On a recent Friday afternoon in El Barrio, the Puerto Rican heart of East Harlem, Ramon Omar Abduraheem Ocasio, Imam of the Alianza Islamica, delivered a sermon in Spanish, English and Arabic to a congregation of Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Panamanians, Spaniards, and African-Americans.
Although it might seem surprising to find a Muslim mosque thriving in such a traditionally Catholic community, organizations like Alianza Islamica represent the ongoing growth of Islam among Latinos in North and South America.
Founded in 1975 by a group of Puerto Rican converts, the Alianza Islamica Islamic Alliance) was the United States' first Latino Muslim association.
The Alianza was founded by men who came of age during the 1960s and were involved in anti-war protests, civil rights protests, and Puerto Rican nationalist movements. Amin, the caretaker of the mosque, removes his skullcap to show his scarred scalp--"all from police batons," he chuckles.
The Alianza's social and political engagement resembles the activism of African-American Muslim groups. In the Barrio, Latino Muslims have been at the forefront of battles against gang activity, drug dealing and prostitution. The Alianza has confronted gangs and drug posses, trained young men in martial arts as community law enforcers, brokered truces between rival gangs, and mentored jailed members of the Latin Kings, a local Puerto Rican gang.
The Alianza's director, Hajj Yahya Figueroa, speaks about Islam and spiritual health at prisons, explains the difference between "el Islam" and "el Farrakhanismo" at rallies, gives "sensitivity talks" to police officers, and has even addressed the United Nations.
In addition to community work, the Alianza also holds cultural programs, celebrations and weddings which are a fascinating display of the rich syncretism of "Latino Islam"--congregational prayers in Arabic, sermons in Spanish and English, traditional Puerto Rican pork dishes served with lamb instead, Spanish poetry slams, and conga jam sessions.
A growing number of Latinos have embraced Islam in the past two decades. In the United States alone, Latino mosques now exist in Los Angeles, New York, Newark, and Chicago, and the community is estimated to be 40,000-strong. The appearance of Latino Muslims is due in part to the growing Latino presence in U.S. inner cities and their subsequent exposure to African-American Muslims. On an ideological level, Latino Muslims have been profoundly influenced by their African-American counterparts, adopting similar ideas of spiritual self-discovery and emancipation in their approach to Islamic theology.
Like many African American Muslims, Latino Muslims celebrate a glorious past rooted in Africa--their rhetoric often romanticizes Islamic Spain, the civilization established by the Moors, the Muslims from northern Africa who dominated Spain from the 8th to the 15th century.
But like most Latino Muslims, Imam Ocasio also points to important differences. "Yes," he smiles, agreeing that black American Muslims have had an impact on Latino converts, "but unlike our African-American brothers, we do not change our last name upon conversion. Latino Muslims don't have to, because many Spanish last names--like 'Medina'--are actually Muslim."
Members of the Alianza Islamica share a view of Latin American and Spanish history that is increasingly discussed by a younger generation of intellectuals who question the "Westernness" of Western culture. Latino Muslims like Imam Ocasio reject the idea that their culture came wholly from Europe, and instead trace their cultural ancestry to northern Africa.
"Most of the people who came to Latin America and the Spanish Caribbean were from southern Spain, Andalusia," Ocasio explains. "They were Moriscos, Moors forcefully converted to Christianity. The leaders, army generals, curas [priests] were white men from northern Spain... sangre azul [blue bloods] as they were called. The southerners, who did the menial jobs, slaves, artisans, foot soldiers, were of mixed Arab and African descent. They were stripped of their religion and culture, brought to the so-called New World where they were enslaved with African slaves. But the Moriscos never lost their culture."
According to Ocasio, there are many Islamic and Moorish elements in Latin culture; he says that the Spanish "ojala" is derived from the Arabic "insha'allah" (both expressions mean God willing), while the Spanish exclamation "olé" comes from "Allah."