CAIRO - Racially and ideologically different, Isa Parada, a Houston Hispanic convert, is trying to bridge differences between Latinos and diverse American Muslim community, setting a role model for a growing Latino Muslim community.
"The Islamic community and the Hispanic community don't know much about each other," Isa Parada, who works at several mosques through the Islamic Society of Greater Houston, told Houston Chronicles.
Growing up in New York and Houston, Parada was an altar boy in his family's Roman Catholic parish, reading Scripture with his family regularly.
Converting to Islam in 1996, he was met by huge tension in his family who accused him of rejecting their culture.
"My conversion was a shock for my family; they thought I rejected Jesus, Mary, my culture," Parada said.
For Parada, his conversion was more like a cultural odyssey replete with promise and pitfall.
"When I converted, many Hispanics thought I was rejecting my Latino culture, he said.
They thought I had to 'become Arab' to be a good Muslim.
Not only Latino community.
Parada found that the Islamic community did not know how to deal with Hispanics and lacked resources for Spanish-speaking converts.
Working with Mujahid Fletcher, another Hispanic convert from Houston, the pair now produce Spanish-language videos, audio files and literature to educate Latinos about Islam.
Their website is called IslamInSpanish.org.
Parada believes that Islam is a completion of everything he learned growing up as a Roman Catholic altar boy.
"Isa is my name; it means Jesus. I still respect and represent him. I still follow Jesus, but now I follow his full teachings."
Muslims believe in Jesus as one of the great Prophets of God and that he is the son of Mary but not the Son of God. He was conceived and born miraculously.
In the Noble Qur'an, Jesus is called "Isa". He is also known as Al-Masih (the Christ) and Ibn Maryam (Son of Mary).
As for his crucifixion, Muslims believe that Jesus was not crucified but was lifted up to heaven.
Aside from cultural differences, imam Parada found Muslim conformity with Latinos on key issues, such as immigration and gang violence.
"You are not going to see many Muslims look down on immigrants," Parada said.
"They know how it feels to be ostracized, looked down upon, stereotyped and treated as a second-class citizen."
Working as an imam in Houston, he focuses on educating youths whom he hopes to keep off the streets and away from negative influences.
"It's what I lacked as a teenager, a consistent positive influence with clear rules," he said.
For these reasons and others, Parada says the Latino Muslim community will continue to grow.
"When I first converted, there were only about 20 other Hispanic Muslims in Houston, but just the other month we had a potluck at one mosque with over 100 Latinos in attendance," Parada said.
"I am usually the first Hispanic Muslim people meet, and that uniqueness gives me the opportunity to educate, but I won't be unique for long."
Though there is no official figures, the United States is believed to be home to nearly seven million Muslims.
According to the Pew Research Center, 6 percent of American Muslims are Hispanic.
Further, one of 10 American-born converts is Hispanic, and that figure is growing.
The American Muslim Council puts the number of Latino Muslims in the US at about 200,000 in 2006.
The largest communities of Latino Muslims exist in areas with the highest concentrations of Latinos, such as New York City, Chicago, Los Angeles and Miami.
Yet, California is the state with the most Latino Muslims.
Reproduced with permission from OnIslam.net