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Latina Immigrants: The New Ambassadors of Islam

Special to The Informer from New America Media | 1/22/2013, 1:12 p.m.

SOMERSET, N.J. -- Tucked away in a quiet rural neighborhood in Somerset, New Jersey is an old brownstone that houses the New Jersey Chapter of the Islamic Center of North America's (ICNA) WhyIslam Project. Within its confines, in a second floor office decorated with rose-colored walls, sits the administrative assistant and only female employee of the department, Nahela Morales.

In a long black garment and gray headscarf, Morales sits in front of a computer entering notes and taking phone calls from the program's hotline, 1-877-WhyIslam, a resource for individuals hoping to learn more about the religion. A Mexican immigrant and recent convert, Morales is the national Spanish-language outreach coordinator for the program, part of ICNA's mission to disseminate information about Islam nationwide.

But Morales' efforts go beyond U.S. borders: the 37-year-old recently led a trip to bring Islamic literature, food and clothing to her native Mexico.

Morales, who was born in Mexico City but later moved to California and then New York, is part of a growing population of immigrant Muslim converts from Latin America - many of them women -- now helping to bring the religion back to their home countries.

Immigrant Latinas Find a Place in Islam

"Many immigrants are here by themselves," says Morales, noting that Latina immigrant women are drawn to Islam because of the sense of "belonging" they find within the Muslim community. "When they come into the mosque and see smiling faces, they feel welcome."

According to WhyIslam's 2012 annual report, 19 percent of the some 3,000 converts it assisted in 2011 were Latinos, and more than half of those (55 percent) were women. The 2011 U.S. Mosque Survey, which interviewed leaders at 524 mosques across the country, found the number of new female converts to Islam had increased 8 percent since 2000, and that Latinos accounted for 12 percent of all new converts in the United States in 2011.

Experts attribute the phenomenon to recent migration trends.

Muslim and Latino immigrants are increasingly living side by side in urban neighborhoods across the country, from California, Texas and Florida to New York and Illinois, states that according to data from the Migration Policy Institute constitute 72.5 percent of the total foreign-born population from Latin America in the United States. At the same time, these five states are also home to the highest number of mosques, The American Mosque 2011 Report shows, reflecting a growing Muslim presence as well.

Wilfredo Ruiz, a native of Puerto Rico who converted to Islam in 2003, is an attorney and political analyst specializing on the Islamic world. In addition to working with various non-profit organizations, including the American Muslim Association of North America (AMANA), he also serves as the imam at his local mosque in South Florida.

"More women than men convert, both in AMANA offices and in the mosques in Southern Florida," Ruiz says. Latina immigrants, he explains, often feel exploited both in Latin America and the United States. The higher status afforded women in Islam and their modest dress, he believes, offers a sensible alternative.