Posted on May 5, 2022

Latino Muslims — A Growing Group — Struggle to Find Their Place in the Islamic Community

Mya Jaradat, Deseret News, May 2, 2022

It’s a Saturday night during Ramadan and, as the sun sets, the courtyard of Muslim Community of Palm Beach County comes alive as locals gather for iftar, the breaking of the fast. {snip}


Though I’m probably the only non-Muslim present, I’m not the only person here who wasn’t born into the faith — downstairs, among the men, is the sole Latino Muslim present at the mosque tonight: Wilfredo Ruiz, a Puerto Rican man who converted to Islam two decades ago.


Ruiz represents a small but growing minority within a minority: Latino Muslims. In 2011, 6% of Muslim Americans identified as Hispanic, according to Pew Research Center; by 2017, it was 8%, Pew reported.

While academics point out that Latino religious life has long been more varied than the public realizes, broadly speaking, the phenomenon of Latinos converting to Islam reflects a culturewide shift away from Catholicism.

In 2010, 67% of Hispanic American adults identified as Catholic, according to Pew Research Center; by 2013, that number had plummeted 12 percentage points to 55%. Many Latinos who left the Catholic church joined the evangelical movement — which has made inroads in Latin America in recent decades — or became part of country’s growing group of “nones” by leaving organized religion behind, Pew reports. But some became Muslims.

Many Hispanic converts to Islam say that praying directly to God without an intermediary is appealing, as is the unitary aspect of God. Some Latino converts also appreciate that figures from Christianity like the Virgin Mary and Jesus are also part of Islam, says Juan Galvan, author of the book “Latino Muslims: Our Journeys to Islam” who is himself a Latino convert to Islam.

Pointing to the history of Al-Andalus — which was, for hundreds of years, Muslim-ruled — Ruiz and others say that Islam is a deep-rooted part of the heritage bequeathed by Spain. They also cite cultural and linguistic connections between Arabs and Spanish-speakers, including the fact that the Spanish language absorbed thousands of Arabic words during the Muslim rule of the Iberian peninsula.

But Latino converts face a number of challenges. For one, they often feel isolated. Although there are fairly large Latino Muslim populations concentrated in Texas and New Jersey, for the most part, they’re scattered. When Latino Muslims go to their local mosques or community centers and meet groups of Muslims speaking Arabic or other languages among themselves, they can feel excluded. Some community leaders are concerned about retaining Latino Muslims in the faith after they’ve made the step of converting.


Islam isn’t a religion “in a typical definition of the word,” Ruiz adds. “It’s a way of life.”

Today, as communications director for the Florida branch of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, Ruiz helps others become acquainted with the faith; he also helps to keep Muslim Americans informed on a variety of issues.

Outside the mosque, in the courtyard of the Muslim Community of Palm Beach County, Ruiz has set up a table, draped in the Council on American-Islamic Relations logo. He offers pamphlets that outline Americans’ religious rights, as guaranteed by the First Amendment.

Ruiz is also trying to get CAIR en Español, the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Spanish, off the ground. He knows that, although the number of Latino converts to Islam is growing, many struggle to stay in the arms of their chosen faith.

Twenty years ago when Ruiz became a Muslim, there was a dearth of materials in Spanish. Nowadays, with the internet, that problem has largely been resolved. But, today, Latino converts grapple with another issue, Ruiz says: how to find their place in a community.

While there are some mosques in Texas that offer Friday prayers in both Arabic and Spanish, in general, there is a dearth of Spanish-speaking imams. “In Puerto Rico, there are mosques that have imams that don’t speak a sentence of Spanish,” says Ruiz.

And when Spanish-speakers do seek to become imams themselves, they are encouraged to study overseas, which is often impossible for those with wives and families. When they do manage to become imams, they sometimes find that they aren’t welcome at mosques. They’re told, “‘You’re not Arab’ or ‘You don’t come from my culture,’” says Ruiz.

The Muslim community needs “to make space for Hispanic people in leadership positions,” he adds.

While new converts are celebrated by the whole community, Ruiz says, soon after those people disappear from the convert’s support circle and the new Muslim finds himself or herself alone, adrift between their old community and their new one. Leadership is aware of this issue, Ruiz adds, and some mosques are trying to organize groups to offer continued support to new converts.


After prayers, back in the women’s tent, I ask the women around the table if they ever see any Latina Muslims coming through. “There was one,” someone responds. But she hasn’t returned since COVID-19 hit.

“If you’re not part of the Arab or Desi (Indian, Pakistani, or Bangladeshi) community, you feel outcast,” says Sabha Hammad, a Palestinian American university student who serves as a program and outreach coordinator for the Council on American Islamic Relations-Florida.


Despite Latino Muslims struggles to be accepted by the community, Ruiz and academics alike say that this group will leave an indelible mark on American Islam.

“Latinx Muslims are poised to play a more prominent role among their fellow Muslims in the U.S. and to continue to shape the practices and expressions of Islam in the U.S. and the wider Americas,” Ken Chitwood, author of “The Muslims of Latin America and the Caribbean” and a research and journalism fellow at University of Southern California’s Center for Religion and Civic Culture, wrote in an email.