Juan Answers Book Questions on Zoom

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.”

Juan Galvan welcomes all invitations.

Musulmanes latinos: Nuestro camino al islam

Musulmanes latinos: Nuestro camino al islam es una colección de historias sobre los caminos personales de sus protagonistas hasta alcanzar la verdad. Es acerca de sus esfuerzos, descubrimientos y revelaciones durante este proceso y sobre cómo, finalmente, encuentran la paz en el Islam. 

Disponible a la venta:

The cover photo shows Imam Daniel Hernandez and Imam Yusuf Rios, two Latino converts to Islam and active leaders in the community, enjoying a warm hug during the 16th Hispanic Muslim Day event held each year at the North Hudson Islamic Educational Center in New Jersey, EU (photo by Melissa Barreto).

La fotografía de la portada muestra al Imam Daniel Hernandez y al Imam Yusuf Rios, dos latinos conversos al Islam y líderes  activos en la comunidad, disfrutando de un cordial abrazo durante  el 16to evento del día de los musulmanes hispanos celebrado cada año en la mezquita North Hudson Islamic Educational Center en Nueva Jersey, EU
(foto por Melissa Barreto).

Website – Spanish: es.LatinoMuslims.net

Website – English: LatinoMuslims.net

Musulmanes latinos: Nuestro camino al islam is the Spanish translation of Latino Muslims: Our Journeys to Islam.

Muslim Latino Prisoners: An Interview with Professor SpearIt

By Juan Galvan

Islamic Horizons

January/February 2020

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.

Professor SpearIt

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 for prisoners.

I.H. What can you tell us about Latino Muslims within the established Muslim prison communities?

P.S. 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.

I’ve 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.

Religion 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.

Finally, 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 on.

I.H. Are there many White converts in prisons? If so, what’s their relationship with other Muslim prisoners?

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 space.

American Prisons: A Critical Primer on Culture and Conversion to Islam (2017)

I.H. What kinds of resources are there for interested Latino prisoners?

P.S. 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.

Schedules 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 the week.

In 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 volunteers.

I.H. What would you like I.H. readers to know from your book?

P.S. 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.

Juan Galvan (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.

My Interview with Juan Galvan

By Anastacia A. Parks

  • What ethnicity are you?

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?

I 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.

This photo was taken in Turkey, Texas when Juan’s father was a cotton ginner.
  • When did you convert to Islam?

I 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?

Islam 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?

Islam 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?

Becoming 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?

The 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.