“Unruly” Latin Americans and the Stories of Latinx Muslims


Every time someone posts an article about Latinx Muslims, my blood boils, and I want to smash something.

This isn’t my first time writing about the topic. In the past I have problematized the idea of the “American-Latinx Convert.” I have further assessed how mainstream media outlets talk about “Latina” converts and place them as the “new face” of Islam. Finally, a few years back I started thinking and writing about Muslim-Latinx solidarity as a topic that must be carefully approached from decolonial perspectives.

In these pieces, I have fought media and community depictions of Latinx and Latin American converts because they are incredibly stereotypical and disempowering. Yet, I continue to see these issues perpetuated in most media articles, regardless of who produces them.

First, let’s problematize, once more, the terms Latinx, Latin@ and Latin American. These terms are often used interchangeably to refer to people who can trace descent to any country south of the US. First issue, these terms then encompass twenty different countries and several still-colonized/occupied territories. Not to mention that the terms, supposedly, capture hundreds, if not thousands, of different groups that are, by default, considered non-white. Additionally, they are made to cover second, third and fourth generation communities of Latin American descent living in the US, which may or may not share similar cultural referents to other communities in Central or South America, or may have developed their own cultural identity based on the realities of immigration and the diaspora experience.

Even though the term “Latin America” has been reclaimed to call for solidarity among, primarily, Hispanic countries in the region, the term has colonial and imperial origins that must not be forgotten. To erase this history is to overlook the role that European powers played in the deliberate killing of Indigenous peoples, the enslavement of black peoples and the stealing of lands that did not belong to them. To date, in many contexts the term “Latin American” is used to create solidarity based on the erasure of Indigeneity and blackness, which often favours mestizos, the mixed mainstream group in many countries.

Another important consideration is that, regionally speaking, these three terms are not usually interchangeable or even meant for other populations to refer to us. Historically, white Americans have used Latinx and Latin@ to refer to a group of non-white communities over which they have had a lot of power. From 19th century wars taking over half of the Mexican territory, to the occupation of places like Puerto Rico, immigration policies and forced labour, Latinx and Latin@ have always referred to “lesser than.” In terms of gender, Latina women are described, until this day, as hyper-sexual, loud, welfare-dependent, illegal and as the “always-sexually-available-other.” Although the terms are largely used by Latinxs and Latin@s in the US, the meaning they acquire has a lot to do with who uses them. If you aren’t Latinx/Latin@, ask before using them. Power-relations 101.

The use of “Latin American” among people who was born, grew up or live in a Latin American country is meant to create solidarity (which can be problematic, as mentioned above). The term is also heavily used among left-wing groups and figures, including liberation theology proponents, to speak about similar economic and social realities across countries in the region.  So whereas “Latin American” can be problematic in some aspects, it has become a political term that helps, some of us, speak politically and economically about solidarity and anti-imperialism.

What is at hand, nonetheless, are the stereotypes and ideas that are often attached to these three terms through the dynamics of white supremacy and the colonial experience, and that are reinforced by Muslim communities, and sometimes Latinx and Latin American converts to Islam themselves.

To be Latinx, Latin@ or Latin American is to be an “other.” But a very particular type of other. The nuances of identity are erased (i.e. Afro-Latinxs, Indigenous Latinxs), we are homogenized and made into low-level criminals, illegal immigrants, low-class workers, lazy-siesta takers and hard-core Catholics.

That’s where the stories of Latinx Muslims often start in the media.

Stories of criminalization, marginalization and “illegality” permeate convert narratives. Images of fervent conservative Catholicism are given as reasons for conversion. The sexualization of Latina women by their own communities are said to drive their desire to wear hijab. And the notion of dawah is immediately romanticized.

Latinx.PNG

Latinx Muslims via Silwia Kapuscinski.

We see images of “Arabized” Mexicans in border-towns who say, “We change religion not our culture;” yet, they are portrayed wearing traditional Saudi attire (for the males) and heavy black abaayas for the women.

We get articles about Latinx Muslims in connection to Cinco de Mayo, (which is celebrated neither in most Mexican states nor in any other Latin American country) sombreros (ugh!) and Mexican-sandals (???). Let’s be clear. Latinx does not equal Mexican. And sombreros and sandals do not equal Mexican, either.

Articles aiming to break the stereotypes of Latina converts in the US, still reinforce the idea of their super Catholic backgrounds and their challenges dealing with Latinx patriarchies that are said to over-sexualize them. Nonetheless, they rarely talk about other margins of oppression within and outside Muslim and Latinx communities. What about the ways in which white-settler patriarchies have marginalized Latinx women? What about the ways in which white supremacy in mosques play for or against Latinxs?

And, inevitably, in numerous pieces the Muslim-Latinx connection is justified through the historical triage of Spain, the Muslim Golden Era and “contact” with the Americas. “Ojalá” and “InshaAllah” are used as examples of inter-cultural exchange without recognizing that this exchange was part of the colonial experience, which killed and enslaved Indigenous peoples. We refuse to talk about the effects that the Muslim expansion had in the colonial experiences of Latin America, as well as the Muslim/Arab complicity in the slave trade.

Our connection to Islam as Latinx, Latin@ and Latin Americans is a colonial one. That does not mean that we cannot work in solidarity with Muslims or be Muslim ourselves. But it does mean that such historical realities must be acknowledged and respected if we are going to be meaningfully included in solidarity work. The same goes for anti-blackness and anti-Indigeneity in both communities.

The popularity of the Latinx Muslim has very political roots. On the one hand, it helps mainstream white populations connect two highly unwanted groups in the US: Latinxs and Muslims. It also re-awakens the idea of the “radical Latin American,” which is often used to describe Indigenous communities in Latin American countries. Needless to say, Indigenous Muslim communities, can easily be framed as threats. On the other hand, the concept of the Latinx Muslim convert supports the idea, among some Muslim communities, that institutionalized dawah efforts work among even the most “unruly” of communities. Islam is presented as a cure to all of our Latinx evils.

But that’s the catch.

Latinx, Latin@ and Latin Americans have never stopped being “unruly” in the eyes of mainstream communities in the US, a view that is often adopted by other immigrants, and sometimes by Latinx communities themselves (particularly in right-wing settings). We continue to be labelled as violent, disorganized, loud, hyper-sexual, messy, lazy, illegal, criminal, at-risk, etc.

Islam is portrayed as a source of order within the cultural mayhem that surrounds us, by some Muslims.  The religion is also used as a point of contention between our own communities and mainstream Christian-white populations. But the essential remains… to be Latinx or Latin American is to be the “unruly other” causing chaos. To become Muslim fixes or worsens that, depending on who you ask, of course.

Questions, however, remain. Is that what being Latinx and Muslim is about? Is there truly an archetype of Latinx Muslimness? Are we willing to play the political game?

4 thoughts on ““Unruly” Latin Americans and the Stories of Latinx Muslims

  1. Layla says:

    Yes yes and yes! I’ve been saying these things for years, and as a “Latina Muslim” feel similarly every time I read one of those articles on Latinx Muslims. I can’t roll my eyes enough at the stereotypes and also the confusion/self hate of the very people being interviewed. Why do they only seem to interview women in abayas wearing Mexican flag colors? I’m not trying to take away anyone’s voice or judge, but can we please move beyond the same tired narratives? Ugh.

  2. Mirza Khan says:

    well, despite i agree with most of the article, i differ when u say the relation between islam and latinos is colonial.
    The muslim rule ended completely with the fall of Grenada in january 1492, while the first european to set foot in the name of the spanish crown was in october 1492, while colombus was exploiting the carribean , muslims were forced to convert to christianity or leave spain, so I don’t see what is the connection there. yes i know there are a lot of problems in muslim history but lets be subjective when we discuss them.

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