Somerset, N.J. - Tucked away in a quiet rural neighborhood in Somerset, New Jersey is an old brownstone that houses the New Jersey Chapter of the Islamic Center of North America's (ICNA) WhyIslam Project. Within its confines, in a second floor office decorated with rose-colored walls, sits the administrative assistant and only female employee of the department, Nahela Morales.
In a long black garment and gray headscarf, Morales sits in front of a computer entering notes and taking phone calls from the program's hotline, 1-877-WhyIslam, a resource for individuals hoping to learn more about the religion. A Mexican immigrant and recent convert, Morales is the national Spanish-language outreach coordinator for the program, part of ICNA's mission to disseminate information about Islam nationwide.
But Morales' efforts go beyond U.S. borders: the 37-year-old recently led a trip to bring Islamic literature, food and clothing to her native Mexico.
Morales, who was born in Mexico City but later moved to California and then New York, is part of a growing population of immigrant Muslim converts from Latin America – many of them women -- now helping to bring the religion back to their home countries.
Immigrant Latinas Find a Place in Islam
"Many immigrants are here by themselves," says Morales, noting that Latina immigrant women are drawn to Islam because of the sense of "belonging" they find within the Muslim community. "When they come into the mosque and see smiling faces, they feel welcome."
According to WhyIslam's 2012 annual report, 19 percent of the some 3,000 converts it assisted in 2011 were Latinos, and more than half of those (55 percent) were women. The 2011 U.S. Mosque Survey, which interviewed leaders at 524 mosques across the country, found the number of new female converts to Islam had increased 8 percent since 2000, and that Latinos accounted for 12 percent of all new converts in the United States in 2011.
Experts attribute the phenomenon to recent migration trends.
Muslim and Latino immigrants are increasingly living side by side in urban neighborhoods across the country, from California, Texas and Florida to New York and Illinois, states that according to data from the Migration Policy Institute constitute 72.5 percent of the total foreign-born population from Latin America in the United States. At the same time, these five states are also home to the highest number of mosques, The American Mosque 2011 Report shows, reflecting a growing Muslim presence as well.
Wilfredo Ruiz, a native of Puerto Rico who converted to Islam in 2003, is an attorney and political analyst specializing on the Islamic world. In addition to working with various non-profit organizations, including the American Muslim Association of North America (AMANA), he also serves as the imam at his local mosque in South Florida.
"More women than men convert, both in AMANA offices and in the mosques in Southern Florida," Ruiz says. Latina immigrants, he explains, often feel exploited both in Latin America and the United States. The higher status afforded women in Islam and their modest dress, he believes, offers a sensible alternative.
"I have heard from Latina women that they seek protection, and they find [that] protection and respect in Islam," he adds.
Juan Galvan, executive director of the Latino-American Dawah Association and author of Latino Muslims: Our Journeys to Islam, believes that Islam may also hold another, distinctly religious appeal to Latino immigrants because it reveals to them what he calls a more profound understanding of monotheism.
"Most Latino Muslim converts have had personal experiences with Muslims that first drew them closer to Islam," he explains. "These Muslims may be their friends, acquaintances, classmates, coworkers, bosses, marriage partners, or others. By interacting with Muslims, a non-Muslim learns about Islamic monotheism for the first time."
Because Islam emphasizes God's, or Allah's, oneness, Galvan says, it presents Latinos with a unique alternative to traditional Christian theologies that accept the existence of holy deities – Jesus, the Holy Spirit, saints and miracle workers -- which are connected to, yet distinct, from God.
"While Protestantism may have fewer intermediaries than Catholicism, Latinos come to Islam because they believe in a concept of God that acknowledges Him as the Most Powerful and therefore, needs no son," says Galvan, who is himself a Mexican-American convert to Islam.
Morales found her own place in Islam after a turbulent past.
In 1979, Morales' mother risked crossing the border into the United States illegally and alone, leaving her infant daughter behind in Mexico under her grandmother's care. When Morales was 5 years old, she was finally reunited with her mother, who by that time had settled in Los Angeles. Mother and daughter gained amnesty under the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986. However, even as a U.S. citizen, Morales recalls feeling out of place.
"It was a very difficult adjustment since I did not speak English," says Morales. "I remember entering the school system and not being able to communicate with my teachers or peers. I wanted to go back home [to Mexico]."
Adding to her difficulties, Morales was the victim of years of neglect and abuse at home, and as a pre-teen she was removed from her mother's custody and placed in foster care and group homes, until ultimately she was able to settle on her own and finish college.
She moved to New York in 2001. Shortly after her relocation, the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks occurred at the World Trade Center. When news reports blamed Muslim extremists, Morales began to research Islam.
"I was watching the news and they were always showing [Muslim] people shouting 'Allahu-akbar,' God is great, so I thought, if your God is so great, why is he allowing you to kill people? If Muslims say Islam [is about] peace, then this doesn't make sense." She decided to find the answers herself and purchased a copy of the Quran, Islam's holy book. Morales also began befriending Muslim women on MySpace.
"They were so nice, and I became more curious. One of the Muslim women I met happened to be Puerto Rican, and she got in touch with someone in California that could send me an information package about Islam with books, a Quran, a prayer rug, and a hijab [headscarf]."
Morales continued to make contact with Muslims through the Internet and searched online for the closest mosque to her new home in North Bergen, New Jersey. She began visiting the mosque and eventually converted in 2003, and continues to be an active member of the North Hudson Islamic Educational Center, or NHIEC.
Situated in a predominantly Hispanic neighborhood, 30 percent of NHIEC's congregants are Latinos. The Latino influence is so great that the mosque offers simultaneous Spanish translation of its Friday sermons and Islamic studies classes, and even hosts an annual "Hispanic Muslim Day."
During one of her visits to the NHIEC mosque in 2009, a WhyIslam worker overheard Morales speaking Spanish and asked if she would be interested in a bilingual position with the company.
"I asked [God] to please send me a job where I would be able to worship and wear my veil. I knew right then my prayer was being answered," recalls Morales.
She has now been working with NHIEC for more than three years, and recently led a campaign to deliver Islamic literature and audio, clothing, and toiletries to a needy Muslim community in Mexico City.
During that trip Morales met with her own family members in Mexico, who are mostly Catholic. She says that initially they were not accepting of her decision to practice Islam or of her modest style of dress. They accused her of turning her back on her culture. But on her most recent trip to her hometown of Cuernavaca, she took the opportunity to talk to them more about her religion.
"It is obvious that Islam is still very strange in Mexico," admits Morales, who says that since her last visit her own family has become more receptive. "But it is also very clear that people want to learn about it."