Standing shoulder to shoulder inside a community center in Morton Grove, Muslim men and boys bowed their heads in prayer. Behind them, women and girls prayed along, some with faces covered, some just their heads.
At the same moment, Muslims around Chicago and the world faced Mecca and prayed to Allah. They repeated the pattern of standing, kneeling, bending their foreheads to the ground, uttering prayers.
It was Ramadan — the ninth month in the Islamic calendar, in which Muslims fast and devote themselves to prayer, giving to the less fortunate and nourishing relationships. At the end of their fast each day, they ate an iftar — breaking their fast.
At this iftar in Morton Grove, Arabic, Urdu and English were spoken by Muslims whose roots traced to India, Pakistan, Jordan and Palestine. Soon, Spanish could also be heard.
Alongside the traditional Pakistani and Indian dishes — daal, butter chicken and endless naan — were Mexican dishes like molé y arroz.
It was a slice of the Muslim world that’s often overlooked — people whose families are from Mexico, Guatemala, Puerto Rico and Peru.
There are no precise figures on how many Latino Muslims live in the Chicago area, where the population is about 30 percent Latino. But, according to various estimates, the 130 mosques in the city and suburbs are the spiritual home to a small but growing group of converts — Latino Muslims.
Galvan says Chicago is home to one of the nation’s biggest and longest-standing Latino Muslim populations.
According to Aaron Siebert-Llera, an attorney with the Inner-City Muslim Action Network who is the current director of the Latino American Dawah Organization, the black Muslim population has been the predominant Muslim group in Chicago. During the 1960s and 1970s, Siebert-Llera says, the South Asian and Arab Muslim populations grew, separately on the North and Southwest Sides.
As with other immigrant groups, different communities tended to have their own places of worship.
“It’s just based on how Chicago has always been — a very divided city,” he says. “Muslim immigrants kind of followed the same pattern. These communities have all segmented themselves. Latinos are the same way. They stay in the neighborhoods where they’re comfortable.”
Siebert-Llera says Latino Muslims around Chicago tend to be more dispersed than they are in other cities. In Houston, for example, the Centro Islámico mosque opened in 2016 to serve Latino populations.
But there are growing signs of change in Chicago. The organization Islam in Spanish — which was formed in Houston — now has a Chicago chapter. The young Muslim Latinos who’ve been gathering through that network are creating a new nonprofit called Ojalá and looking to set up their own mosque.
“You have your places where you can be together and be with people from your same background, we’re just looking for the same,” Siebert-Llera says.
Felicia Salameh, who lives in Orland Park with her husband and two sons, attends a nearby mosque and sends her older son to the Muslim school next door, where he learns to read the Quran in Arabic.
She was raised by a Mexican Catholic mother and Palestinian Muslim father.
What’s pulled her closer to Islam have been the connections she has made with other Latino Muslims. Since meeting others in the Islam in Spanish group, she’s moved more and more toward wearing a hijab, or headscarf. She hasbeen learning more about Islam and has traveled to Texas to meet with Latino Muslims from around the country.
“When I found out that there were Mexicans and Puerto Ricans and Colombians who were also Muslim, I was really excited,” Salameh says. “They educate Latinos who are interested about Islam, in the Spanish language if the person does not speak English.”
The group also has opened the door for her to more deeply connect with her Mexican roots. She says she’s picked up on Mexican recipes, as well as some Spanish, and now more readily asks her Mexican abuela, a devout Catholic, about their family history.
A strong Catholic culture might be part of the reason some Latinos have embraced Islam, according to Salameh.
“People who are Catholic or Christian when they come to Islam, they realize that this is all stuff that I believe in already,” Salameh says. “Islam is the only non-Christian faith that believes in Jesus Christ.”
Efrain Diaz is a Brighton Park native, father of two daughters and a Mexican-American who is a convert to Islam. Diaz was baptized, had his first communion and was confirmed in the Catholic church. His parents, immigrants from Mexico, decorate their home with images of Jesus Christ and the Mexican icon of Mary, la Virgen de Guadalupe.
He tries to explain his decision to follow a different religion to his parents, pointing to similarities that he says made it easier to choose to convert. For example, he tells them, both Jesus Christ and Mary have a chapter in the Quran, the sacred book of Islam. To believe in Islam, he tells them, is to believe in Jesus as a highly respected prophet and in Mary as his mother.
And the languages his family speaks and the language he prays in — Spanish and Arabic — have strong historic connections and similarities.
“Pantalón, pantaloon; camisa, kamis; azucar, sookar,” Diaz says. And his favorite, “Ojalá, Inshallah,” meaning “God willing.”
Diaz got caught up in gang activity and almost had to raise his two young daughters from behind bars. When he decided to commit to Islam, he was alone in a jail cell, facing drug charges. In his cell, he had the company of two books: a novel by James Patterson and a Quran.
“This is like God talking to me, like he’s giving me signs,” Diaz says of the moment he found the Quran. “Alhamdulillah, thanks to God I didn’t end up having to do 30 years.”
Some of the charges were dropped. Now, after getting out of jail, he’s back in Brighton Park. He lives in the same building where his parents, aunts and uncles live and takes care of the family. Every afternoon, he picks up his daughter from school.
When Diaz picked up the Quran, he prayed for the chance to return to his family and promised he would change. He was alone in his prison cell when he took his shahada, or declaration of faith, and became part of the Latino Muslim community.
Some converts from devout Catholic families say they sometimes are faced with skepticism and ignorance from their own relatives: “Oh, what are you an Arab now?” “Why did you join a black religion?” “Did you join ISIS?” “Take that thing off your head.”
Still, Salameh’s Mexican Catholic abuela has now gone with her to the mosque, accompanied her to meetings of Islam in Spanish and tried to learn about Islam.
One of Diaz’s first experiences joining others for Ramadan was uneasy. He sat at the table for an Eid celebration. People started speaking to him in Arabic.
“And I would say, ‘Meksiki,’ ” Diaz says. “Meksiki is Mexican. I don’t speak Arabic.”
Diaz stood out for another reason — the tattoos covering his hands, a lion on one, a skull on the other. In Islam, tattoos aren’t permitted.
“I felt so welcomed, and immediately everything turned around,” Diaz says. “They saw my tattoos. They got to talking in Arabic. And then it was, like, shunned. I remember that Ramadan I felt like crying, feeling so alone.”
Latino Muslims in Chicago say they have high hopes their new center for the Ojalá nonprofit can serve all members of the surrounding community — likely Back of the Yards or Brighton Park. They’re already taking part in neighborhood cleanups and hope to lead more Latinos and others to Islam.
“Prophet Muhammad said that this religion would spread to every corner of the world,” Salameh says. “The Latino community, they knew nothing about Islam. But they fell in love with it.”