TAMPA - As a child, Amy Perez attended different Christian churches, praying at Catholic Masses and singing at Baptist revivals. But she never felt satisfied with the answers those faiths provided to her questions.
At 12, Perez left Webb Middle School for the Universal Academy of Florida, a Muslim school in Tampa, because she did not like the cliques and social scene at Webb. And she wanted to learn more about Islam.
Perez read about the Muslim faith and asked her classmates questions.
After much research and contemplation, Perez took the Shahada, the declaration of faith to become Muslim. She was 14.
``I finally found peace,'' said Perez, 22, who is of Dominican and Puerto Rican descent. ``A peace that I had never known. Everything made sense to me. Every question I had, there was an answer for. It was truly remarkable.''
Perez's sentiments seem to resonate with U.S. Latinas, who are embracing Islam in increasing numbers. They join a faith dominated
in the United States by blacks, who make up about half the estimated 6 million followers, according to a 1990 study by the American
Muslim Council, the most recent available. Followers of South Asian and Arab descent constitute about 35 percent.
Numbers of Muslims are difficult to determine since faith is not included in the U.S. census, but there is abundant anecdotal evidence that more Hispanic women are adopting Islam.
``We're definitely seeing more Latina converts,'' said Ahmed Bedier, director of the Central Florida Office of the Council on American
Islamic Relations. ``It's really a phenomenon because the stereotype is that Islam oppresses women, so why would they want to choose a religion that would restrict their lifestyle?''
Helping fuel the growth is an increase of information available to Hispanic converts, Bedier said.
Korans written in Spanish and other works are available, and distribution has been on the rise, he said.
There is support online for Hispanic Muslims from groups such as the Latino American Dawah Organization and Hispanicmuslims.com.
Mohamed Moharram, head of the local Muslim American Society, is not surprised by the growth in Latina converts.
``At the last open house we had four Latinas in one day convert to Islam,'' he said. ``The fact is, Islam elevates the status of women. Muslim women see it [the faith] as a liberation from undue hardships that society puts upon them.''
When Perez converted eight years ago, she was one of a few Latinas at her mosque. Now she sees more.
``When I converted it was me, my mother, and four of my friends and their moms,'' Perez said. ``Now there are a lot more.''
Some convert because they marry Muslims; others are searching for a more fulfilling spiritual path. Most say Islam's teachings mirror
many of their Latino values.
``Growing up it was all about familia,'' Perez said. ``You're taught to respect your elders and your mother; you don't even raise your
voice to your mother. That's the old school way of thinking, but that's Islam. When I wasn't a Muslim, that's the way we did things.''
Islam has a history in Spain stretching back to the rule of the Muslim Moors from the 700s to the 1400s.
Spanish words such as abuelo (grandfather), arroz (rice) and naranjas (oranges), have Arabic origin.
A Questioning Catholic
Alexandra Briones was a Catholic from birth. She attended church regularly with her parents and received her first communion. But as
a teenager, she began to question Catholic doctrine.
``Why should I confess to another human being when they are the same as I?'' she asked. ``I was just supposed to believe and that's it.''
She began looking for answers in Islam, researching on the Internet and reading the Koran.
Briones, 30, of Ecuador, says Islam's teachings, particularly its respect for women, spoke to her.
``I had to work out and look good so men would want to be with me,'' she said. ``God didn't create me for that. If a man wants to be with me because of my body and how I look, that's not the man I want to be with. It all made sense to me.''
When Briones visited a mosque for the first time, she found it life-altering.
``I cried,'' she recalled. ``I felt like I belonged there. Everything was logical and seemed to be what I needed and couldn't
put into words. I felt very comfortable for the first time.'' She converted a month later.
Eventually, she married her boyfriend, Radouane, who was not a practicing Muslim at the time.
Briones stresses a woman should never accept Islam to please a Muslim boyfriend or husband.
``I would never have converted for a man,'' she said. ``I would never make such a dramatic change to please somebody else. I did it
for myself - because it was right for me.''
Leslie Centeno, 23, of Puerto Rican descent, said she felt a similar disconnection from her Pentecostal Christian faith.
A friend invited her to visit a mosque, and she began reading the Koran. When she told her family and church pastor of her new
interest, they encouraged her to remain true to her faith.
Six years ago, she converted. The lack of intermediaries between God and the Muslim faithful appealed to her.
``I can have a direct relationship with God,'' she said. ``It sounded so interesting and intriguing to me. It was different than
anything I had ever heard. I thought about it for days before I made the decision. I'm not an impulsive person.''
Family ReactionsFor the most part, the three women say family and friends have supported their decisions to convert.
But explaining the hijab, the head covering, to her grandmother was difficult, Perez said.
``She told me to take that trapo [rag] off my head. I told her this is an order by God for me to wear and I wouldn't take it off,''
Perez said. ``In the end, they're family, so they learn to deal with it.''
Many Latinas have a more difficult transition.
``The biggest challenge they can face is telling their families they've converted,'' said Jane I. Smith, professor of Islamic
Studies at Hartford Seminary in Connecticut and author of ``Islam in America.''
``It cuts two ways, religiously and culturally.''
For conservative Protestant and Roman Catholic families in particular, the news may come as a blow.
``It's a sense of leaving the family itself. And all of a sudden, the person acts differently,'' Smith said. ``Often it is very
painful and difficult.''
Also, the Sept. 11 attacks put the religion under more scrutiny.
``The events of 9/11 raised the curiosity of Americans [including Latinas] about Islam,'' Bedier said. ``However, the anti-Muslim
backlash created as a result of the same events caused relatives of new Muslim converts to be worried for their safety.''
With her long, loose dress, and hair tucked neatly inside her hijab, Perez said she often is mistaken for a Middle Eastern woman, until
she speaks her native language.
``When they [non-Muslim Hispanics] hear me speak Spanish, they're like, `Oh my God, you speak Spanish?' '' she said. ``It's really a
chance to educate people and show them you can be Hispanic and be Muslim; you don't give up your ethnicity to become a Muslim.''
She hopes her daughter, Anisah Miranda, who she often cradles in her arms as she is praying, will someday embrace the religion she shares with her husband, Michael Miranda, and calls her salvation.
``I don't miss the partying, the clubs, the drinking, any of that,'' she said. ``I don't need to be out there. Islam isn't just about
religion; it's a way of life.''
Reporter Cloe Cabrera can be reached at (813) 259-7656