Latino Muslims Search for Identity, Community in the Bronx

In Masjid Annasr’s prayer space on a Saturday afternoon, Zaynab al-Samat is in a minority of one. A slight woman dressed in a pale purple abaya and matching hijab, she is the only Hispanic supplicant at this roomy northwest Bronx mosque that almost exclusively serves a local West African population.

Al-Samat, a native of the Dominican Republic, converted to Islam in 2010 after a long period of faith exploration as she became increasingly dissatisfied with the Catholic Church. Now, she says she has found a welcoming home here at Masjid Annasr, one of several West African mosques in Morris Heights, a majority-Hispanic area increasingly dotted with Ghanaian groceries offering Halal cuts of goat meat.

 

Still, al-Samat says that she hopes to eventually pray at a Latino mosque, a niche that doesn’t exist here in the Bronx. Though she is deeply involved at Masjid Annasr, managing religious classes for children and painting henna on holidays, what she lacks here is a Latino Muslim community in which to weave together her Latino culture and a faith that some Hispanics “think is for Arabs only,” she said.

Aisha Ahmed Hernandez is the founder of the Latin American Muslim Women’s Association, a south Bronx-based organization established in 2007. The group fields telephone calls from Latino Muslims looking for Islamic answers to their problems, be it turbulent marriages or troubled faith.

 

Hernandez also created a Facebook group, called “Muslims Who Speak Spanish,” that now counts almost 500 members, not all of whom live in New York. She established the group to get a sense of just how large the Latino Muslim population is and said she was surprised by the huge response.

Encouraged, she says she hopes that her still small-scale effort will blossom — drawing together a community in which Latino converts can negotiate a common identity and support each other through a conversion process that can roil family members.

 

In the meantime, Hernandez says she straddles two cultures. A frequenter of mostly African mosques like the one in which she converted more than 20 years ago, she still celebrates Catholic holidays with her Puerto Rican friends and family, she said.