HACKENSACK, N.J. — Last year, Gaby Gonzalez wore black nail polish and black eye shadow. She had a messy room, standoffs with mom and occasional drinks.
Today, the Honduran-born 20-year-old is known as Sister Gaby.
She proudly wears her jade-green hijab, which forms a nearly perfect frame around her delicate features and large brown eyes. She prays several times a day and does not wear makeup, eat pork or even utter the phrase “happy hour” — that is all haram, she said, or prohibited, in Arabic.
“In my past, I focused on myself. I didn’t think about other people, about my parents, just myself and my circle of friends,” she said. “Now, every day I strive to be better, to do good, to help others. I stopped being selfish and arrogant.”
Gonzalez, who majors in anthropology at Montclair State University, is one of thousands of Latinos who have converted to Islam. So many Latinos have thronged to Islam in recent years that many mosques, including some in North Jersey, have set up special “Latino Muslim” groups within their congregations. And many now offer simultaneous Spanish translations as part of their religious services.
After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, mosque leaders saw the fear and anger mushrooming against Muslims and decided to reach out to non-Muslim organizations and community groups to demystify Islam and to condemn terrorism.
“When we reached out, we weren’t even thinking of Hispanics; we didn’t know much about Hispanics,” said Mohammed Al-Hayek, the imam at the Islamic Educational Center of North Hudson, in Union City, N.J. “But they were the ones who responded. That’s when we realized that our outreach focus had to be specifically Hispanics.”
Al-Hayek brought in the head of a mosque in Ecuador and asked him to go out into the immigrant enclaves of Hudson County and talk about Islam.
For four months, the Ecuadorean went out into the crowded streets of Union City and the surrounding towns, and encouraged people to ask questions about Islam and Muslims. He also visited homes and spoke to local organizations.
“Here was a Latino, someone the people in the Hispanic community could relate to, speaking to them in their own language about Islam,” said Al-Hayek, a thin man with a friendly face and wide smile. “It wasn’t Arabs speaking to them, and at the beginning especially, that made a big difference.”
The mosque’s efforts have paid off. Since Al-Hayek began the outreach program five years ago, some 500 Hispanics have visited the mosque, sitting in prayer sessions as guests and attending seminars on Islam.
Many converted, usually from Catholicism. Now, Al-Hayek said, of the estimated 1,000 people who regularly worship at the mosque, nearly 200 are Hispanic converts.
Mohamed El-Filali, the outreach director for the Islamic Center of Passaic County, N.J., held an “open house” for Hispanics last summer.
“Many of the Latinos who accept Islam are looking for what many people are searching for when they turn to religion in general, which is a way out of one kind of life and a means by which to reach divine acceptance.”
Hispanics and Muslims note that their communities have much in common — tight-knit families, reverence for their elders and a tendency to dote on children. They also note that Islam is a core part of the history of Spain, where Muslim Moors ruled for about 800 years. And many Spanish words, they say, come from Arabic.
“They’re coming back to their roots,” Al-Hayek said.
The sound of Spanish now fills the air at many mosques. On Wednesday night at the mosque in Union City, a group of Hispanic converts spoke Spanish among themselves, with the more veteran ones teaching the newest mosque members how to put on a hijab.
“I don’t understand a word they’re saying,” said Mariam Abbassi, whose eyes darted back and forth as she strained to figure out the conversations. “I’m trying to learn. But it’s a pleasure having them here. They’re very enthusiastic, very warm; we Muslims feel very strongly about seeing others in our religion as Muslims, not Egyptians or Colombians or Puerto Ricans or Saudis.”
Like many Hispanics who embrace Islam, Gonzalez came from a family of devout Catholics. Back in Honduras, her grandmother insisted that Gonzalez strictly adhere to the religion.
“My grandmother whipped me if I didn’t go to church, if I didn’t read the Bible,” she said. “It wasn’t something, for me, that was allowed to develop naturally.”
Here, she discovered punk rock music and the punk lifestyle, and for a
sheltered Honduran in her teenage years, it was alluring and liberating. “Punk girls wore tight pants, things that showed their figure,” she said. “My hair was uncombed.”
She was marching to her own beat, but she was still unhappy, she said.
“I was always stressed out, doing things I shouldn’t do,” Gonzalez said. “I prayed to be led to the right path.”
During a college course that looked at different religions, Gonzalez became intrigued by Islam.
“I read more and more about Islam,” she said. “I wanted to know what it was that led so many people to submit entirely to this religion. When I read the Quran, I found the truth. It spoke about serving others, putting others first.”
Islam made her feel anchored.
But Gonzalez learned that becoming Muslim comes at a price. Some Hispanic converts say they encounter objections from relatives, some of whom have disowned their newly Muslim daughters, sons and grandkids. They find themselves defending their new lifestyles against taunts and warnings by fellow Hispanics about getting recruited into terrorist organizations and losing their freedom to cult-like pressures.
“Most of my family is bigoted against Muslims,” said Vincent Gallardo, a student at William Paterson University who converted to Islam two years ago. “A close friend stopped speaking to me,” he said. “My mother was very hurt. A Latino co-worker always called out to me: ‘Hey Taliban, how’s it going?’ “
Gonzalez’s conversion stunned her friends; some stopped speaking to her. Her parents objected, and she stayed at a friend’s home for a while. Even when she found acceptance among some relatives and friends, she said, people disapproved of her veil — a common point of contention, for it is a very tangible, very public expression of devotion to Islam.
Gonzalez’s family has come to accept her conversion, she said, and appreciate the positive changes that have occurred in her.
“Islam means submission to God, not that you are chosen to go out and bomb a place — that is a specific group that is not practicing Islam the way it was intended,” Gonzalez said. “We don’t drink alcohol, we don’t eat pork, we pray five times a day, and people look at that and call us fanatics.”