How a Latino immigrant reinvented himself in America as a Muslim
San Francisco Chronicle, Jan. 5, 2003
When the doorbell rings, Daniel Denton rises from the couch.
“Ah, Martin!” he says, opening the door a crack. “Babe, Martin is here,” he shouts to his wife, who rushes to get her veil and fits it around her face tightly, so none of her wiry black hair shows. The couple hasn’t seen Martin in months. He is Daniel’s cousin and has just arrived in Stockton after a day’s drive from Rosarito, Mexico.
Roxanne approaches the door, smiling reassuringly. “How are you Martin? Come on in.”
“Fine,” Martin says, but he stays put, out there in the November cold, his heavy boots not budging, no matter how many times Roxanne invites him in.
Five hundred miles of driving and still nothing can convince him to enter their warm living room, decorated with colorful Mexican sarapes. His discomfort is palpable, as is Roxanne’s frustration.
They both know the problem. If he were to come in, he would have to take off his boots. He’d have to leave his dignity and manhood at the door next to his niece’s tiny pink sneakers and Roxanne’s flip-flops, and then feel naked in his socks, holding the glass of water or tea that his cousin’s wife would offer him.
No, he stays outside, his feet bound in well-worn leather, in the chilly wind, and chats with his shoeless cousin about the traffic on the highway, the workload of a traveling mechanic, but not the single most important thing in Daniel’s life: Islam.
Once upon a time, Daniel — like Martin, like 93 percent of the Mexican population — was Catholic. Growing up in Tijuana, his mother taught him to go to church, but when he was 22 years old, Daniel walked away from the Catholic doctrine and embraced a faith virtually unknown in his world.
For years, the Vatican has struggled to keep its Latin American sheep from dispersing into less “acceptable” folds of Christianity — evangelical Protestant sects, Mormonism and the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Islam, with its veiled women and monthlong fasting, has not even been on the priestly radar screen. But its numbers are growing.
Thousands of Hispanics — estimates range from 50,000 to 75,000 — now attend mosques all over the United States, according to the American Muslim Council, an Islamic advocacy group.
Daniel’s departure from the church is in line with a much older tradition of anti-Catholic sentiment in Mexico. Liberals and church had been antagonistic since the establishment of the Mexican republic in 1823, says Alex Saragoza, professor of Mexican history at University of California, Berkeley.
From Benito Juarez, the president who declared the separation of church and state in 1857, to the Cristero war from 1926 to 1929, when armed Catholics revolted after the government suspended many of their rights, certain sectors of Mexican leadership have discounted religion. Now, after more than two decades of intermittent economic crisis and political scandal, belief in all Mexican institutions, including the church, is diluted, and traditional and cultural practices that had long dominated life are replaced by imports, from music to faith, says Saragoza.
“Mexican youth are looking toward spirituality that is not tied to any institutional form of religion,” he adds.
Transfer this situation across the border, where instead of a cohesive religious system there is a myriad of options, and cases like Daniel’s will start emerging from places like Stockton and Los Angeles, New York and San Antonio.
In a sense, their journey is no different from that of other young Americans, exposed to the limitless lifestyle choices available, says Saragoza.
“It’s almost like a buffet. You take what you want,” he explains. “It’s like guacamole in a sandwich. I’m sure the Aztecs never thought of putting it on white bread with luncheon meat.” But in a country like the United States, where new and old cultures are in constant flux, that’s what ends up happening.
Daniel’s is the story of one man’s conversion. It wouldn’t have happened in Mexico, where Islam is virtually unknown, but his new country provides the freedom to pick and choose among diverse belief systems.
Being Muslim involves intensive juggling to meet secular and religious obligations — especially hard during Ramadan, when Muslims commemorate the revelation of the Koran to prophet Mohammed by setting aside from dawn to dusk all their worldly desires and wake up before 5 a.m. to eat.
Changing spiritual stations can be a challenge. As we shall see, it has had profound effects on Daniel’s thinking, his family, his lifestyle, his career and even his view of his heritage.
Black curls still crushed from bed, Daniel trudges to the kitchen to fix the only food he will taste until darkness falls again: tea, cereal and dates. Then he subdues his unruly mane under a turban and prays. His black eyes close again as he recites in Arabic lines memorized from the Koran.
With his tall frame, olive skin and thick black beard, Daniel looks like one of the conquistadors, maybe not a Catalonian or a Basque, but an Andalusian — his intense dark eyes inherited perhaps from the Islamic Moors who once conquered Spain. By the time they headed for the New World, Andalusians and other Spaniards had repudiated any Islamic or Judaic religious influence, and sailed with Catholicism as their banner.
But 500 years later, after growing up around impoverished, dangerous Tijuana, Daniel slowly pulled away from Catholic doctrine, which had not met his spiritual needs.
By the time he attended high school in San Diego — after his father died, his mother remarried an American citizen, who adopted Daniel — he was already following another tradition his father and his grandfather before him had practiced assiduously: drinking. He drank every night he spent in the U.S. Army, which he entered as his best shot at getting through college. After three years of combat training, he walked out of his Arkansas base carrying a green duffel bag and the resolution to reform his drinking habits and search for the morality he felt he’d lost.
He found it in Stockton, 80 miles east of San Francisco, where many of his relatives had settled years before, lured by agricultural jobs. It was just not in the expected place. After some failed attempts to re-enter Catholicism, he inadvertently stumbled onto Islam.
It is an unlikely mecca, but there were many Middle Eastern immigrants in blue-collar Stockton, field workers like his family; Daniel learned about Islam mostly through their children, who attended community college classes with him. When he first heard about Ramadan, as a several-meals-a-day-plus- snacks-eating Mexican, he was shocked at the idea of going without food for hours. But he agreed to fast from sunup to sundown for a week anyhow, and kept the promise. “I had already given my word,” he says. “I’ve always been poor, so that’s the only thing I have.”
Daniel found himself so enthralled with the revelations that came to him on an empty stomach that he fasted for the whole month, then devoured the Koran, chapter by chapter, and started to secretly pray on an old sarape after his relatives went to bed.
In the teachings of Mohammed, he read of the justice and equality the Catholic Church had visibly failed to give the poorest in Mexico. “There’s a saying in Islam: The right hand must not know what the left gives,” he says. “It’s not like in Catholicism, where people inside the church give money during collection while people are starving outside.”
Daniel walks around King Elementary School in Stockton, where he teaches third grade, with his hair wrapped in white cloth, almost inviting rude comments from students. “Sometimes they stare at you and laugh, but then you reprimand them and they get the idea,” he says.
Behind his desk, leaning against the wall, two worn-out posters show Mecca and Jerusalem.
To Daniel’s mostly Latino and black students, the faces of Che Guevara and Cesar Chavez on the wall are as familiar as George Washington or Abraham Lincoln — absent in this classroom — are to other American kids.
While students gulp down high-energy snacks in the cafeteria, Daniel works silently in the classroom; when they run to the playground for recess, he prays without missing a beat in the rhythm of his recitations.
By the end of the school day, Daniel’s cheek presses against his ungraded papers as he takes an involuntary nap. It’s three hours till dinner.
Family and Faith
With a veil on her hair and a brown baby with curly black hair on her hip, Daniel’s Jamaican wife, Roxanne, is busy preparing the meal. After shocking his relatives with his conversion, he shocked them again less than four years later by marrying a black woman. Interracial marriages in the United States still account for fewer than 5 percent of all couples and, because of historically strained relations among blacks and Latinos, weddings between them are unusual.
Then again, so are Mexican Muslims — or, for that matter, Jamaican Muslims.
Roxanne’s mother was also just digesting her daughter’s conversion to Islam;
now she, too, had to swallow the idea of her marrying a man she barely knew. “She didn’t want to tell anyone,” says Roxanne. “She was worried what everybody else was going to think.”
Given the raised familial eyebrows, the couple held their wedding ceremony, not in a mosque or church but in a university hall and had both a pastor and an imam, each reading from their holy book.
The result was a little confusing for some guests. “I didn’t know what was going on,” comments Daniel’s teaching colleague Lilian Guerra.
Like her, Stockton’s mostly white and Latino residents have had few dealings with Islam. Even though veiled women have strolled down supermarket aisles for years, Stocktonians still stare. On a trip to Safeway, Daniel and Roxanne seem immune to the glares as they buy supplies for Iftar, a gathering to break the Ramadan fast. Roxanne and some Muslim friends take turns hosting such dinner parties; this week it’s at her house. As soon as they get home, she sets big pots and pans over the stove to prepare a dish that would never be served in Mecca — chicken curry with coconut milk, a recipe from her mother, with fried plantains, a Jamaican staple.
As the sun goes down, she has the crispy plantain fritters frying in oil, scenting a house that fills with hungry women, who arrive bringing different pieces of the culinary geography of Muslim Stockton. Nagat, the daughter of a Mexican American and a Yemenite, brings a platter of chile con carne; a woman of Indian descent who was born in South Africa carries in packets of puffed bread. The dishes sit alongside Somali spaghetti and defrosted fish sticks, baklavas and chocolate cake.
The veiled women talk loudly, joking and laughing about fashion, politics and marriage. “People have all these preconceived notions,” says Roxanne. “They think, ‘Her husband is making her wear the scarf and stay at home,’ (that) you’re uneducated, oppressed . . . “
Self-confident and assertive, her personality sparkles in her hand gestures and her black round eyes, which open wide every time she wants to make a point.
Yet for all her self-assurance, she kept herself locked inside her house in the days after Sept. 11, when, as she was driving in full Muslim garb, someone in a speeding car yelled, “Go home!”
So she did.
“I thought it was cowardly that they didn’t say it to my face. They were going so fast I couldn’t even see the car.”
Even before the attacks, Roxanne did not venture much into the outside world. She sells a line of cleaning products by phone and computer and takes care of her little girls. Islam teaches that if you raise three daughters as good Muslims, heaven is guaranteed. Daniel only has two but he has already taught Sahala, his eldest, to say Bismilah, in the name of God, every time they travel somewhere by car. But Sahala, who is only 2 years old, does not know that the Arabic proverbs hanging in her living room and the Christmas tree she sees at a conference her parents attended with her recently belong to different worlds. She only knows that she likes the lights and shiny spheres on the tree.
Putting the pieces together
In many ways, the Dentons live the two-car suburban dream. Their daughters keep a normal toddler quota of colorful toys, from play kitchens to dolls, in their room, and the television set anchors the living room.
But Daniel faces the additional challenge of incorporating his identity, a credo made of pieces of political philosophies, religions, national sentiments and consumer patterns, into the American dream, like putting together a jigsaw puzzle that came with no picture on the box and a collection of mismatched pieces.
After years of study, he has found in the Aztec calendar connections between Mexico’s indigenous past and Islam. The Aztecs used the calendar, a 25- ton basaltic stone believed to have been sculpted in 1479, to keep track of their agricultural and religious cycles. Into the elaborate carvings of jaguars, crocodiles and sacrificial knives, Daniel has read the coming of Islam to Aztec lands, focusing on Quetzalcoatl, a plumed serpent God who promised to return from the land of the sun wearing a beard and a robe — the very image of Muslims.
In a manila folder, he collects evidence proving Islam is the natural course of spiritual life in Mexico: historical facts, mathematical equations and a stack of colored acetates of Mesoamerican figurines, including one depicting a kneeling woman, resting her hands on her thighs. “To a Muslim, it’s a woman in prayer,” he says.
Such archaeological artifacts portray the people who, Daniel believes, were awaiting Quetzalcoatl, but received the conquistadors instead.
“Were the Spanish the Quetzalcoatl?” he asks. “No, not by a long shot.”
“Were they the beautiful brother that came from the land of the sun?” he adds passionately. “Again, I’m going to tell you no.”
“Islam is our tradition as Latinos, Chicanos, Mexicanos, people from Latin America — we are part of this, this is part of us,” he says. “Peace and justice — that is what we want as Latinos. Islam presents this as an option.”
Last summer Daniel and his family packed their sarapes and Koranic scriptures, and moved to San Diego, where his mother lives. This way his two daughters can spend time with their grandmother and learn Spanish from her. The climate is also better, says Daniel. Although he refers to Southern California’s sun, he means the religious environment, too. Here the Dentons have found a Muslim community where they fit in better.
“Everyone we know is a convert. They all have families of a different religion, we’re all going through the same things,” he says. Daniel has also found a job where his search for a new grounding force is likely to reemerge: He teaches newly arrived Mexican children.