Fifteen Years of Hate, a Lifetime of Lessons
When I converted to Islam back in August of 2000, I knew it would be a transition adding prayer 5 times a day to my daily routine, fasting from sun up to sundown during the month of Ramadan, and exchanging my revealing clothes for more conservative threads and a headscarf. However, these changes were minimal compared to the challenge of dealing with negative opinions about Islam and Muslims, even coming from people who were closest to me. I steered clear of the people who wanted to bring negativity in my life, but when the comments came from family, they were harder to swallow.
A year later when my decision had become more accepted and routine, September 11th happened, and my world was torn apart. Out of fear of repercussions aimed at the Muslim community and concern for my safety, for a year my parents refused to let me leave the house with hijab, and so I began to carry my headscarf in my purse, slipping it on once they were out of sight and hiding it again when I came home. It was a time when I was forbidden to practice my faith outwardly, but it only made me firmer in my conviction. I had something to stand up for, to fight for, and the more suppressed I felt, the more I wanted to be a Muslim. After all, it was my personal relationship with God that was at stake and that type of freedom is one that no one can take away.
I came from a military family and had to also deal with the fact that my father and brother, both in the ARMY faced possible deployment if the US was to retaliate in the aftermath of the attack. My fears materialized when my brother, the only sibling I have, was sent to Iraq and later Afghanistan. He often told me, “This is your people’s fault.” Suddenly all Arabs and Afghans, regardless of their background or faith (because not all of them are Muslims) became “my people.” I felt alienated in my own skin, rejected for my beliefs by the one person who I felt was supposed to understand me the most.
It was not the first time I had dealt with discrimination. I had been scoffed at for speaking in Spanish with my mother in a supermarket, escorted out of a “white” church because I was a person of color, called a “spic” or “rico suave” in middle and high school by some of my peers. But this new type of hate was based on something deeper, and I had to struggle with it even in my own home. My comfort zone quickly became less comforting and I felt like I needed a way out. This led me to ponder getting married to a Muslim man, so that I could start a new life with a partner who shared my goals and interests, but more importantly, my faith.
Four years after 9/11, I finally met my husband. He, too is Hispanic and a Muslim convert. We had our first child in 2006, and since then we have had three more children. After having them I realized that I was now confronted with the greatest task of my adult life, raising them to be good, productive citizens and more notably, practicing Muslims. Looking back it is disheartening to see that the atmosphere of hatred and mistrust for “my people,” my fellow Muslims, has not changed. On the contrary, it has gotten worse over time. Now, that same anxiety that drove my parents to try and stop me from practicing Islam to protect me is haunting me as a parent. Nevertheless, I will not allow this atmosphere of fear keep me from passing on the peaceful teachings of Islam to my children, especially at a time when faith is so crucial to keep a person grounded and spiritually sound.
“Sticks and stones may break my bones,” but words can penetrate the soul. Yes, it is true. As Muslims, as minorities, and as Latinos living in the United States, Latino Muslims are feeling the brunt of the hateful rhetoric so rampant now in our society. I am grateful that I have not been physically assaulted, but I have been at the receiving end of verbal abuse, sometimes in the presence of my own children. I have been called a terrorist, I have been told to go back to my country (Puerto Rico?), and I have been labeled oppressed. My husband was once questioned by a man in a store why he “forced me” to wear my veil, never mind I wore it long before I met him! In the middle of all of this, what gives me hope is that for every negative comment I hear, there are thousands of positive ones. That, along with the driving force of our faith, keeps us going.
I have spent the last 10 years not only raising my children, but also working on outreach projects with our community to educate others about Islam. I have worked in media, non-profit organizations, Islamic centers and educational institutions using different methods to speak to others and dispel stereotypes and misconceptions about Islam (both in English and Spanish), including newspapers, magazines, and websites, through email correspondence, and even working as an operator for an Islamic information call center. During one of these calls, I had my older son sitting close to me and he overheard an adamant caller making false accusations about Muslims and Islam over the phone. His voice was loud, and his tone harsh while he spewed all his hatred in my ear. I glanced over at my 9 year old to see if he was listening, and saw his big caramel eyes open wide and his delicate brows raised in disbelief. I excused myself from the call after the man began to curse.
I turned my attention to my son and comforted him, explaining to him, “Don’t worry, papi, not everyone is like that.” And he responded, “Mami, nobody should be like that.” His words so full of wisdom taught me a good lesson that day. I understood that my children’s generation is coming into the world as it is, with many broken souls; my job is to provide them with the love and security they need so they can build the confidence to confront whatever trials they will face with dignity and courage.