Most of my readers probably know my conversion story by now, even though every time I tell it I remember some finer details that I previously forgot to mention. For those that have never heard it, the abridged version looks something like this:
Latina girl reads a book about Malcolm X … Latina girl becomes interested in Islam … Latina girl meets a Muslim family … Latina girl learns about Islam and eventually converts ….
After that initial story, another (and I would argue more important) one begins when after a few years, the Latina girl meets another Latino Muslim convert, gets married, and has children. But before you even think that we lived happily ever after (that’s only in Jannah), let’s talk about parenting. Being a parent is one of life’s greatest challenges. Nothing prepared me for this stage of my life, and even though I have been a mother for over 17 years now, it still feels like a new experience every day. The even greater test is attempting to raise Muslim children as a convert. My children’s experiences as “born Muslims” are so much different than my own, having embraced Islam at an early age by choice. What they have gotten handed to them from their father and me, we had to fight for going against everything our families taught us about our religion and traditions. We are first-generation Latino Muslims raising second-generation Latino Muslim children. Yikes!
Nevertheless, even though my children are being raised as Muslims, they notice that they are different than their peers. They are navigating the nuances of intersectionality, living as minorities within a minority, uniquely embodying the identities of Muslims, Latin Americans, second-generation immigrants with South American and Caribbean heritages, and people of color in the United States. Even within the Islamic community, they must find or demand their spaces because Latinos, although the fastest growing group in Islam in the U.S., only make up a small percentage of the worshippers in our masajid. Even less are the children of Latin American Muslims who are fortunate enough to attend Islamic schools.
For these reasons, and because I never want my children to take Islam for granted, there are certain lessons I strive to instill in them day after day. I consistently remind them of our origins, the journey that brought us to where we are today, the significance of our faith, and what it takes to become the best versions of themselves. While this guidance is primarily directed at my Latino Muslim children, it also encompasses part of the lessons I wish to impart to other Muslims regarding our distinctive experiences.
Here are the top 5 lessons I want my Latino Muslim children (and their community) to know:
1. Be proud of who you are, but never arrogant.
Being what some people may call a “typical Puerto Rican” comes with the stereotypes about our love for the Puerto Rican flag. Here is a joke for you: “You know your Puerto Rican if you'll hang your flag anywhere but a flagpole!” Yes, Puerto Ricans are quick to wave and post their flag just about everywhere – in cars, on t-shirts, hanging over windowsills, and even as a hijab if you are a Puerto Rican Muslim like me. Some Muslims may frown upon this behavior and consider it tribalistic or nationalistic. However, if you take a deep dive into Puerto Rican history, you will know that the flag is a symbol for independence from Spanish and later U.S. colonial rule. For decades, the U.S. tried to ban Puerto Ricans from waving their flag just because it was seen as a threat.
Knowing history will help you understand why it is okay to feel a sense of pride in how far you have come as a people. My pride in my background comes not only from being Puerto Rican; but from my family; coming from a rich cultural heritage of Iberian, African, and indigenous ancestry; moving to the U.S., overcoming hardships, to finally finding Islam and discovering that there is an Islamic element to our history. I will say it until I am blue in the face: Islam is part of our heritage as Latinos. I am proud of all those things, and I praise Allah for them because it makes me and my children who we are.
Contrary to some opinions of well-meaning folk, displaying your identity is not contrary to Islam. How would we have known that Bilal was “Al Habashi,” that Suhaib was “Ar-Rumi,” or that Salman was “Al Farsi” if those parts of their names were omitted? How would we have been able to distinguish the Muhajirun from the Ansar? Of course, we do not believe that belonging to a certain nation or group makes us superior or that it takes precedence over being Muslim. We are Muslims first and foremost, and then we are Latinos/Latin Americans.
Allah says in the Quran:
“O mankind, indeed We have created you from male and female and made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another. Indeed, the most noble of you in the sight of Allah is the most righteous of you. Indeed, Allah is Knowing and Acquainted.”
(Surah Al-Hujarat, 49:13)
2. Never let anyone tell you that you don’t belong.
In my early years as a Muslim, I dealt with a lot of negativities from Muslims of other backgrounds. I heard things like “You can’t be Muslim and Puerto Rican,” “You’re not a real Muslim,” or “You need to tone it down” – by “it” they meant my Latinidad or my Latina-ness. They spoke to me almost as if I had to leave part of myself behind or adopt another culture to be a true Muslim. I still hear these types of comments from time to time, but I am better equipped to respond now as a veteran Muslimah. Nevertheless, I know my children may come across individuals who will try to tell them they are not welcome in the Islamic community or that their ethnicity is somehow incompatible with Islam. Sadly, it has already happened.
The way I reassure my children is by letting them know that these hateful things come from a place of pure ignorance. Allah says in the Quran,
“And the servants of the Most Merciful are those who walk upon the earth humbly, and when the ignorant address them [harshly], they say [words of] peace.”
(Surah Al-Furqaan, 25:63)
My Latino children rightfully deserve a place within the mosque and the broader Islamic community. Islam courses through their veins, deeply rooted in their heritage, and they proudly embrace it. We believe that their presence not only enriches our community but also serves as a testament to the diverse and inclusive nature of Islam.
3. Understand your history (Islam is not new to us).
Latin Americans bring value, unique perspectives, cultural richness, and diversity to the American Muslim community. Our presence challenges the notion that Islam is an exclusively Arab or South Asian religion. Latin American Muslims have a shared heritage with our Muslim brethren that began before Islam’s Golden Age, with the establishment of Islam in North and West Africa, and the Islamic conquest of Spain. More importantly, if we believe that Allah’s words are true, then we should know that there were Muslims in the Americas before the arrival of Columbus or any other intrepid explorers. Allah tells us in the Quran:
“And We certainly sent into every nation a messenger, [saying], "Worship Allah and avoid Taghut." And among them were those whom Allah guided, and among them were those upon whom error was [deservedly] decreed…”
(Surah An-Nahl, 16:36)
4. It is your duty to be an asset, not because you’re Latino, but because your Deen requires it.
In your journey as a Muslim, you may encounter fellow Muslims who harbor misconceptions or hold preconceived biases about Latin Americans. However, it is your opportunity to defy these stereotypes by exemplifying the principles of Islam that guide us to be virtuous individuals who contribute positively to society. Show them that being a good person who brings benefit to others is an integral part of your faith and identity as a Muslim Latino. In doing so, you not only uphold the teachings of Islam but also break down barriers and foster a deeper sense of unity within the Muslim community. There is a beautiful hadith of the Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, that summarizes this point perfectly. It was reported that he said:
“The most beloved people to Allah are those who are most beneficial to people. The most beloved deed to Allah is to make a Muslim happy, or remove one of his troubles, or forgive his debt, or feed his hunger. That I walk with a brother regarding a need is more beloved to me than that I seclude myself in this mosque in Medina for a month. Whoever swallows his anger, then Allah will conceal his faults. Whoever suppresses his rage, even though he could fulfill his anger if he wished, then Allah will secure his heart on the Day of Resurrection. Whoever walks with his brother regarding a need until he secures it for him, then Allah Almighty will make his footing firm across the bridge on the day when the footings are shaken.”
(Al-Mujam al-Awsaṭ lil-Ṭabarani)
5. Be callers to Islam and good examples to others.
As Latin-American Muslims, we are duty-bound to share the beauty of this deen with others; and that is especially true for our fellow Latinos. We share the Spanish language, similar cultures, and related experiences. The Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, used to send companions who were familiar with certain languages and cultures on special missions to convey the message of Islam. We should leverage our knowledge, talents, and ties to Latin America to educate others about Islam.
Another advantage we have is that we know how to interact with non-Muslims because most of our relatives do not practice Islam. My children have one set of grandparents who are not Muslim, as well as an uncle, aunt, and plenty of non-Muslim cousins and other distant relatives. Their constant interactions with them give them an edge when it comes to intercultural and interreligious dialogue. Every non-Muslim is a potential Muslim or ally, and we should never look down upon anyone. After all, Mami and Papi (Mom and Dad) were once non-Muslims, too!
These are just the top five lessons I want to embed in my children’s minds to offer them the confidence they will need as they begin their own journey of faith. Along with them, I also want them to own their stories and live Islam authentically. As long as we are striving for goodness while adhering to the obligatory matters in the Quran and the Sunnah, no one can put us into a box. We can be Muslim and Latin American. We do not have to change who we are just because it makes another person feel uncomfortable, be they Muslim or non-Muslim. As parents, we wish we could shield our children from the trials of this world, but as Muslims, we must accept that there will be ups and downs. InshaAllah, God-willing, we can continue to support them and applaud their accomplishments while consistently whispering prayers for their success.
Photo Caption: Wendy Díaz cradles her son as she looks across the Playita del Condado near San Juan, Puerto Rico.
Wendy Díaz is a Puerto Rican Muslim writer, award-winning poet, translator, and mother of six (ages ranging from infant to teen). She is the co-founder of Hablamos Islam, a non-profit organization that produces educational resources about Islam in Spanish (hablamosislam.org). She has written, illustrated, and published over a dozen children’s books and currently lives with her family in Maryland. Follow Wendy Díaz on social media @authorwendydiaz and @hablamosislam.