Madelina Nuñez is a Ph.D. student in American Studies at Purdue University. She currently studies Latino, Muslim, and Latino Muslim communities through the lens of food and foodways. Nuñez holds an M.A. in Latin American and Latino Studies from the University of Illinois at Chicago in 2018 and a B.A. from the University of Missouri-Kansas City in 2016.
Latino1 Muslims have a historically rich presence that has yet to be fully recognized. In the wider American imagination, Latino Muslims are not currently understood or accepted as members of either Muslim America or Latino America. They are navigating the intersection of ‘Latino’ and ‘Muslim’ throughout these various communities. Latino Muslims not only define what Islam signifies for themselves, but they also translate their Islamic identity and practices to their non-Muslim family and community members.
There are a number of generational Latino Muslims in the United States. Additionally, the number of Latino Muslims is expected to continue to grow as Latinos convert. Conversion comes about through multiples means, particularly as they come into further contact with Islamic communities online and at the grass-root level. As the presence of Muslims in the United States increases, parallel growth and attention are emerging in the presence of Latino Muslims. A 2017 national survey puts the Muslim American community at an estimated population of 3.45 million, primarily composed of immigrants and their children.2 Of those 3.45 million people, 8 percent (~276,000) are Latino Muslims in the United States. Collectively, the U.S. Muslim population has been rapidly growing. According to this same report, Muslims will be the United State’s second largest religious group by 2040.
Although data on Latino Muslims and their cultural and national background is difficult to acquire, a 2017 study by Espinosa, Morales, and Galvan interviewed 560 Latino Muslims across the United States. They found that 31 percent of those interviewed traced their Latino ancestry to Mexico, 22 percent to Puerto Rico, 12 percent to general ‘South American countries’, 9 percent to a general ‘Central American countries’, 5 percent to the Dominican Republic, and 3 percent to Cuba.3 These findings serve as a general indicator for the diversity among the Latino Muslim population in the United States. Additionally, these findings mark that the Latino Muslim population is somewhat reflective of the broader Latino population breakdown in the United States, particularly with respect to the Mexican and Puerto Rican populations.
There are a number of Latinos that are born into Islam4 or are generationally Muslim, but it is understood that the majority of Latino Muslims have converted to the religion. Converts, also known as reverts or new Muslims, are introduced to the religion through a number of ways. According to the aforementioned study, the majority of Latino converts are made up of Latinas who are mainly introduced to Islam through friendships. Furthermore, relationships formed through local neighborhoods and online spaces are critical for Latinos to learn about Islam and further develop Latino Muslim communities. Researchers have also argued that Latinos are more prone to become interested in Islam due to the similarities between Islam and Catholicism or Christianity, particularly as they are monotheistic religions. Latino Muslims, prior to conversion, reported feeling disconnected from the church. Islam in the lives of Latino Muslims, provides a method to develop a more direct relationship with God outside of the church itself.
As more Latinos continue to embrace Islam, researchers and the media have begun to give attention to the work that Latino Muslims have begun to establish. Latino Muslims continue to create their own unique communities, organizations, and cultural productions. As this community gains some visibility both online and at the grass-root level, Latinos become more familiarized with Islam. Although there has been some recent attention, it is critical to understand that Latino Muslims are not a new phenomenon as Islam is found in both the pre and post-colonial history of the Americas. Muslim history in the Americas can be traced through various channels including those who were enslaved, colonizers, and merchants.
Although there is a rich Islamic history in Latino communities, the way that Islam is perceived in Latino communities varies widely depending on the context and community. Personal and familial traditions become spaces to negotiate Islamic Latino identity with surrounding communities. Namely, holidays, food, and other means of gathering become important points of conversation amongst many Latino Muslims and their non-Muslim families. There are several variables that would contribute to the responses in family and community regarding conversion. Latino Muslims often emphasize that Islam has existed in these communities, and that Islam is not as foreign to Latinos as previously conceptualized. Contemporarily, this presence has only continued to grow as Latinos further connect with Islamic theology and forge deeper relationships with the larger Muslim communities both personally and online.
The community of Latino Muslims in the United States has been steadily growing in part due to the activism that Latino Muslims have established online both through organizations or personal blogs. The Latino American Dawah Organization (LADO) and PIEDAD (Propagación Islámica para la Educación y la Devoción a Aláh el Divino) are examples of long-established organizations that provide resources and articles specifically for Latino Muslims.. Latino Muslims often do not live amongst other Latino Muslims, these websites serve as a means of creating a community for a group of peoples that often live in isolation from others like them. As a means of addressing this, WhyIslam launched a 24/7 Spanish hotline in 1999. Additionally, Why Islam has since launched a Spanish website porqueislam.org and has printed Spanish brochures. These websites and organizations have had a somewhat historical presence, as PIEDAD was established in the mid-1980s and LADO was established in 1997. Blogs and posts by individual Latino Muslims have been gaining traction with hashtags such as #latinomuslims and #latinasmusulmanas. Latino Muslims have also begun to publish and write about their activist work, conversion stories, and cultural productions online and in publications.
By emphasizing the long history of Islam in the Americas, and by recognizing the work that Latino Muslim communities have established, Latino Muslims become more visible in the American imagination. As Latino Muslims continue to add to a legacy of Islam in the Americas, it is clear that Islam is a transnational religion that knows no borders.