PHILADELPHIA – For Muslim mother and immigrant rights advocate Miriam Abuawadesh, family connections and direct connection with God are among main reasons behind the growing number of Latino Muslim converts in the US.
“The more I learned about Islam, the more I felt the connection because it’s a religion that speaks volumes of humility,” Miriam told Al Dia News on Tuesday.
Born in South Jersey, the youngest of 14 siblings, Margarita (Miriam) was baptized in the Catholic faith and educated in the order of the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
During her university years, she converted to Islam and years later she married a West Bank Palestinian.
She still remembers her first visit to a mosque.
“One of the things that struck me most was seeing people pray. It is a very humble act, very simple. It’s something between you and God,” she said.
Today, the mother of four has learned to combine Puerto Rican, Palestinian and Islamic cultural identity at home and at work.
“Islam has an answer to everything. And for me, other religions lack this ability to be present in the simplest things, like going to the bathroom or drinking a glass of water,” she explains as she takes a sip of her mint tea in her living room, in the North of Philadelphia.
“It’s not a question of going to Mass every Sunday, or preaching, but of having it present in your daily life.”
She is not alone.
According to a study of the Journal of Race, Ethnicity, and Religion on Muslim Latinos in the US, many American Latinos convert to Islam for a similar reason: the desire to have a more direct and personal experience with God.
Miriam’s conversion has helped her get closer to her Hispanic roots.
In fact, most American Latinos converted to Islam are women of Mexican or Puerto Rican origin who justify their conversion as a return to a pre-Hispanic and pre-Catholic Muslim identity.
“My mother’s maiden name is Abdulliah,” she explained, underscoring the Arab origin of her surname.
“Spain was ruled by the Islamic empire for 600 years, my great-grandparents emigrated from Spain to Puerto Rico, so I always doubted their origin.”
For Miriam, family connections and tradition remain the main the spiritual link between Islamic and Latino cultures.
“The Latino community is very family oriented, and Islam is also family-based. We are homelike people. And also warm – Latinos are very welcoming. Islam is very openhearted, especially when it comes to treating people with respect, always keeping their heart and homes open.”
Margarita has been an active member of the Philadelphia community for more than 30 years.
She began her career as Director of Youth Programs at the Al Aqsa Mosque in North Philly and today she continues to devote herself to the defense of the city’s young immigrants as a Bilingual Assistant Counselor for the school district to help Arabic and Spanish-speaking students.
“Society cannot neglect children and the elderly,” she says, “I have good facts that prove it.”
Most of the US Latino Muslims are concentrated in California, Texas, and New Jersey.
“I am a great defender of my ethnicity and my identity. I have an identity,” she explains.
“I don’t want people to think I’m an Arab. My children know how to play dominoes; they know how to cook Puerto Rican food. I am very proud that I have succeeded in implanting in my children both the Puerto Rican and the Palestinian culture.”
Miriam proudly clutched a cushion embroidered by her daughter, where the shapes and colors of the Puerto Rican flag are combined with those of the traditional Palestinian handkerchief (keffiyeh).
“I am happy with the work I have. First, I feel that it is my responsibility as a member of the community, secondly, as a Muslim, and, thirdly, as a mother,” she reflected.
“I always tell my children that they cannot just sit and do nothing. It is our battle. It’s our moment.”