Wednesday nights at the North Hudson Islamic Center in Union City, New Jersey. Milena is one of thousands of Latino Americans who has converted to Islam. She embraced the fast-growing religion four weeks ago. Milena has been married to her husband, who is originally a Pakistani-Muslim, for seven years. Despite their long marriage, she had always refused to convert just for her spouse’s sake. Like many Puerto Ricans, she was a regular Catholic churchgoer with a strong faith. After her first son’s birth, she started to consider Islam.“I became interested in learning about Islam without converting, because our son is going to be raised as a Muslim. That is how my interest in Islam started.” she said.
So far Milena has been satisfied with the learning process.“I am seeking knowledge, I am hungry for knowledge. I am really excited about what I feel,” she said.The new convert has adapted herself rapidly into her new life, so much so that the Imam and other students do not recognize her immediately. For the first time, Milena wore a veil covering up her hair.“Last Sunday, I went to a hijab party," she said. "I didn’t know how to wear one. It was a really nice experience. And this is the first time, I am wearing it today.”But she confesses “I was a bit reluctant because I didn’t know how anyone would react to me. But that was fine. I feel good. I feel proud.”That night, four other Latino Muslims attended the Islamic class. Among them was Nylka Vargas, who has been a Muslim for 15 years.
Coming from a Peruvian-Ecuadorian family, she was born and raised in New Jersey. Nylka chose Islam because she said she "had a yearning to know God and I didn’t believe in things that I learned as a Christian. I believed in a higher power. I was looking for the truth, the connection between the believer and the Creator." “Islam taught me a lot of discipline. And Islam is perfectly aligned: the prayers and its time. Why things are done. It is flexibility but discipline.”According to a study led by Samantha Sanchez, one of the founders of Latino American Dawah Organization (LADO), the most attractive part of Islam to spirituality seeking Latinos is its strict monotheistic orientation and structured belief system.
Ambassador Akbar Ahmed, currently the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies, of American University in Washington DC, agrees. “Because Latinos are coming from Catholic background, which is a fairly ordered world, to America where is completely free, sometimes they find an alternative in Islam, where they see an order," he said. "At the same time, because they are coming from a Catholic background, they also see some echoes in Islam of their own faith. For example, Catholics have a very high reverence for Mary, the mother of Jesus, so that is something they very much appreciate.”
Imam Shamsi Ali of the Islamic Cultural Center of New York says he has a similar point of view."The most important reason why many Latinos embrace Islam is because they are naturally religious people as Catholic or Christian, so they are more inclined to religion," he said. "That’s why they can turn to Islam.”Without any census based on the religious beliefs in United States, it is difficult to give a precise figure of Latinos who have converted to Islam within the country. Yet, it was estimated at about 200,000 in 2006, by the American Muslim Council. Young and educated women make up a large part of this group.”More than 60 percent of converts are women these last few years”, Ali said, who has also noted an increase of conversions to Islam after 9/11 attacks. “The majority of those who became Muslims after 9/11 are from the Latino community. Maybe more that 60 percent of those who converted to Islam in America are Latinos”.