"The Latino community is very family oriented, and so is Islam”
Mother and immigrant rights advocate, Margarita Abuawadeh, is proud to be able to combine her Puerto Rican heritage with the Muslim faith in her daily life.
Margarita (Miriam) Abuawadeh is a first-generation Puerto Rican Muslim American. Born in South Jersey as the youngest of 14, Margarita was baptized Roman Catholic and raised as a Jehovah’s Witness.
She converted to Islam at home while in college and years after married a Palestinian from the West Bank. Now the mother of four “Pale-Rican” children (Palestinians and Puerto Ricans), Margarita merges Puerto Rican and Palestinian identities and Islamic faith in her home and life’s work.
“The more I studied Islam the more I felt a connection because there was a lot of humility.” Recounting her first visit to a mosque, “One of the things that drew me most was watching how people pray because it’s very humbling. It’s very simple. It’s between you and god.”
She’s not alone. According to a study by the Journal of Race, Ethnicity, and Religion that surveyed Latino Muslims across the U.S., many American Latinos convert to Islam for a similar reason - the desire for a more direct and personal experience of God.
“Islam brings to you an answer for everything. And for me, other religions didn’t have that — like the simplest things; using the bathroom, drinking a glass of water, in everything you do.” She describes while sipping mint tea in her home in North Philly. “It’s not about going to church on Sunday or preaching, it’s your life.”
In some ways, Margarita’s conversion has brought her closer to her Hispanic roots. In fact, the majority of Latino American converts are women of Mexican and Puerto Rican descent with many citing a reversion to a pre-Catholic Hispanic Muslim identity as a factor in their decision to convert. “My mother’s maiden name is Abdulliah,” Margarita mentions noting the Arabic origins of the surname. “Spain was ruled by the Islamic Empire for over 600 years, my great-grandparents immigrated from Spain to Puerto Rico so I have always wondered.”
For Margarita converting to Islam was a spiritual and independent choice. “I didn’t know that you should do your Shahada your conversion to Islam in a mosque with witnesses. I had done it at home on my own.” After meeting her husband, she completed the formal conversion ceremony in a mosque, but it took her Puerto Rican family some time to accept and understand her choice. “My family thought I was wearing hijab because of my husband and this is misconception everyone has. It was a personal move in my life and what I wanted to do.”
Drawing a connection between Latino and Islamic cultures, Margarita depicts a similar emphasis on family and tradition. “The Latino community is very family oriented, where Islam is based on family. We are home people. And hospitality too — Latinos are very hospitable. Islam is very hospitable and about treating people with respect, having your heart and your home open.”
Margarita has been an active member of the Philadelphia community for over 30 years. Starting her career at the Director of Youth Programs at Al Aqsa Mosque in North Philly, she continues to advocate for Philadelphia’s immigrant youth today as a Bilingual Counselor Assistant for the school district working with Spanish and Arabic speaking students. “You can’t lose with children or the elderly,” she says “ I get good deeds for that.”
With the largest concentrations of Latino Muslims in the U.S. currently found in California, Texas, and New Jersey, Margarita laughs while adding “I hear you can find Halal Empanadas in parts of North Jersey.” She engages the small but growing community of Latino Muslims in Philadelphia by facilitating meetings for Latina Muslims in the city and has published a monthly column on Islamic topics written in Spanish.
“I am a very big advocate for my ethnicity and my identity. I have an identity,” she explains proudly. “I don’t want people to think that I am Arab. My kids know how to play dominos, they know how to cook Puerto Rican food. I am very proud that I have always implemented both Puerto Rican and Palestinian cultures in my children.”
For her daughter, Eman, a student at Temple studying International Politics, her identities intersect at their simultaneous struggles for statehood and independence. “It’s true Puerto Rico is not an independent state,” she says. “They have been fighting to get rid of American occupation and colonialism forever. The same thing is happening in Palestine.”
Margarita’s own advocacy work spans Philadelphia’s Latino and Muslim immigrant communities. Philadelphia, an American “Sanctuary City” is at the forefront of topical debates concerning immigration policies, given the Trump administration’s attacks on sanctuary spaces, Muslim refugees, and DACA recipients. As both Latinos and Muslim’s are most threatened by these policies, Margarita points out, “My faith and Latino heritage cross more often than I had expected them to.”
Currently, she is working with the New Sanctuary Movement, an organization that protects the rights of undocumented Philadelphia residents to form a New Sanctuary Muslim Movement, combining efforts and resources to combat attacks on the civil rights of Muslim immigrants. “It is our goal to make sure that all immigrants have sanctuary here. Whenever you have people immigrating to the U.S., you have people who have been here opposing them, but what they don’t realize is that at one point somebody opposed them.”
Margarita’s positive faith and hope for a better future for our children keep her going. She is on the committee for the annual Interfaith Walk for Peace where Muslims, Christians, Jews, and Buddhists gather together, wear all white, and walk across the city visiting places of worship in solidarity and for peace. “The world is definitely changing,” she explains “ but it’s an uphill battle and it always has been.”
Proudly holding an embroidered pillow her daughter made depicting a combination of the Puerto Rican flag and the pattern of a Palestinian traditional scarf known as a keffiyeh Margarita reflects, “I am happy with the work that I do. I feel that it is my responsibility first of all as a community member, second of all as a Muslim, and third of all as a mother. I tell my kids all the time you can’t just sit back and do nothing. It’s our fight, and it’s our turn.”