“You just want to be one of them because you like an underdog.”
“You’re trying to bow down to them and do things for them, you have your own culture you don’t need that.”
“They don’t respect you because you’re not one of them”
Fighting the battle of me versus them has been exhausting over these last three years of being Muslim. Me? I’m Puerto Rican or Nuyorican depending on who you ask. Them? They’re Arab. Me and them have been locked in a perpetual dance for dominance ever since I started this journey.
The above statements are a micro sample of things that people have said to me along the way, the first statement actually happened before I converted. A friend was trying to explain to me that my desire to be Muslim didn’t come from a genuine place, it came from a place of wanting to be on a “losing team.” He said I wanted a reason to always be fighting and Muslims were a group that had to constantly fight to protect their identity. Such an in depth analysis from a person who couldn’t decide in what doctrine he truly believed.
Latinos count for an incredibly small percentage in the American Muslim community despite the fact that we’re one of the largest minorities in the U.S. Although our numbers are growing and more people are finding the faith, we still do not stand equal to the immense Arab community in more ways than one. Being Latino in Islam is essentially signing up for second class citizenship.
That second class pass even extended itself to the mosque. When I first started attending regularly, I sat in the corner because I was so shy about being there. After a few visits I could recognize the regulars but I was still largely ignored by the women. There’s no place a little Latina girl is more invisible than in a mosque. One day in particular I was sitting in my corner and a woman came up to me and started waving her hand and saying things in Arabic. I tried to tell her I didn’t understand what she was saying. Then in some killer English she said, “Move.” Mortified, I moved over and she went about her day not acknowledging me again. That is except for when she was chatting with her friend about how I had been sitting in her spot. I may not speak Arabic but side eye and body language are universally understood.
Latinos count for an incredibly small percentage in the American Muslim community despite the fact that we’re one of the largest minorities in the U.S.
But I wasn’t going to let that one incident from some rude person get me down. I belonged here too! Except I didn’t. The women of the mosque eventually became colder and I found myself attending less and less. At some point I had gotten pushed so far back that I was sitting crouched between two walls and several women assembled a row of chairs in front of me. I spent the entire khutba staring at my feet and willing myself not to cry. Now I only attend when I’m certain it’s empty and I can avoid the questioning glances of those who have finished praying.
I mean, everyone has a bad mosque experience right? This didn’t mean anything, I just needed to find some Muslim women my age and everything would be okay! So I went out and did exactly that. I fell in with a large group of Muslim women and it wasn’t too long until I noticed the cultural barrier slowly creep up between us. There would be times where I had no idea what they were talking about and no one cared to clue me in. The jokes in our group chat were often times in Arabic, which to me looked like a math equation and I failed the math regents. Twice. When news reports came out about the countries where they were all from – Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Palestine, Iran, and Pakistan – I would try my hardest to be on top of developments. I wanted to show my new friends that just because we were from different hemispheres that didn’t mean I didn’t care about what was affecting them and their families.
But when Puerto Rico went bankrupt and I went to my friends about my worries for my family members still living on the island, I was met with silence. Someone even said, “At least they’re not getting bombed.” I tried my best not to take offense because in a way she was right. But a small part of me couldn’t help but scream that things were happening in the world aside from bombings.
We don’t have to be in an us versus them situation.
The biggest point of contention came when El Chapo was captured. This was huge news to me. I went straight to my friends because after all, we were big news watchers. They all made jokes about it. An implication was made that I cared about this story because I myself was Mexican. Nobody cared. At this point I exploded. When I tried to get my point across in anger I was met with placating tones about how they would want to learn more from me about the “Latino world.” What the fuck is that? We don’t exist in a separate world, we’re right here!
Needless to say I stopped talking to those people. My spirit had been shot. I had yet to meet another person like myself, with my values, with my culture that was also Muslim.
The saddest part about it is that Latinos and Arabs are more similar than any of us would like to think. We are both family oriented groups. When people see Arabs they immediately assume that person is a Muslim the SAME WAY when people see Latinos they immediately assume we’re Catholic. Latinos are disregarded in society and are only relevant when it comes to taco recipes. Arabs are fetishized on a constant basis and only looked upon when a story about terrorism occupies the news. If you’re an older woman unmarried in either of these cultures you might as well just crawl under a rock and die because everyone thinks something’s wrong with you. We are both struggling under the yolks of prejudice. So why then, does it seem, as if we’ve turned on each other?
When I tried to get my point across in anger I was met with placating tones about how they would want to learn more from me about the “Latino world.” What the fuck is that? We don’t exist in a separate world, we’re right here!
I deplore when people think that I’m trying to be Arab because of who my friends are or what I choose to learn (currently failing at learning to read Arabic). The idea is so foolish. I could never begin to understand what it even means to be Arab and to attempt it would be a slap in the face to the entire culture, which is diverse beyond imagination. So no, that’s not what I’m trying to do. I’m trying to build a bridge between myself and my Arab-Muslim counterparts so that together we’re creating a beautiful welcoming world for the next generation of young Muslims. A world I haven’t seen. We don’t have to be in an us versus them situation.
I am so proud to be Latina. I’m proud of the small island that sits off in the corner and waits for me to return, whether it’s bankrupt or not. I’m also proud to be Muslim and I want to be the best Muslim I possibly can. Does this mean compromising my strong Latino identity? Some days it feels like it does. I’ve been the token Latina at school, at work, and in social outings. I won’t be one in Islam.