It’s a Saturday night during Ramadan and, as the sun sets, the courtyard of Muslim Community of Palm Beach County comes alive as locals gather for iftar, the breaking of the fast. Men take seats at the long white tables that stand between a large mango tree and green-pillared arches. Beyond the mango tree, on the other side of the parking lot, women wrapped in colorful saris sit under a large white tent, ready to break the fast with dates and neon red juice. As the time approaches, a hush cascades across the tables. A woman announces, “You can break the fast now” and everyone reaches for a date, some whispering prayers before they begin to eat. 

Bodies, tense from a day’s hunger, relax. Chitchat resumes. A jar of chutney materializes and is passed around, the women spooning it onto the fried snacks before us. Now the women seated around the table explain to me that after this quick, light snack, we’ll go inside to pray. Afterwards, we’ll return for a meal. My daughter and I follow the line of women into the building and up the stairs to the sequestered balcony on the second floor, where the women line up side by side to pray, forming rows.

Though I’m probably the only non-Muslim present, I’m not the only person here who wasn’t born into the faith — downstairs, among the men, is the sole Latino Muslim present at the mosque tonight: Wilfredo Ruiz, a Puerto Rican man who converted to Islam two decades ago. 

One day, while driving to his hometown in the suburbs of San Juan, Puerto Rico, Ruiz noticed a mosque that had been built into the side of a hill. He’d seen it in the past but that day, he recalls, he decided to find out more about Islam.

Following the birth of their twins, Ruiz and his wife at the time had been thinking about what sort of religious framework they wanted to raise the children in. Nonpracticing Catholics, they’d discussed taking their kids — who were toddlers at the time — to church. When they passed the mosque and Ruiz announced his intention to learn about the religion, the idea of converting seemed far-fetched and both he and his wife laughed.

But when he arrived at his now former mother-in-law’s house and shared what had happened on the road, she said she happened to have a pamphlet about Islam that had been given to her to by a local man — a Palestinian store owner. It felt like fate.

Eager, Ruiz read the literature. And then he read it again. And again. 

Ruiz read the 20-page pamphlet “four or five times,” he says. “I was so attracted to and connected to the concept of God in Islam.” 

Ruiz explains that he’d always struggled with the concept of the trinity, which didn’t make sense to him. There were other theological questions that had plagued him throughout his Catholic upbringing and his parochial school education. 

“The questions were answered when I approached Islam,” Ruiz says. 

Thus began Ruiz’s exploration of the faith that ultimately felt like home. 

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Ruiz represents a small but growing minority within a minority: Latino Muslims. In 2011, 6% of Muslim Americans identified as Hispanic, according to Pew Research Center; by 2017, it was 8%, Pew reported

While academics point out that Latino religious life has long been more varied than the public realizes, broadly speaking, the phenomenon of Latinos converting to Islam reflects a culturewide shift away from Catholicism.

Wilfredo A Ruiz, Communications Director for Florida Council on American-Islamic Relations, visits the mosque at the Islamic Center of Broward in Sunrise Florida, Friday, April 29, 2022. | Joe Cavaretta, for the Deseret News

In 2010, 67% of Hispanic American adults identified as Catholic, according to Pew Research Center; by 2013, that number had plummeted 12 percentage points to 55%. Many Latinos who left the Catholic church joined the evangelical movement — which has made inroads in Latin America in recent decades — or became part of country’s growing group of “nones” by leaving organized religion behind, Pew reports. But some became Muslims.

Many Hispanic converts to Islam say that praying directly to God without an intermediary is appealing, as is the unitary aspect of God. Some Latino converts also appreciate that figures from Christianity like the Virgin Mary and Jesus are also part of Islam, says Juan Galvan, author of the book “Latino Muslims: Our Journeys to Islam” who is himself a Latino convert to Islam. 

Pointing to the history of Al-Andalus — which was, for hundreds of years, Muslim-ruled — Ruiz and others say that Islam is a deep-rooted part of the heritage bequeathed by Spain. They also cite cultural and linguistic connections between Arabs and Spanish-speakers, including the fact that the Spanish language absorbed thousands of Arabic words during the Muslim rule of the Iberian peninsula. 

But Latino converts face a number of challenges. For one, they often feel isolated. Although there are fairly large Latino Muslim populations concentrated in Texas and New Jersey, for the most part, they’re scattered. When Latino Muslims go to their local mosques or community centers and meet groups of Muslims speaking Arabic or other languages among themselves, they can feel excluded. Some community leaders are concerned about retaining Latino Muslims in the faith after they’ve made the step of converting. 

A couple of weeks after that first encounter with Islam, Ruiz, who is an attorney, was on his way to court near Aguadilla, Puerto Rico, when he spied an Islamic center along the road. He pulled off, stepped inside, and asked for a Quran; the man had one in Spanish. He also recommended that Ruiz check out a mosque in San Juan, adding that the imam’s wife was also Puerto Rican.

Ruiz rushed through a cup of tea and hurried along. But he took the Quran with him and he began commuting to attend classes at the mosque that he’d seen as he’d driven to his mother-in-law’s house. It was there, under a dome nestled in the hills of Puerto Rico, that he converted to Islam. But that wasn’t the end of the process.

Ruiz, who went on to study religion at Hartford Seminary in Connecticut and who served as a chaplain in the U.S. Navy, continues to learn about the faith. He says, “Islam is soft. It comes soft to your life and you learn about it for the rest of your life.” 

Islam isn’t a religion “in a typical definition of the word,” Ruiz adds. “It’s a way of life.” 

Today, as communications director for the Florida branch of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, Ruiz helps others become acquainted with the faith; he also helps to keep Muslim Americans informed on a variety of issues.

Outside the mosque, in the courtyard of the Muslim Community of Palm Beach County, Ruiz has set up a table, draped in the Council on American-Islamic Relations logo. He offers pamphlets that outline Americans’ religious rights, as guaranteed by the First Amendment. 

Ruiz is also trying to get CAIR en Español, the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Spanish, off the ground. He knows that, although the number of Latino converts to Islam is growing, many struggle to stay in the arms of their chosen faith. 

Twenty years ago when Ruiz became a Muslim, there was a dearth of materials in Spanish. Nowadays, with the internet, that problem has largely been resolved. But, today, Latino converts grapple with another issue, Ruiz says: how to find their place in a community. 

While there are some mosques in Texas that offer Friday prayers in both Arabic and Spanish, in general, there is a dearth of Spanish-speaking imams. “In Puerto Rico, there are mosques that have imams that don’t speak a sentence of Spanish,” says Ruiz. 

And when Spanish-speakers do seek to become imams themselves, they are encouraged to study overseas, which is often impossible for those with wives and families. When they do manage to become imams, they sometimes find that they aren’t welcome at mosques. They’re told, “‘You’re not Arab’ or ‘You don’t come from my culture,’” says Ruiz. 

The Muslim community needs “to make space for Hispanic people in leadership positions,” he adds.

While new converts are celebrated by the whole community, Ruiz says, soon after those people disappear from the convert’s support circle and the new Muslim finds himself or herself alone, adrift between their old community and their new one. Leadership is aware of this issue, Ruiz adds, and some mosques are trying to organize groups to offer continued support to new converts. 

But it needs to be something holistic, like the “Islamic support system of the neighbors, the people who invite you into the home,” says Ruiz. “That support — community support and the mosque support — is not there yet.” 

After prayers, back in the women’s tent, I ask the women around the table if they ever see any Latina Muslims coming through. “There was one,” someone responds. But she hasn’t returned since COVID-19 hit. 

“If you’re not part of the Arab or Desi (Indian, Pakistani, or Bangladeshi) community, you feel outcast,” says Sabha Hammad, a Palestinian American university student who serves as a program and outreach coordinator for the Council on American Islamic Relations-Florida.

Hammad feels that, on the part of those born Muslim, exclusion is often unintentional. People who speak the same language naturally cluster together, leaving those who don’t outside these tight circles. 

The mosque, Galvan says, can be “very intimidating.” 

“I think a lot of Muslim (converts) — including myself — sometimes were reluctant to go to the mosque. The culture is so different,” says Galvan. “I feel like Muslims who are born Muslims are a lot more likely to come to a position that they are comfortable with themselves as Muslims. Islam can be overwhelming for converts.”

Additionally, converts sometimes have a hard time learning religious practices like wudu, the ritual washing of hands and feet that is done before prayer, in a way that those who have grown up in the faith don’t. Converts are sometimes intimidated by other aspects of the culture, like the food, says Hammad. 

But Latino Muslims often end up adapting familiar dishes to halal specifications, says Madelina Nuñez, a doctoral fellow at Purdue University who is writing her dissertation on Latino Muslim food and who co-authored a chapter of the book “Cyber Muslims: Mapping Islamic Digital Media in the Internet Age.” Nuñez offers a quote from from a Latino Muslim, Richard Silva, stating, “‘They ask why I want to change my culture. I tell them I’m changing religión, not culture. I still eat tortillas.’” 

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Despite Latino Muslims struggles to be accepted by the community, Ruiz and academics alike say that this group will leave an indelible mark on American Islam. 

“Latinx Muslims are poised to play a more prominent role among their fellow Muslims in the U.S. and to continue to shape the practices and expressions of Islam in the U.S. and the wider Americas,” Ken Chitwood, author of “The Muslims of Latin America and the Caribbean” and a research and journalism fellow at University of Southern California’s Center for Religion and Civic Culture, wrote in an email.

“As they continue to build institutions and create infrastructure for infusing American Muslim communities with more distinctly Latinx language, political preferences and issues, and cultural practices, I think you will see others drawn to and influenced by them, as we have through places like Centro Islámico, programs like #TacoTrucksInEveryMosque, or CAIR en Español,” says Chitwood. “As imams in local mosques, leaders of Muslim rights organizations, and founders of significant Muslim creative and nonprofit enterprises, each of these leaders brings their cultural identifications and practices with them into these roles and therefore shapes how both Muslims and non-Muslims view the American Muslim community.” 

Chitwood foresees a future that includes more Spanish-language proselytizing materials as well as “more halal tamales on offer at community iftars.” 

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