creative aspect of reporting.”