When the month of Ramadan is approaching, the Ortiz-Matos family begins to prepare the only way they know how, Puerto Rican style. Julio Ortiz and his wife, Shinoa Matos, reside in Brooklyn, New York. They are both Puerto Rican converts to Islam and their native tongue is Spanish. They have been Muslim for two decades each and married for close to 14 years. The couple has three children, ages 9, 7, and 5. Although Shinoa is also half Greek, she identifies herself as part of the ever-growing Latino Muslim population, a community that is bringing its very own sazon, or Latin flavor, to spice up Islamic holiday traditions.
Preparations for Ramadan for this Muslim familia, or family, consists of planning together with their children to get them excited about the fasting season. They discuss how they will plan out the month in order to reap its many rewards, and the husband and wife decide on a schedule so they can alternate between attending the taraweeh prayers and babysitting. With the help of their children, Julio and Shinoa make a list of foods and ingredients they will need for their suhur, or pre-dawn meals, and iftar, their dinner after breaking the fast. These feasts will feature a variety of Puerto Rican dishes such as pollo guisado (stewed chicken), sorullos (corn dumplings stuffed with cheese), pasteles (meat-filled dumplings made out of root vegetables, green bananas, and plantains), tortilla española (Spanish omelets), empandas (meat-filled turnovers), and finger foods such as guava, cheese, and Spanish olives, coupled with the iconic Ramadan dates.
Right before Ramadan, the Ortiz-Matos home is decorated with typical fiesta décor, shining lights, pom poms, and banners in Spanish. One of their most unique Ramadan and Eid traditions is dressing up in Puerto Rican cultural attire. Shinoa explains, “My husband can usually be found wearing a guyabera (Caribbean dress) shirt in different colors along with a matching kufi. My sons will also wear tropical shirts with their own kufis. This year I am planning on dressing all my children in typical jibaro (Puerto Rican country) clothing, complete with my daughter in a bomba skirt and my sons with machetes and sombreros de paja (straw hats)!” To prepare for Eid, they redecorate the house with Feliz Eid (Happy Eid) signs and fill decorative bowls with traditional Puerto Rican sweets made with coconut, passion fruit, and pineapple.
As converts, Julio and Shinoa know the isolation that new Muslims can feel during the holidays, so they also make a habit out of spending the month with fellow Latinos and converts. Not only does Shinoa want to make sure that no one is spending Ramadan and Eid alone, she also wants her children to feel a sense of belonging. She said, “This helps to reinforce the (concept of a) Latino Muslim community in the eyes of our children because even though all Muslims are brethren, it is important for them to be able to see representation in others they associate with.”
Even though they live in Brooklyn, Julio and Shinoa often attend the North Hudson Islamic Educational Center, or NHIEC, in New Jersey. This mosque across the Hudson River caters to the predominately Hispanic population of Union City and its surrounding areas. Due to its location, NHIEC is the home of one of the largest Latino Muslim communities in the nation and has been catering to their growing needs by providing simultaneous Spanish interpreting of Friday sermons, an annual Hispanic Muslim Day for the past two decades, and continuous educational programs specially geared towards Spanish-speakers and new Muslims of Hispanic heritage. During Ramadan, NHIEC offers iftar events catered by local Latino restaurants, like the Peruvian eatery, Fruit Punch, or the Arab/Hispanic fusion buffet called Fiesta. They also host potlucks, in which Latino Muslim converts and veterans alike breakfast by sharing their country’s typical dishes. The mosque is decorated with streamers, balloons, and flags from all 21 majority Spanish-speaking countries.
Halal on the Hudson
Union City may be known as “Havana on the Hudson” because of its large Cuban population, however, South Americans like Ecuadorians and Peruvians are also plentiful. Nylka Vargas is a mixture of both; residing near NHIEC, this Latina conversa (convert) is a social worker by day and an active member of NHIEC’s dawah committee by night. She and her Syrian husband plan out their Ramadan by renewing their intentions, assessing their spiritual needs, crossing out to do items, cleaning, and clearing their schedules for the month. While subtle decorating is also part of the prep, Nylka prefers to set aside a quiet space at home for prayer and reflection.
It is in the mosque where she works passionately alongside other Latino Muslims to make the month of Ramadan memorable for fellow Latinos. Due to most Latin American Muslims converting to Islam, their relatives are usually non-Muslims who do not celebrate Ramadan or Eid. Nevertheless, NHIEC provides an inclusive atmosphere, where converts are invited to bring their families to break fast and enjoy the festivities. They host yearly dawah and converts Ramadan programs, an annual grand Iftar for converts with Latin dishes, converts get-together iftars, and a program called “Share Your Iftar with a Convert” to actively encourage the community to break their fast with new Muslims. They also teach Ramadan prep classes, arts & crafts for children, and organize a converts Eid extravaganza.
Nylka says, “We take much pride in bedazzling and giving our Eid Party a custom touch with all kinds of Eid decorating pieces and an entertainment combo. It is always about what the community wants.” One of Nylka’s fellow dawah committee members is Flor Maza. Flor is a Salvadorian convert and mother of three married to an Egyptian Muslim. Ramadan is an exciting and busy time for Flor, who is a full-time pastelera (baker); she caters to the NHIEC community, literally, decorating and preparing all kinds of postres (desserts), both Spanish and Arabic. She has learned how to prepare typical Egyptian dishes and sweets and alternates between these and Latin-inspired foods for iftar.
“I have not lost my culture, but I am learning from other cultures,” she joyfully explained, “All cultures are beautiful.” Flor believes that Ramadan is a time to learn tolerance, patience, compassion, and gratefulness, and to collaborate in doing good. She demonstrates this by sharing her delicious meals and confections with the community during the many NHIEC events. When asked if anything distinguishes her as a Latina Muslim, she said, “Anyone can recognize a Latino Muslim because we, Latinas, are helpful, we preserve our culture and are proud of our language.”
NHIEC is one of a few Islamic centers in the U.S. where guests can experience the festivities of Ramadan and Eid in Spanish. When the time for Eid prayer comes, the Muslim community in Union City and surrounding areas, pray outside either in a park or in a local school’s soccer field. Non-Muslim neighbors hear the Takbirat al Eid, witness the Eid prayer, and listen to the sermon that follows on the loudspeakers, while admiring huge green banners with golden letters that read, “Happy Eid, Eid Mubarak (in Arabic script), and Feliz Eid.”
A Mexican, Haitan, and Puerto Rican Ramadan
Eva Martineau-Ocasio was born in Mexico to a Mexican mother and Haitian father and she was brought up speaking Spanish at home. She is married to Ismail Ocasio, a Puerto Rican who was raised Muslim in New York by convert parents. They have three girls, ages 6, 3, and 6 months and reside in Brooklyn. While they have always practiced their faith, the couple has become more diligent about making Ramadan extra special and memorable for their children.
The focal point of their Ramadan décor is a table spread with Islamic and Ramadan-themed books (some in Spanish, others in English), arts and crafts, tools, calendars, and projects they will use to celebrate Ramadan. As with the Ortiz-Matos family, great care is given to set the mood for the commencement of the Month of Mercy. As Eva explained, “We prepare ahead of time by reading books and telling stories to remind ourselves about Ramadan. We use lights, banners, and homemade decorations to make Ramadan special in our home. In recent years, my sister and I even opened a small online shop to sell some of our decor.” With her girls, the young mother, nurse and midwife student weaves prayer mats for their dolls and paints small glass linternas (lanterns) to display on their holiday table.
While other Muslim families have similar routines to welcome Ramadan, what sets the Martineau-Ocasios and other Latino Muslims apart is the way they have tailored their cultural traditions to adapt to Islamic practices. “Food and language play the largest roles in shaping the way we experience Ramadan outside of the important religious-based practices,” Eva said, “I strive to make Ramadan as special and exciting for my children as Christmas was for me growing up.” The family enjoys fast-breaking meals representative of their unique mix of Mexican, Puerto Rican, and Haitian culture. Some of their staples include tacos, fajitas, frijoles refritos (refried beans), Haitian style beef BBQ ribs, Haitian black rice, Puerto Rican arroz con maíz (yellow rice with corn), and even American Mac and Cheese.
They also celebrate with the general community and enjoy breaking fast with Arab and South Asian cuisine, as well. As a family, they attend Ramadan gatherings at the Muslim Community Center (MCC) and the MAS Brooklyn mosque in New York, where they are recognized as being Latino Muslims because of their language, Spanish, which they use with their children.
Ramon F. Ocasio, Ismail’s father and Eva’s father-in-law, shares a deeper perspective about celebrating Ramadan as a Puerto Rican Muslim of well over four decades. Ocasio was born in the Bronx and raised in El Barrio, Spanish Harlem in Manhattan. He embraced Islam in 1973. For this father and grandfather, nothing identifies as uniquely Latino in his practice of Ramadan aside from the food. He says, “My family prepares iftars featuring Latin cuisine for some masjids, both suburban and in the inner city. Just food, no unique decor. Food is the common denominator. Aside from that, there is nothing I can point to that is uniquely Latino in our celebrations.” His personal favorites are pasteles, roasted leg of lamb (a halal substitute for pernil, a traditional pork dish), arroz con gandules (rice with pigeon peas), and flan (a custard dessert with caramel sauce).
When his children were young, he admits that things were a little different, with Eid gatherings in the park that drew thousands of Muslims, trips to Toys’R’Us for presents, movies, games, and outings. “Seasons change, families grow, our method of celebrating will change with it,” Ocasio reminisces, “During a span of forty plus years, it can change quite a bit. As parents, we’ve tried our best to make Ramadan and Eids special for our children. For the most part, we have been successful.”
Ramadan for the Latino Muslims of Chicago
Another Latino Ramadan legacy is being constructed west of the Tri-State area, in the Windy City. Rebecca Abuqaoud is the founder and director of Muslimahs of Chicago and a community organizer at Muslim Community Center at Elston Avenue (MCC), and at the Islamic Community Center of Illinois (ICCI). She hails from Lima, Peru, and she and her husband, Hasan Abuqaoud, have three children. Rebecca has been involved in organizing Ramadan events for the Latino community and for Muslim women and children for many years.
One of these is the annual, “Welcoming the Arrival of Ramadan,” where female speakers are invited to present, and babysitting is provided to ensure mothers are able to attend. The dinner consists of a potluck, and attendees share their cultural dishes. Guests can choose from a variety of ethnic foods, including arroz con gandules, arroz chaufa (Peruvian rice), salads, pollo rostisado (rotisserie chicken), chicken biryani, and other Pakistani and Arab delicacies. This event began as an initiative for Spanish-speakers only, at the request of Latino Muslim women, however, it has grown to become a bilingual affair and draws anywhere from 60-80 attendees.
Rebecca is known in her community for dedicating her time to sharing her years of experience, Islamic knowledge, and wisdom with others. She said, “I really love being with my Latino sisters, I understand the help and support they need in their journey to Islam. I’ve been blessed to have knowledgeable Islamic teachers in my life and now it’s time to pass that knowledge to my new sisters in Islam; I thank Allah for such an opportunity.” Among other social events during Ramadan, Rebecca holds a Halaqa Book Club for ladies in Spanish at the ICCI, and for Eid, she assists with the Eid Potluck Fiesta at MCC.
In the North of Chicago, Ramadan and Eid is a family affair, and this includes the children of Latino converts. During Ramadan, mothers are encouraged to decorate their homes and the masjid to make the season exciting for their children. In the mosque, Rebecca and other volunteers prepare fun activities for them related to Eid, such as a puppet show, decorating paper plates, creating Eid greeting cards for their families, and pretend “baking” cookies and cupcakes with play-dough. The children also enjoy listening to other kids recite the Qur’an and chatting over pizza, snacks, cake, and juice.
The Eid Potluck Fiesta at MCC, sponsored also by Ojalá Foundation, is an effort that began to create a safe space for converts to celebrate Eid together. Everyone is invited to attend and can bring dishes to share. The walls are decorated for the occasion and candy-filled piñatas are set up for the children. Not only do the Latino Muslims enjoy these festivities, but also diverse members of the community who join them in the unifying celebration that is the culmination of the Month of Mercy and Forgiveness.
All the Latino Muslims who participated in this interview mentioned that the most significant aspect of Ramadan is the same across the board: to gain the maximum benefit from the intense self-reflection, fasting, constant prayer, spiritual cleansing, and dedication to the Qur’an. Cultural practices and celebrations are secondary to the religious aspect of Ramadan. However, the collective sentiment of those who converted to Islam is that they feel a sense of loss when they are celebrating Eid without their extended non-Muslim family.
There is always, “something missing.”
Latino culture is hugely family-centered, and thus, holidays are often a time to reunite with relatives. Eva Martineau summed it up as this: “For converts, missing out on the family aspect of any celebration can leave us with a sense of sadness and longing.” Her suggestion, and that of other Latino Muslims is that, like NHIEC, ICCI, and MCC (in NY and Chicago), Islamic centers across the U.S. should host Ramadan and Eid events catering to not only Latino Muslims but converts in general. As individuals, fellow Muslims can also host those who may otherwise not have anyone to break the fast with, in their iftars and Eid celebrations. This will provide those newer Muslims with that sense of brotherhood and sisterhood they long for, and maybe in return, they can taste some of those yummy ethnic dishes.
Note: A modified version of this article appeared in Islamic Horizons Magazine May/June 2019 edition.