For Juan, Ramadan is a balancing act. On the one hand is his religious faith and practice. On the other is his land, his culture, his home — Puerto Rico.
Although he weaves these two elements of his identity together in many ways, during Ramadan the borderline between them becomes palpable. For the 3,500 to 5,000 Puerto Rican Muslims like Juan, the holy month of fasting brings to the surface the tensions they feel in their daily life as minorities — Muslims among their Puerto Rican family and Puerto Ricans in the Muslim community.
So, who are the Puerto Rican Muslims and what are their struggles?
Since 2015, my broader research on Islam in Latin America and the Caribbean has taken me back and forth between Puerto Rico and cities in the U.S. where Puerto Rican Muslims live in large numbers (New York, New Jersey, Florida, Chicago, Atlanta, Houston and Philadelphia) in an effort to better understand the Puerto Rican Muslim story.
What I have found in my research is a deep history and a rich narrative that expands the understanding of what it means to be Muslim, and Puerto Rican, today.
The history of Muslims in Puerto Rico
Muslims first came to the island as part of the transatlantic colonial exchange between Spain and Portugal and the “New World.” There is evidence that the first Muslims arrived with the explorers in the 16th century. Many “Moriscos,” or Iberian Muslims, came to the Caribbean bypassing Spanish laws that prohibited them from coming to the Americas and serving as merchants, slaves and explorers.
Slaves from West Africa also came. Though these Muslim slave communities did not thrive, or even survive, Islam established itself in significant ways across the American hemisphere. It became the region’s “second monotheistic religion” — a result of the religious imagination and inventive ritualistic adaptation of Muslim slaves, former slaves and maroons – Africans who escaped slavery and founded independent settlements. These Muslims left their mark and contributed to the culture and history of the continents.
These slave communities, however, faded due to conversion to Catholicism or adoption of Afro-American religious practices. Today’s Muslim communities largely comprise recent immigrants from Jordan, Palestine, Lebanon, Egypt and Syria; some are descendants of late 19th- and 20th-century immigrants. Ethnically speaking, nearly two-thirds of Puerto Rico’s Muslim population is made up of Palestinian immigrants living in places like Caguas and San Juan who came fleeing political turmoil or to pursue business interests abroad.
In recent years some Puerto Ricans have been reverting to the religion of their ancestors: Islam. How they wrestle with their identity as both Muslim and Puerto Rican is a key focus of my research.
Straddled between a predominately Arab Muslim population on the one hand and their avowedly Puerto Rican families, neighbors and coworkers who imagine Islam as something foreign to, rather than part of, Puerto Rico, converts struggle to marry the two identities they now claim. They are in search of a Boricua “Islamidad” — a unique Puerto Rican Muslim identity that resists complete assimilation to Arab cultural norms even as it reimagines and expands what it means to be Puerto Rican and a Muslim.
One of them is Juan, whom I first met at an Eid al-Fitr — the festival of breaking the Ramadan fast — celebration at the San Juan Convention Center in 2015. The 40-something man of Dominican descent and Puerto Rican heritage said,
“I came to Islam by asking questions: about the ills of society, the difficulties of life.”
Juan found that Catholicism, the religion adopted by his ancestors when they converted, was too confusing, the doctrine of “tawhid” in Islam — the oneness of God — simpler than what he believed to be the complex theology of the Trinity. Furthermore, he felt that Islam called for a higher morality and sense of self-discipline. And so, he “reverted” — that is, returned to the faith of his birth and the heritage of his Iberian forebears in al-Andalus, in what is modern-day Spain.
But Juan, like many other converts, is also searching for a sense of authenticity in his new community. While Juan finds that his Muslim brothers and sisters appreciate him, he still feels marginalized because of his cultural background. He finds ways to express his “Boricua” (a term for resident Puerto Ricans, derived from the island’s indigenous name Borinquen) pride and his Muslim identity by sporting a “taqiyah” (a short, rounded skull cap) decorated with the Puerto Rican flag.
Another Puerto Rican convert from Aguadilla, Abu Livia, lives in this tension as well. He told me during an interview, “too often we hear people say you have to wear certain clothes, speak a certain language, look like an Arab, talk like an Arab, behave like an Arab.”
Not just Juan and Abu Livia, as I found in my research, but many other Puerto Rican Muslims are looking toward Andalusia, or Moorish Spain, to define who they are in a Puerto Rican society that claims a mixed background of indigenous, African and European influences.
As such, Puerto Rican Muslims are finding ways of expressing their Muslim faith through symbols of Puerto Rican culture, whether it be their flag, their family traditions or their food.
Walking toward his home at the end of a long day of work, Juan looks forward to a quiet “iftar” — a meal to break the daily fast — with his family. It’s hot; beads of sweat have gathered like the faithful for prayer on his forehead; his legs are almost to the point of dragging up the small hill to his home; and the difficulties of Ramadan in a Caribbean climate weigh upon him. Even so, he smiles and gives praise to Allah.
As the sun sets and Juan prepares a light Puerto Rican meal of tostones — twice-fried plantains — his sincerity toward both his culture and his faith cannot be challenged.
“If anyone questions my religion,” said Juan, “they cannot question my ‘taqwa,’ my intention and fear of God.”