Eloisa Oropeza fears the policies and impact of Donald Trump’s America on two levels.
The 20-year-old resident of Sunset Park, Brooklyn is a Mexican-Spanish American who converted to Islam in 2015. Oropeza wears a hijab and says she’s felt persecuted for being both Latina and Muslim.
A man lashed out at Oropeza in March, she said, shouting profanities at her and her friends at a McDonald’s in Manhattan.
“You Mexican, they’re going to deport you,” the man yelled, according to Oropeza. Then he noticed her traditional headgear, she said, and shouted, “You stupid Arab! You terrorist!”
“I was really shocked,” she said. “All of this is going to continue happening now that we have Donald Trump as President, especially when he talks about kicking out immigrants and banning Muslims from the country.”
From reports of mosque vandalism to ICE raids in cities nationwide, Latino Muslims fear their community is especially vulnerable because of President Trump’s sweeping proposals on immigration and rhetoric about Muslims.
Latino Muslims — hailing from different parts of Latin America and the Caribbean — are the fastest growing group in America’s Muslim population, many of them converting from Christianity or Catholicism.
Latinos made up 12% of all U.S. Muslim converts in 2011, compared to 6% in 2000, according to a 2011 Council on American-Islamic Relations mosque report. There hasn’t been a comprehensive study about Latino Muslims, but more than 100,000 of the United States’ 3.3 million Muslims are believed to be Latino, the Pew Research Center reports.
Some projections estimate the country’s Muslim population at 6 to 7 million, depending on how Muslims are surveyed.
Latino Muslims’ population growth comes amid an increase in reported anti-Muslim bias incidents — 2,213 in 2016, up from 1,409 in 2015. Hate crimes rose 44% in the wake of the presidential election, with 260 in 2016, up from 180 last year, a CAIR Islamophobia report released this week reveals.
The new report highlights Trump’s perceived role in a national increase of anti-Muslim tensions, stating that he entered the White House with “an unprecedented record of conditioning audiences to fear Muslims.”
“Dangerous political rhetoric combined with deeply negative views of Islam and Muslims throughout 2016,” CAIR wrote. “This brew, mixed with the erroneous placement of collective blame on every individual Muslim for the acts of a noxious few, contributed to a significant and distressing rise in incidents of Islamophobic bias.”
Besides Trump, other political candidates have also contributed to the anti-Muslim rhetoric, CAIR reports. Ben Carson, the current Housing and Urban Development Secretary, once said Muslims would be able to embrace American democracy “only if they’re schizophrenic.”
Among 2016 incidents, the most prevalent trigger was a victim’s ethnicity or national origin, with 771 reported incidents — nearly eclipsing the 830 such incidents reported for 2014 and 2015 combined.
One incident in California mentioned in CAIR’s report describes how hundreds of letters inciting violence left on the windshields of cars in midtown Sacramento read, “Kidnap, rob, torture for information, and execute all Muslims and Latinos. Leave no survivors.”
A Pew survey conducted last year shows that 52% of Latinos living in the United States say they have either experienced discrimination or have been treated unfairly because of their race.
Wilfredo Ruiz, a Puerto Rican-born attorney and communications director at CAIR Florida, says the chapter received more than 80 calls for help in January and at least 170 in February relating to hate crimes or discrimination incidents.
“The situation in Florida is, unfortunately, an example of the many expressions of hate,” he said, recalling the arson of mosques, Muslims being spit at in Tampa and the home of an Orlando family being shot at.
He says the anti-Latino, anti-Muslim sentiments could be attributed to the president’s vow to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border to drive out undocumented immigrants and his executive orders on the “Muslim ban,” which have been blocked by the federal courts.
“He (Trump) has presented both the Hispanic and Muslim minorities as threats to the nation and that it needs to be protected from them,” Ruiz said. “That rhetoric, especially about Hispanics, was absent after 9/11, but we’re witnessing it now.”
Ruiz, who converted to Islam from Catholicism in January 2003 after the birth of his twins, describes two types of Latino Muslims: The older generation that followed the Civil Rights movement led by Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, and a “new generation” that arose after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, in part because Islam has become more visible in the country in recent decades.
Sultana Ocasio is a member of the younger generation. The 37-year-old Brooklyn native has always been proud of her Puerto Rican roots, having grown up in Bushwick listening to salsa music icons such as Celia Cruz and Tito Puente in her Latino Muslim home.
Ocasio’s parents converted to Islam in 1973, and she grew to embrace the religion herself. Her father co-founded Alianza Islamica, the nation’s first Latino mosque in East Harlem before it moved to the Bronx. The mosque closed in 2003.
She’s now passing the religion onto her daughter.
New York City has experienced a rise of Islamophobia since the Sept. 11 terror attacks and it has only gotten worse since Trump became president, she said.
“Now there’s more violence,” Ocasio said. “It’s way worse after 9/11.”
Ocasio wears a hijab but says she feels persecuted at times because most people are misinformed about Islam.
“I don’t feel like I’m a point where I’m going to take my scarf off, but now I definitely feel a more sense of personal harm than I ever did before,” she said.
Ibrahim Hooper, national communications director at CAIR, points out that high-profile terror attacks carried out in recent years — including those in San Bernardino, Calif., Ft. Hood, Paris and Orlando – along with the rise of ISIS are not representative of true Islam, despite the negative connotations they bring for the religion.
“The (American) Muslim community has consistently and repeatedly condemned terrorism and religious extremism,” he said.
Experts believe resources in Spanish have helped bridge language barriers in the spreading of Islam among Latin-Americans.
Jaime Mujahid Fletcher founded the Houston-based IslamInSpanish in 2001 to educate Latinos about Islam through multimedia.
“I realized there was no material in Spanish when my father went to look for it,” Fletcher told the Daily News.
Since then, the Colombian convert and his team have created more than 250 television shows and 500 audiobooks distributed in Latin America and the U.S. The organization last year launched Centro Islámico, a Spanish-speaking mosque Fletcher described as “one of its kind.” So far, 57 people have embraced Islam since Centro Islámico’s doors opened, he said.
“Our vision is to see lives transformed into productive global citizens,” Fletcher said. “We’re working for the common good of humanity because that’s what we believe the essence of Islam and America is.”
With Houston’s Latino Muslim community flourishing — now 1,000 strong, by Fletcher’s estimate – IslamInSpanish’s new mission has been to inspire, lead and pioneer solutions to educate other communities in the U.S.
“Being a Latino Muslim in America gives me the ability to educate people from different points of view and being able to get people to know one another,” Fletcher said. “We’re in a strategic situation where we can be educators to spark a dialogue. We’re able to be spokespeople to the Muslim community in the Spanish language.”
He says Trump’s Muslim rhetoric has had a “reverse effect” on his community and has only made them stronger.
“Instead of it being negative, it actually has become very positive,” Fletcher said.
Asked whether he continues to keep his Colombian culture, Fletcher said: “In Islam, you hold onto who you are, your background and roots.”
For Oropeza, she strongly believes in continuing to wear her hijab and maintaining her cultural roots while practicing Islam, despite the discrimination she’s faced.
“I love Mexican food so much, I’m never going to leave it,” she said. “The religion doesn’t prohibit you from being who you are.”