‘You never feel at home in ei­ther place’

For Latina Mus­lims, the hi­jab can be an in­vis­i­bil­ity cloak hid­ing their eth­nic­ity — from other Lati­nos

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Cindy Car­camo

Mag­dalena Al Omari, a Mex­i­can Amer­i­can con­vert to Is­lam, slipped on the hi­jab and braced for what­ever may come.

It hap­pened a few months later, in the check­out line of a gro­cery store in Santa Ana.

“¿No tiene calor en esa cosa?” one woman asked another. Isn’t she hot in that thing?

Al Omari shot back, in per­fect Span­ish, that yes, it was quite a hot day in gen­eral. Aren’t you hot, she asked.

The Gar­den Grove res­i­dent had pre­pared her­self for the sus­pi­cious looks and glares that would ac­com­pany her hi­jab — a pow­er­ful, con­spic­u­ous sym­bol of the Mus­lim faith. But Al Omari was surprised by another, un­ex­pected con­se­quence of wear­ing the head­scarf: It had es­sen­tially erased her Mex­i­can Amer­i­can iden­tity for other Lati­nos.

“As time went on, peo­ple were not see­ing me as be­ing Latina,” the Ti­juana-born Al Omari said. “They were see­ing me as Arab.”

As a Latina Mus­lim, she’s among the fastest-grow­ing eth­nic group in Is­lam and at the in­ter­sec­tion of three de­mo­graph­ics spurned dur­ing Pres­i­dent Trump’s nascent ad­min­is­tra­tion: women, Mus­lims and Mex­i­cans.

“It’s a heavy dance. You are never re­ally in one place. It’s like you never feel at home in ei­ther place,” said Eren Cer­vantes-Al­tami­rano, a Toron­to­based blog­ger and writer who has re­searched and stud­ied the in­ter­sec­tion of be­ing Latin Amer­i­can, in­dige­nous

and Mus­lim in the U.S. and Canada. “You have to play it day by day.”

Though the ex­act num­ber of Latino Mus­lims in the U.S. is dif­fi­cult to gauge, some ex­perts es­ti­mate there are 200,000 and about 90% of them are con­verts, ac­cord­ing to a re­port au­thored by Stephanie Lon­dono, a Florida In­ter­na­tional Univer­sity pro­fes­sor and re­searcher who has stud­ied the trend of Lati­nas con­vert­ing to Is­lam.

Most Is­lamic con­verts are women, Lon­dono said.

“It’s a fluid iden­tity for th­ese women, es­pe­cially Latina im­mi­grants,” she said. “They are creat­ing their own cat­e­gory and creat­ing their own story by mix­ing th­ese two el­e­ments: Is­lam, a re­li­gion that is very vis­i­ble, and be­ing Latina — es­pe­cially when they wear the hi­jab.”

While be­ing a Latina Mus­lim may be a grow­ing trend, it cer­tainly shouldn’t come as a sur­prise, said Cer­vantes-Al­tami­rano, who con­verted to Is­lam 10 years ago and writes ex­ten­sively on the chal­lenges ex­pe­ri­enced by women who be­come Mus­lim.

“That is the na­ture of liv­ing in a so­ci­ety that is more di­verse,” she said.

In Or­ange County, the Latino-ma­jor­ity city of Santa Ana is neigh­bors with Anaheim, home to Lit­tle Ara­bia.

Spurred by a sense that both were in the po­lit­i­cal crosshairs of the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion, the com­mu­ni­ties cre­ated the Mus­lim-Latino Col­lab­o­ra­tive in Anaheim.

Some Lati­nas have con­verted to Is­lam as a re­sult of a re­la­tion­ship with a Mus­lim part­ner, ac­cord­ing to Lon­dono’s study.

Although a Latino who con­verts to Is­lam can go about his life in­con­spic­u­ously, women who choose to wear the hi­jab find that hard to do.

Lucy Silva, a Gar­den Grove res­i­dent, was born in Mex­ico and grew up Catholic, but she con­verted to Is­lam af­ter meet­ing her hus­band, who is Mus­lim.

Silva con­verted to Is­lam three years be­fore mak­ing the choice to per­ma­nently wear a head­scarf. That was two weeks be­fore the 9/11 ter­ror­ist at­tacks.

“It rep­re­sented a lot of chal­lenges,” she said. “But it was not out of co­er­cion. It’s based on my Is­lamic faith. I de­cided on my own to do it.”

Wear­ing a Mex­i­can-in­spired flower-em­broi­dered white shirt and her head­scarf, Silva spoke about her de­ci­sion be­fore 400 peo­ple in a cramped room at the Is­lamic So­ci­ety of Or­ange County mosque in Gar­den Grove dur­ing a World Hi­jab Day event.

Like Al Omari, Silva said most peo­ple don’t per­ceive her as Latina be­cause she cov­ers her head.

“We al­ways have to de­fend our Latino her­itage when it comes to com­mu­ni­cat­ing with other Lati­nos so we don’t lose that iden­tity just be­cause we are Mus­lim. With Mex­i­cans, we have to prove we are still Latino,” she said. “With Mus­lims, we have to prove our­selves as Mus­lim through our faith. As Amer­i­cans, we have to prove to Amer­i­cans we are also Amer­i­can.”

In the be­gin­ning — even be­fore wear­ing the hi­jab — Silva said she had to re­as­sure her par­ents, who be­lieved she was go­ing to give up her iden­tity af­ter con­vert­ing.

“Look, Mom, I’m still Mex­i­can, OK?” she once told her mother.

Still, some find that con­vert­ing to Is­lam can strain re­la­tions with fam­ily mem­bers who are not Mus­lim.

Jose Moreno, Al Omari’s brother, said he and his sis­ter are try­ing to re­pair their re­la­tion­ship — meet­ing at least once a year — af­ter grow­ing dis­tant for some time.

Though Moreno doesn’t blame his sis­ter’s con­ver­sion en­tirely for their drift­ing apart, he said it did play a role.

“Her re­li­gion doesn’t bother me,” he said. “My par­ents, on the other hand … they still, to this day, they still don’t like it.”

That fric­tion was one of the rea­sons the fam­ily drifted, Moreno said.

“Her life re­volved mostly around her Mus­lim com­mu­nity, as I see it,” he said. “It didn’t re­ally in­volve us a lot. It was very min­i­mal.”

Silva and Al Omari be­long to a group of Mus­lim Lati­nas in Or­ange County who guide oth­ers — many Latina — go­ing through the con­ver­sion process.

What do you say if you cover your head and your Catholic fa­ther doesn’t like it?

“You have to ex­plain that nuns also cover and Mary cov­ered,” Silva re­sponds.

Like many Mus­lim women, a large num­ber of Latina con­verts do not wear the hi­jab.

Dina Bdaiwi, whose Mex­i­can mother con­verted to Is­lam, first wore the hi­jab dur­ing her se­nior year in high school and into her first year in col­lege. But the 22-yearold from Irvine — who de­scribes her­self as shy — felt as if it at­tracted too much at­ten­tion.

She also sensed the head­scarf dis­tanced her from the Latino, non-Mus­lim side of her fam­ily. It’s not that they ever said any­thing, she said. It was just a feel­ing.

“I felt like they knew me a cer­tain way, and that was with­out the hi­jab. I wanted to feel close with my fam­ily again,” said Bdaiwi, a se­nior at UC Irvine. “I just wanted things to be the same as they were.”

Af­ter a year, she took it off.

Marya Ay­loush, a 21-yearold whose fa­ther is Arab and whose Mex­i­can mother also con­verted to Is­lam, sees the hi­jab as part of her iden­tity.

Seven years ago, she launched Aus­tere At­tire, a Los An­ge­les-based on­line cloth­ing store that sells head­scarves — many of them mod­ern and hip, tar­get­ing mil­len­ni­als.

Though Ay­loush was al­ways drawn to her Ara­bic iden­tity, she re­cently re­con­nected with her Mex­i­can her­itage, she said. A UCLA stu­dent, she’s ma­jor­ing in Chi­cano stud­ies.

In late Jan­uary, Ay­loush joined thou­sands of pro­test­ers who con­verged at Los An­ge­les In­ter­na­tional Air­port to con­demn Trump’s travel re­stric­tions on cer­tain pre­dom­i­nantly Mus­lim coun­tries.

She car­ried a sign she made. It read: “I am a Mex­i­can, Arab, Mus­lim, Woman. Trump’s Boogey Man.”

Pho­to­graphs by Francine Orr Los An­ge­les Times

LEZETH ESTRADA, 15, of Anaheim cel­e­brates World Hi­jab Day at the Is­lamic So­ci­ety of Or­ange County mosque in Gar­den Grove in Fe­bru­ary. There are an es­ti­mated 200,000 Latino Mus­lims in the U.S.

TI­JUANA-BORN Mag­dalena Al Omari says that over time peo­ple “were see­ing me as Arab.”

Pho­to­graphs by Francine Orr Los An­ge­les Times

LUCY SILVA, left, speak­ing at the #IS­tandWithHi­jabis event, was born in Mex­ico and grew up Catholic. Af­ter con­vert­ing to Is­lam, Silva says, she had to re­as­sure her par­ents. “Look, Mom, I’m still Mex­i­can, OK?”

UCLA STU­DENT Marya Ay­loush is Mex­i­can, Arab and Mus­lim, and sees the hi­jab as part of her iden­tity.

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