Story and photos by Griselda San Martin
Patricia Villarreal sits in the women’s section of a mosque in Playas de Tijuana, studying in preparation for her conversion to Islam.
Villarreal was born in Mexicali but resides in National City, California – just a year ago she was a Jehovah’s Witness. Her daughter converted several years ago, which Villarreal had difficulty understanding or accepting.
“When she started dressing like that, the whole family was shocked,” she said. “On 9/11, I was very angry because she was out there dressed in this way and on top of that she had my granddaughter with her covered with the hijab. I was really frightened.”
On Saturday March 26, Muslims from both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border gathered at the Mosque of Omar in Playas de Tijuana. Each month the non-Muslim community is invited to learn about Islam and see how it differs from the mainstream media’s generally negative portrayal of it. The event featured Khalid Yasin, a popular Islamic scholar from Harlem.
The center, also known as the Islamic Center Masjid Omar, is maintained exclusively by private donations from Muslims in California.
“Here we do not tolerate those that speak of Jihad,” Nagi Alaraj, the administrator of the mosque, said. “We try to be better people because Islam is not only a religion. It is a way of life.”
According to Alaraj, the Muslim community in Baja California is made up of approximately 250 people, most of whom are Mexican nationals. That number also includes some American expats as well as individuals from Muslim countries such as Egypt, Morocco, Yemen and Palestine. The majority of the women are Mexican-born and have discovered Islam through their spouses, friends and family or even social media.
Juana Reza, who is almost 80 years old, converted to Islam only 5 years ago, after becoming interested when her friend and neighbor Irma Morales invited her to a meeting.
“Before Islam we visited several Christian churches but I really didn’t like it,” she said. “They yell too much. And cry too much. And then they ask for money. And they also faint and wake up speaking in tongues. I like everything from Islam. There’s only good people here. They are very friendly.”
Catholicism faces a serious crisis worldwide and continues to lose followers in Mexico in favor of other religions that are seemingly more adept at addressing the challenges facing ordinary people. According to recent polls, between 19 and 23 million Mexicans are no longer Catholic. Like Juana, some of them have discovered Islam as an alternative to Catholicism, which does not seem to offer answers to their spiritual unease.
Maryam Alvarez, along with Amina Rivera, began practicing Islam in Rosarito, 15 miles south of Tijuana, in her living room.
“We started meeting at my house because there was no other place,” Alvarez said. “At first, there were two of us and then there were 25. That’s when we started looking for a new location.
Alvarez is now the administrator of the Al-Wahid mosque, which will open its doors to the public on May 27 of this year. The construction has been financed and supervised by Viva Islam, a British charity that is also building the first islamic foster home in Mexico. They are currently looking for an imam who speaks Spanish fluently.
Besides the language limitations, the Muslim community in Baja California and Mexico, especially its women, face bigger challenges. Just like Muslims in other western countries, they are victims of Islamophobia and constant discrimination.
Four years ago, after her older son Sebastian passed away, Fatima Castañeda fell into a deep depression. She found the peace she needed in Islam.
But being a Muslim in Mexico is hard. She has been called a hypocrite, taliban, terrorist and sex slave. She has been thrown out of restaurants and has been fired from jobs. She said people have pointed and laughed at her and have even wished death upon her. Her young daughter Nahomi has also had a rough time of it. Nahomi is 10 years old and converted to Islam at the same time as her mother. At first, she was happy to wear her hijab to school but what she found was major disappointment and discrimination from classmates and even her teachers. Now she only wears her hijab when she goes to the mosque.
Family acceptance is also a major obstacle for many new converts.
“I still haven’t told my parents,” Leslie Orozco, who converted to Islam just two months ago, said. “I don’t exactly know how they are going to take it.”
Orozco discovered Islam through some friends and quickly became interested.
“What I like about Islam is that there are so many values and so much respect for people and I think that is something that has been forgotten by many of the other religions,” she explained.
Wanda Velazquez comes down periodically from Los Angeles to show her support for the Latino Muslim community. She was born in Puerto Rico and grew up in San Diego. She converted to Islam 15 years ago, when she was in high school.
On the last Saturday of every month she shows up with a van full of reading materials in Spanish and donates them, along with clothing, scarves, and prayer mats that she distributes among those that come to gatherings.
Alejandra Fuentes sits patiently during the sermon and throughout the service and prayers. She is 79 years old and cannot read or write. She never went to school. She never learned English, let alone Arabic. But for the past two years she has been attending services faithfully every Friday and Saturday and has been paying close attention to Islamic instruction and is painstakingly trying to learn all of the teachings.
“I pay attention, but I forget,” she said. “I am very old. My brain is drying up.”
At the end of the bi-national gathering, Sister Fatima takes Fuentes all the way to the doorstep of her very humble little house, next to a giant garbage dump. Getting out of the vehicle, she responds to her sister’s farewell of “See you next Friday.”
“Inshallah,” she replies.