Juan Galvan completed his first book “Latino Muslims: Our Journeys to Islam” in 2017. He enjoys virtual meetings with students, such as those from Baylor University in which he answers questions about his book over Zoom.
According to their professor and author of “Islam, Peace and Social Justice: A Christian Perspective,” Dr. Christian van Gorder states: “Mr. Juan Galvan relates to students with an approachable and welcoming candor. He presents challenging material in ways that undergraduates can appreciate while also challenging them to question their own presuppositions. He is a patient listener and thorough communicator who shares his views but also welcomes disagreement without dismissal. My students here at Baylor have richly benefitted from his upbeat interactions with our students and have learned more from Mr. Galvan about some of the unique challenges and fresh perspectives shared by Latin/Hispanic (choose one!)-American Muslims. I can recommend his work with your students without hesitation.”
Islamic Horizons recently talked with Professor
SpearIt, author of American
Prisons: A Critical Primer on Culture and Conversion to Islam (2017) and professor
of law at Texas Southern University’s Thurgood Marshall School of Law.
He has taught for the Prison University Project
at California’s death-row facility, San Quentin State Prison; taught corrections
law at Saint Louis University School of Law; and serves on the advisory board
of the Prison Program, which offers courses to both inmates and staff.
He is currently active in the American Bar
Association’s Corrections Committee and its work to restore Pell Grant Funding
I.H. What can you
tell us about Latino Muslims within the established Muslim prison communities?
A number of sources contend that Islam is growing among incarcerated Latinos. There
are no reliable statistics about their number or denominational affiliation. I assume
that a majority of them gravitate toward Sunni Islam, as is the case on the
outside. I haven’t heard of any Latino Muslim-majority community in any
institution, which suggests that their numbers are relatively small and most
likely fold into the African American Muslim community.
heard of Mexican/Chicano gangs beating up converts for “betraying” the race. There
are three factors at play here: (1) gang life often combines issues of race and
religion; (2) their conversion is often accompanied by a cultural foray that
provides direct insight into their cultural identity, including Arabic’s
contribution to Spanish; and (3) a way to distance themselves from
Christianity, especially Catholicism, and express their revulsion of its
colonial legacy — including the penitentiary itself — in the Americas.
sometimes inspires inmates to become educated and therefore better decisionmakers.
Muslim prisoners have lower recidivism numbers than non-Muslims. One hopes that
they will experience a similar success when transiting back into their communities.
we should start seeing more Latinos embrace the longstanding Muslim tradition
of using the courts to sue prisons. Muslims generate the greatest number of religious
complaints of any other religious group in prison. As more Latinos convert, I
believe that we will see more Spanish surnames listed as the plaintiff.
I.H. What do you think about CAIR’s lawsuit, filed on Aug. 26 last, against the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department on behalf of three Muslim inmates — two of them Latinos — that alleges discrimination against Muslims in LA jails?
P.S. This is just one more case in the long history of
violating the equal protection laws. In short, Latino Muslims are being forced
to prove themselves the way African American Muslims did in the 60s and 70s — not
because they are Latino, but because prisons continue to discriminate against all
Muslims. Case law reflects the fact that incarcerated Muslims have always had to struggle to enforce their
rights. The 1st Amendment says what it says, but that doesn’t mean that Muslims
enjoy full rights. Although Islam has been deemed a “genuine religion,” prisons
still classify some Muslim groups as SGT (security group threats), which means
that they are disenfranchised of these rights altogether.
I.H. Are you
familiar with the Latino Muslim Survey, which found that most Latino Muslims
are female converts and that few Latinos embrace Islam in prison? Why do you think
this is the case?
P.S. I would venture to say that Latinos view this more as
an issue of cultural apostasy. Islam in prison is still viewed as a “Black
religion,” so the infrastructure isn’t there in the same way. There is a legacy
of Black prison converts, but not so much for Latinos. It’s different on the
outside, where actual Latino mosques offer the type of support, resources and
infrastructure that prisoners lack. We’re now are at the beginning stages, but
I suspect that the numbers will keep increasing.
I.H. Do you think
that African-American prisoners’ lack of da‘wah to Latinos is one reason
why there aren’t many Latino Muslim prisoners?
P.S. Honestly, I think it’s more of an issue of the
cultural constraints coming from Latinos themselves. Based on my correspondence
with them, it seems that Black prisoners welcomed them and that prison was the
place where some of the lessons of the Five Percenters, also known as the Nation of Gods and Earths, were translated into Spanish. Being Mexicano runs deeps,
and for some this might seem to be incompatible with being Muslim.
I.H. Do you have
any thoughts about “prislam” and Latino Muslims?
P.S. That term denotes the meshing of prison culture, gang
attitudes, structures and mores with Islamic ideas. The current lack of Muslim
chaplains creates space for prisoners to give khutbas and provide other
services. Unfortunately, this opportunity is often twisted to advance criminal
or other subversive behavior in the name of Islam.
This became more serious after 9/11, particularly because
the feds’ refusal to let chaplains enter prisons created a leadership vacuum. State-level
prisons often don’t have enough resources to hire qualified Muslim chaplains
and thus must rely on community volunteers or prisoners to lead the services. I
have advocated that prisons work with seminaries to turn interested prison
converts into authentic Muslim chaplains; however, progress in this regard has
been very slow.
I.H. Would more
inmates convert if there were less prislam? Does the racial and ethnic segregation
in prison result in fewer Latino Muslims converting?
O.S. And very quickly, yes. Latinos lack the natural groups
within the Black prison community, where Islam is a prominent part. In some
states like California, which segregate living quarters by race, it is much
harder for them to enter the Muslim fold. I think that your question is right
I.H. Are there
many White converts in prisons? If so, what’s their relationship with other
P.S. Some Whites do covert, but to what extent this occurs remains
unclear. I’ve heard of Aukai Collins (1974-2016),
an Irish-American also
known as Aqil Collins, who converted some time ago and authored My
Jihad (2002). More recently Gregory Holt, a White Sunni Muslim imprisoned in
Arkansas, won a 2014 Supreme Court case to grow a beard. He’s also involved in
another case that’s before a federal appeals court. He is arguing that it’s
unconstitutional to make all Muslims worship together because the Nation of
Islam and the Nation of Gods and Earths are so different from Sunni Islam that Sunnis need their own worship
I.H. What kinds of
resources are there for interested Latino prisoners?
State and federal prisons typically have libraries, many of which contain the
Qur’an, the writings of Islamic scholars and other traditional works. Moreover,
prisons usually have authorized distributors of religious materials — beads,
oils and other items — that inmates can buy through authorized vendors.
Prisons usually allow inmates to receive halal and other sharia-compliant
foodstuffs from friends and family.
for formal religious services and other religious gatherings are usually posted.
Some prisons insist that only Muslims can attend Muslim services, whereas others
allow inmates to explore various faith traditions and attend multiple services during
addition, all sorts of courses, including Islamic and Arabic courses, can be
done by mail if the prisoner can pay the necessary fees. I don’t know of any
Latino Muslim community outreach efforts that specifically target Latinos.
I.H. What kind of
resources would be beneficial?
P.S. Well, that may depend upon the
prison system. For example, federal prisons tend to house immigration
violators, more of whom speak Spanish as their first language. Thus, they would
benefit from having more Spanish-language cassettes, books, magazines and so on.
Of course it would help if Congress
reinstated Pell Grant funding for prisoners, for those funds could be used for
vocational training and to train interested converts to become qualified chaplains
and thereby fill in some of the leadership gaps both now and in the future.
Having access to the Internet would
be a huge benefit, given the current dearth of available Spanish-language or
Latino-directed materials. Prisoners cannot easily hit up Google, for prisons remain
governed by archaic ways — including no Internet. Also, prisons could become
more proactive by hiring qualified Muslim chaplains rather than relying on
I.H. What would you
like I.H. readers to know from your book?
That American prisons are an important piece of American Islam. Although the
total number of Muslims in this country is small, the impact of Islam behind
bars is the stuff of legend. In fact, prisons are an important part of Islamic
history in America. As more Latinos learn about the history of Muslim Spain and
other cultural links, Islam’s impact will continue to grow. I believe that
Latino Muslims, following in the footsteps of their African American forbearers,
are slated to usher in an Islamic renaissance behind bars.
(latinomuslim.com), editor of Latino
Muslims: Our Journeys to Islam, advocates for including Latino Muslim voices
in the mainstream Muslim narrative. He encourages Muslims to learn more about this
specific minority identity.
I am Mexican-American. I’m third-generation. I was born in Texas. I live in Illinois now with my wife and three sons. My wife is Albanian-Brazilian. I must live in one of the most diverse households in the U.S.
What religion did you grow up into?
was a Roman Catholic then became an atheist as an adult before choosing Islam.
I don’t hate people of other faiths or no religion at all. I wish the best for
everyone and treat everyone the way I want to be treated.
When did you convert to Islam?
embraced Islam in June 2001. When 9/11 happened three months later, one of my
non-Muslim friends said, “Well, you sure picked a horrible time to become a
Muslim.” Life isn’t a popularity contest. I’m going to follow what I believe.
What was the main reason you
converted to Islam?
I chose Islam because of my love of Islamic teachings especially the belief in the Oneness of God. I read a lot about Islam and loved what I learned. My conversion story can be found in my book Latino Muslims: Our Journeys to Islam.
What do you think Islam offers
Latinos that other religions do not?
offers the Latino community a unique identity that is unlike that of any other
religion. Islam has broadened my awareness of Latino and Muslim identity. I no
longer believe that all Latinos are Catholics as I did as a little boy growing
up in a small town. Islam is for everyone. I’m blessed to be a Muslim.
Over the past five years, there has been a surge of young Latinos converting from Christianity to Islam. What do you think has inspired this transition?
and Muslims in the U.S. receive more visibility than ever before thus, Islamic
information is more accessible and less social stigma is attached to leaving
one religion for another. I think young Latinos are also attracted to Islam
because they see a need for it within our community.
For many Latinos who were originally
Catholic is this a difficult transition into becoming Muslim?
a Muslim can be a difficult transition for new Latino converts. Because Muslims
can make the transition easier, new Muslims should look for those with genuine
Islamic manners. New converts must have patience with themselves and others. New
Muslims shouldn’t be expected to learn everything in one day.
Being Latino what keeps you
motivated and devoted to Islam?
Knowing I’m pleasing our Creator keeps me motivated. I help many people come closer to Islam or help reinforce their beliefs and that helps keep me motivated, too. The Quran is also important in my devotion. I wrote a book full of my favorite verses so non-Muslims would understand what Muslims love about the Quran. My book is titled “And One of His Signs…”: Quran Verses that Softened my Heart.
What is the main reaction you get
from the public when you inform them you are both Latino and Muslim?
public is usually surprised to learn that I am both a Latino and a Muslim. Many
Americans have never even met a Muslim and then they meet me. Islam doesn’t ask
everyone to be the same. I am who am I am.
Anastacia A. Parks earned her Bachelor
of Science in Cultural Anthropology and is currently a Masters student of
History at UNC-Charlotte.
In honor of Hispanic Heritage Month, NbA Muslims, in collaboration with the Muslim Anti-Racism Collaborative, will feature Latinx Muslims engaged in progressive work inside and outside of US Muslim communities. This week, we profile Juan Jose Galvan, who has highlighted Latinx Muslims and advocated for appreciation for and inclusion of their unique cultural experiences in Muslim spaces and narratives.
Galvan is the editor of Latino Muslims: Our Journeys to Islam and served as the executive director of the Latino American Dawah Organization (LADO) from 2005 to 2013. He was the editor of its online newsletter, The Latino Muslim Voice, from 2002 to 2012. Through his role as the editor, he actively contributed articles to the newsletter, including Jesus and the Virgin Mary in Islam and FAQs about Latino Muslims. In his career, he has actively written about various Latino Muslim events, organizations and leaders. Juan manages the LatinoDawah.org and HispanicMuslims.com websites. He has a Bachelor of Business Administration in Management Information Systems (BBA-MIS) from The University of Texas at Austin.
Galvan advocates for the inclusion of the Latino Muslim voice in the mainstream Muslim narrative. He pushes for increased visibility of America’s Latino Muslims in religious publications. Juan has assisted dozens of students, professors, and reporters with research and has provided access to the Latino Muslim community through interviews and his writings. He has spoken at various Islamic conferences and developed a growing national reputation as a content expert on the Latino Muslim community through newspaper interviews and publications.
When did Latino Muslim conversion begin to grow in the U.S.?
Following the tragedy of 9-11, many people came to learn about Islam for the first time. People wanted to know, “Is this Islam? What is Islam?” Many wanted to know why the attacks happened. So, millions of non-Muslims went out and purchased books about Islam, visited mosques, and heard lectures on Islam. Most Americans came to separate Islam and the greater Muslim community from those responsible for the 9-11 tragedy.
Some people came to hate Islam, and some people came to love Islam. Many people at least began to respect Islam. Largely, these adopted views depended on the information they read, heard, or watched about Islam. Many people studied Islam and liked what they read and then converted. I met a lady that said that she first started reading about Islam because she wanted to confirm that Islam was evil. After reading a lot about Islam, she converted to Islam! Many people returned to their churches, synagogues, and mosques while others came to churches, mosques, and synagogues for the first time. And, of course, we should not forget all the people and organizations that reached out to their neighbors for the first time.
Latino Muslims have been converting to Islam since before 9-11. The Latino Muslim community has consistently grown annually. I do not know how many Latinos embraced Islam after 9-11. Some Muslim organizations have stated that the Latino Muslim community tripled or quadrupled after 9-11. Like many other Americans, many Latinos embraced Islam after learning what Islam was really about.
In 2017, Dr. Gastón Espinosa, Dr. Harold Morales, and I released the results of the Latino Muslims Survey (LMS) in the Journal of Race, Ethnicity, and Religion. According to the report, the growth of conversion rates among Latinos in the U.S. is a relatively recent phenomenon though individual Latinos have been embracing Islam since the 1920s. Over 74 percent of LMS respondents reported having embraced Islam in the past fifteen years (1999-2014). Only 4 percent of Latino Muslims surveyed reported they were raised as Muslims.
What are some parts of the country with the highest number of conversions?
The size of the Latino Muslim population within a particular area typically corresponds to the size of the overall Muslim population within that area. For example, an area, whether city or state, with numerous Muslims, usually has more Latino Muslims than an area with fewer Muslims. You can find Latino Muslims in all major cities within the United States. The largest numbers of Latino Muslims live in cities with large numbers of both Latinos and Muslims, resulting from interactions between members from both communities. Cities with the greatest numbers of Latino Muslims include Los Angeles, Houston, New York City, and Chicago.
The number of Latino Muslims is difficult to determine because the U.S. Census Bureau does not collect information about religion. Estimates range from as low as 40,000 up to as high as 250,000. No precise numbers exist regarding the size of Latino Muslim populations in any specific cities or states. In Texas and California, most Latino Muslims are Mexicans or Central Americans. On the east coast. Latino Muslims are usually Puerto Rican or Dominican, which is not surprising considering the dispersion of the Latino population within the United States.
According to the LMS study, the states with the highest concentrations of Latino Muslim participants were California (19%), Texas (15%), New York (12%), New Jersey (11%), Florida (7%), Illinois (5%), Georgia (4%), and Pennsylvania (3%). The LMS survey found that most Latino Muslims are women (73%), were born in the U.S. (62%), and come from diverse countries of origin, even though a majority trace their ancestry to Mexico (31%) or Puerto Rico (22%).
What are some the common reasons Latino Muslims convert to the faith?
Why people choose Islam depends on the individual you ask. Many Latinos will just say that it is through Allah’s mercy and guidance. In our LMS report, we include the following table that shows the results of some questions we asked survey respondents. The Islamic belief in monotheism/Tawhid (95%) is a “very or somewhat influential” factors in Latino Muslims’ decision to embrace Islam. Other highly influential factors included the practice of daily prayers (76%), the Islamic belief in prophethood (75%), the racial/ethnic equality called for in Islam (74%), and the practice of charity/zakat in Islam (71%).
In the LMS report, we concluded that the high conversion rates of Latinos to Islam are largely due to a heavy emphasis on proselytism (dawah). We supported this finding by the fact that 40 percent first heard about Islam from a friend, 13 percent from a spouse or future spouse, and 8 percent from a family member, while only 4 percent first heard about Islam from a radio or television show, and 3 percent from an Islamic website. Roughly a third (33%) of the LMS respondents reported trying to convert others to Islam regularly; 11 percent did so every day; 10 percent once a week or more, and another 12 percent once a month or more. This focus on personal dawah helps explain the Latino Muslim growth between 1999-2014.
Because of a commonly held misconception that Islam was “spread by the sword,” many non-Muslims find it hard to accept that Latinos convert to Islam primarily because they fall in love with the teachings of Islam. Belief in Islam is a matter of the heart and mind. People also continue to associate Islam with polytheism or paganism when in reality it is the purest monotheistic religion. When you read the news, people seem to convert to Islam for every reason but belief. Many new Muslims often point out reasons that may have initially attracted them to Islam, and rather than putting these reasons into their proper perspective as part of the journey, they attribute them as the catalysts for conversion. Media coverage often overlooks the Islamic message of hope, love, and forgiveness. Unfortunately, Islam is seen as a foreign religion from a faraway land, and its followers are also seen as foreign and therefore, strange, different, and distant. Islam has many similarities with the other Abrahamic faiths that attract many non-Muslims. However, if Islam were exactly like other religions, non-Muslims would have no reason to embrace Islam. People are attracted to Islam because it is different. That is where the beauty comes from. I hope my book Latino Muslims: Our Journeys to Islam fights against this anti-Islam mentality. In my book, Latino Muslims from all walks of life discuss their conversion to Islam.
Are Latino Muslims integrating their cultural identities into their new faith experiences? How?
I strongly believe that the central role of the family is the most important aspect of Latino identity. The problems found in Latino families may be similar or maybe even the same as those in other communities. Different families have different problems. For example, a Latino immigrant to the United States may have a large, supportive family in her native country, knowing all their cousins, aunts, and uncles. These people are very important to them. If something happens, the family is there to help. However, this may change when moving to the US. They may question common values held in their home countries’ cultural identities and find themselves with little family support if any. Their family members experience a lot of stress and hardship. Problems they never imagined may occur. Families in Latino culture is very similar to how it is in Islam. Many Latinos are looking for a way to protect their family life and see Islam as a way of returning their family to its proper place in society. Islam takes what is beautiful and makes it more beautiful.
Most Muslim converts effortlessly adjust to their relationship with their family embracing their Muslim identity. No one wants to be the outcast. One of the worse things new Muslims can do is to alienate themselves from their family. Converting to Islam does not mean cutting ties. After becoming a Muslim, you are still a member of your family. Your mother is still your mother, and your father is still your father. Love towards your family is natural and unconditional. You should be kind toward your family. You should obey your parents and elders as long as their advice does not contradict the teachings of Islam. Embracing Islam is an opportunity to teach your family and friends about Islam. Know that they have a right to reject Islam if that is what they want. Also, know that you cannot take part in haraam, or prohibited, activities. Integration is not about rejecting everything about your culture. I still love the food I grew up eating but eat nothing that contains pork. These are important considerations for all Muslim converts integrating their cultural identities into our new faith.
What are some unique challenges facing Latino Muslims inside Muslim communities in the U.S.?
I appreciate the love and support we receive from other Muslims. Many mosques, Muslim organizations, and individual Muslims actively work with Latino Muslims on projects hoping to strengthen the Muslim community. CAIR, ISNA, MAS, and ICNA have programs geared specifically for Latino Muslims. ICNA/WhyIslam is a noteworthy example. Because Islam is a universal brotherhood, I deal with every Muslim as an individual and avoid stereotypes that can endanger our relationship with one another. Some raised Muslims have negative stereotypes about Latinos. Some people raised as Muslims think all Latinos are promiscuous and incapable of becoming a ‘real’ Muslim. Often, the different Muslim communities in the U.S. aren’t too sure how to relate to one another.
We all share our religion but we don’t all share the same connected histories. Latino Muslim history differs greatly from African-American Muslim history, for example. The Muslim communities are not all the same. Although you may feel welcomed at your mosque, it doesn’t mean a Latino will feel welcomed there. According to the LMS findings, three-fourths (77%) of those surveyed reported that Latino Muslims face racially or ethnically discriminatory attitudes (48%) or sometimes face racially or ethnically discriminatory attitudes by Muslims who are not Latino (29%). Only 15 percent reported that they do not face or sometimes face discriminatory attitudes by non-Latino Muslims.
Latino Muslims want to feel accepted and treated as equals. One reason Alianza Islamica was founded in the 1980s was that Latinos were constantly asked not to speak Spanish at the mosques they attended. The Bani Saqr, a mostly Puerto Rican Muslim community, was founded in New Jersey in the 1970s under the leadership of a well-respected African-American imam. I also encourage you to learn about the history of the Punjabi Mexican-Americans in California. The Latino Muslim community has been a bridge between Muslim communities because we can relate to both the native-born and immigrant Muslim communities through our common experiences. “O mankind, indeed We have created you from male and female and made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another. Indeed, the most noble of you in the sight of Allah is the most righteous of you. Indeed, Allah is Knowing and Acquainted.” – Quran 49:13.
What are some challenges facing Latino Muslims in Hispanic communities and the broader society?
Eighty-four percent (84%) of LMS participants reported that Latinos Muslims face discriminatory attitudes (63%) or sometimes face discriminatory attitudes (21%) by Latinos who are not Muslim. Many Latino non-Muslims genuinely believe that Islam is bad for the Latino community. They may be concerned with other Latinos leaving their “original culture.” But what is original culture? Latinos can’t define culture by religion because our ancestors were from all different religions. Many Hispanics think leaving Catholicism means rejecting their identity. We should reevaluate how we traditionally define culture. Although some people define culture as something static, I think defining culture as a dynamic process is more accurate. The current Latino culture is merely today’s Latino culture. If in a hundred years from now most Latinos are Muslim, the typical Latino would consider Islam inseparable from the Latino culture. Islam sets the framework and direction that the Latino Muslim culture takes. Accepting Islam means rejecting some old ways, accepting some new ways, and adapting when necessary. I am a Latino American and a Muslim. There is no contradiction in my identity.
Hispanic Heritage Month occurs annually from September 15th to October 15th. It celebrates the history, presence, and contributions of all Hispanics and Latinos in the United States and highlights the diversity of the Latino community. In the U.S., citizens have opportunities to interact with people from all nationalities, cultures, and religions. We live in the most diverse country in the world. Many people are not very supportive of diversity when it comes to Latino Muslims though. Many Americans do not appreciate all the cultural and religious diversity found in the United States. However, negative stereotypes are constantly challenged in our diverse society. Americans have been blessed to share their different beliefs, experiences, and perspectives. Latino Muslims are a great American story.
Note: According to a short survey I conducted last year, most Latino Muslims do not like being referred to as Latinx. Please forgive me if I have offended anyone.