TEMPE — Chris Cruz was born and raised Roman Catholic but converted to Islam in large part because of its call for a healthier lifestyle, including a prohibition on drinking.
But converting doesn’t make him any less Hispanic, he said.
“Islam does not make you lose your culture,” Cruz said. “There’s a lot more to life than what we used to do. I grew up partying.”
Sobida Espinoza, who like Cruz is a member of the Islamic Community Center in Tempe and was raised Catholic, said she converted to Islam to find truth.
“If you’re Hispanic it’s almost as if you are forced to be Catholic,” she said. “People are converting to Islam because they find the reality that isn’t defined in other religions.”
Cruz and Espinoza aren’t alone.
Ahmad Shqeirat, the center’s imam, or prayer leader, said during the past few years most of the converts at his mosque have come from the Latino community.
“It seems they are digging for their heritage,” he said.
Shqeirat said Latino converts find similarities between Islam and the culture in which they grew up. Spanish is filled with Arabic vocabulary, he noted.
Cruz said both Islam and Catholicism promote having large families, but he said his new religion offers more guidance on the family structure. That led his mother-in-law, who is also Hispanic, to convert, he said.
“She noticed a big change in how we conducted ourselves and how our relationship had really grown,” Cruz said. “We don’t drink and we don’t have the big parties.”
Nahela Morales, national Hispanic outreach coordinator for WhyIslam, an online resource about Islam and Muslims, said Hispanics convert because they aren’t happy with their lifestyles.
“They are looking to fulfill a void that nothing else can fulfill,” she said.
Morales said she believes many Hispanics don’t feel accepted in the United States because of illegal immigration and other issues. By converting to Islam, she said, they become a minority within a minority.
“It’s still something very appealing,” she said. “They find that family that they lack.”
Imam Didmar Faja of the Albanian American Islamic Center of Arizona in Peoria is opening a mosque in Hermosillo, Sonora, Mexico, because of interest from people there. He attributed that, in part, to problems stemming from drug cartels and other social problems.
“It’s getting kind of weak, the family structure,” he said. “They are looking for other options to keep these rooted traditions with them.”
Espinoza, who is single, said she was abandoned by her family when she converted. But as her family grew distant, she said, Islam became her new family and changed her life for the better.
“I sometimes feel sad, but that also makes me stronger in the religion,” she said.