Mexican wave

  • After being forbidden to wear her hijab all day at work, Jamila (née Daniela) Ortiz , 24, a licensed massage therapist of Tijuana, Mexico, dons her head scarf and dines out at a taqueria in downtown Tijuana. Ortiz 'reverted' to Islam in February of this year. 'In the beginning, I felt that if I went to Islam, I would betray the beliefs I had growing up. But then I met a Muslim sister on the street who said they believed in Jesus too, though just as a prophet. This gave me the confidence to look into the religion more,' said Ortiz.  All Photos by Amy Leang??
  • A young girl on her way home from Catholic school plays near the entrance of the Masjid El-Noor in Rosarito, Mexico.
  • People stare at Maryam (née Maria) Alvarez, 49, clad in her abaya while waiting for a taxi in downtown Tijuana.  'I don't mind if people say things,' said Alvarez who was instrumental in growing the community of Muslims in Tijuana. 'It gives me the chance to do da'wah.'
  • Asharfiya Rahman, 33, originally of New Delhi, India, left, and Naima (née Nancy) Carr, 29, of Tijuana, Mexico, right, prepare dishes for members of the Masjid Al-Islam to break their fast in the Las Playas neighborhood of Tijuana. Hungry and poor individuals in the community are often invited in to share their meals.
  • Mexican Muslims break their fast at the Masjid Al-Islam. The mosque opened in August 2010 after local Muslim immigrants and recent Mexican converts pooled their money together because they outgrew the one-room house they worshipped from. The mosque usually invites poor and hungry members of the community to partake in the breaking of the fast.
  • American Muslim immigrant Amir Carr, 38, makes his way through a more humble quarter of Rosarito after visiting a friend at the Masjid El-Noor. 'When I came to Mexico in 2009 there were no masjids, and I thought I was the only Muslim.  But in 2010 I happened to move around the corner from an ongoing project to build one.  This was Masjid al Islam. This project was in its infancy at about 6 months but it changed my life... in other words it put me back on track.  I had found my purpose again,' said Carr, who is currently enrolled in an online Islamic studies program through the Fanari Institute of Islamic Cultural Studies in Qatar.
  • A mural with Arabic script decorates the children's nursery of Masjid Al-Islam as member Maryam Alvarez, 49, reads religious material at the mosque located in the Las Playas neighborhood of Tijuana. Alvarez was one of the first 'reverts' in the area and would invite other Muslims to pray at her home. 'We got in touch with a brother from a San Diego masjid. They would come to help with Arabic lessons (for the converts). After three to four months, we grew to be about ten women,' said Alvarez. Today, she hopes to open a new center in neighboring Rosarito which would serve as an Islamic school as well as a place for charity aimed toward single mothers and the disabled.
  • Masjid Al-Islam imam Muhanna Jamaleddin, 37, leads a sermon on love at their mosque located in the Las Playas neighborhood of Tijuana. 'Wherever you go in the USA and Canada, people are defending themselves. 'No we are not terrorists.' They don't even have time to do the da'wah. Don't spend time defending yourself. Just do. Act as a Muslim. I see Muslims these days. They are not Muslims. There's a lot of challenges in this country. We are growing. If we don't start it right, we will not succeed,' advised Jamaleddin, a Palestinian American entrepreneur in the gold and silver business who donates his time and money to the mosque. 'Crossing back and forth was difficult. I do all of this for the sake of Allah because I love my religion. I want everyone to know more about my religion. The problem is that we really need an imam who speaks Spanish.'
  • Naima (née Nancy) Carr, 29, seated in black hijab, and Jamila (née Daniela) Ortiz, 24, standing in red hijab, pray at the Masjid Al-Islam located in the Las Playas neighborhood of Tijuana.  'A lot of my family has stopped talking to me because of my religion,' said Carr who married an American convert but chose to follow Islam of her own volition after witnessing his dedication to ritual during Ramadan two years ago.
  • Masjid Al-Islam member Naima (née Nancy) Carr, 29, gets ready to pray at her home in the Las Playas neighborhood of Tijuana.
  • Masjid Al-Islam member Amir Carr, teaches a Mexican Muslim convert named Abdullah, Arabic at Carr's home in the Las Playas neighborhood of Tijuana. 'The difficult thing about Islam in Mexico is illiteracy. If a person can't read their own language, then for sure, they can't read another language,'  said Carr, an American Muslim who moved to Mexico in 2009 to join his wife, a citizen there. 'Our goal is to get brothers and sisters to study. It's important to study Arabic so that we capture the true inspiration of the Koran itself and not the interpretation.'
  • Masjid Al-Islam member Naima (née Nancy) Carr, 29, sorts through clothing, blankets and non-perishable items to be donated to the poor in a storage room of her home in the Las Playas neighborhood of Tijuana. Carr and other congregants of the mosque run a 'Food Drop' in which they try to help deportees and other impoverished individuals living along the border between U.S. and Mexico.
  • Maryam (née Maria) Alvarez 49, of Tijuana, Mexico, poses for her portrait inside the newly remodeled Masjid El-Noor in Rosarito. Alvarez was instrumental in growing the Muslim community in the area. 'I was one of the first reverts to Islam here back in 2009. I didn't know anyone else then,' said Alvarez. 'I found a sister online and then I found another brother and sister. I put ads up on Facebook and MySpace. They would all meet at my house. Now, there are two groups in Rosarito: Masjid al-Noor and another unnamed group. There's a musalla in Ensenada. And in Mexicali, there are new ones there too. All of this has started in less than three years. This has grown so fast. All of a sudden, there were so many groups and different ways to do things. Now it's time to settle down to form a committee; not to tell them how to do things, but to take care of the Muslim community in Baja.'  She and her husband Ahmad currently run a non-profit Islamic charity focused on projects in Latin America called 'Viva Islam.'
  • Mexican Muslim 'reverts' Maryam (nee Maria) Alvarez, 49, left, and Naima (nee Nancy) Carr, 29, right, both of Tijuana, Mexico, walk along in a more humble quarter of Rosarito, Mexico after visiting a friend at the Masjid El-Noor. 'Islam was perfect because it was the religion that I found more connection with God with Allah. I grew up with Christianity, but I found what I needed in Islam. Now my kids and grandkids can learn Islam at an early age. To see them grow up with that, it fills my heart,' said Alvarez.

In Tijuana on the Mexican-US border, Islam is beginning to establish a presence – not just imported by Muslim immigrants but also chosen by native Mexicans, despite occasional disapproval and suspicion from their families. Amy Leang reports

Jamila Ortiz, a 24-year-old divorced mother of two and massage therapist in Tijuana, Mexico, belongs to a growing number of “reverts”, the name given to Mexicans who believe they were born into Islam but had their original faith changed by their families. For them, this is not a conversion but a return.

While the majority of Mexico is Catholic and generally tolerant of other religions, “reverts” face challenging circumstances at home: their families are often the last to accept their conversion. A turn towards Islam, they fear, is a turn away from them and what it means to be Mexican. Ortiz’s own sister told her she had been “brainwashed” when she first wore a headscarf last year. They stopped speaking for a month.

“Then they decided to be my family again,” says Ortiz. “We just can’t talk about religion.”

TJ, as it is commonly known, is a border town in Baja California that sprang up in the late 19th century and quickly became a popular tourist destination. In more recent times, it was regarded as a violent battleground for drug cartels. At its brutal peak, according to the Trans-Border Institute of the University of San Diego, one out of every eight drug-related killings in Mexico occurred in Baja California. Today the streets are much quieter. Instead of the rattle of gunfire, another sound reverberates; the call to prayer. Since 2010, six new mosques and Islamic centres have opened up in Tijuana and its neighbouring cities throughout the state of Baja California, Mexico.

“When we started here, there were just 30 to 40 Muslims. In three years, it became 200,” says Muhanna Jamaleddin, the Palestinian-American imam of the Masjid Al-Islam in Tijuana’s sleepy, idyllic Las Playas neighbourhood.

His congregation is a mix of Muslim immigrants from around the Arab world and Mexican nationals. Mexico has always had a population of immigrants from Lebanon and elsewhere, and religious growth has largely been spearheaded by people like Ortiz. While there are male reverts, the majority are women who discovered Islam through their spouses, from other Mexican Muslims or via social networking sites.

That’s how Maryam Alvarez came to develop the Muslim community in Tijuana. An acquaintance had earlier introduced her to the faith and her curiosity led her to seek out other Muslims online.

“I found a sister and then I found another. I put ads up on Facebook and MySpace. They would all meet at my house,” says Alvarez, who was then living in nearby Rosarito. She was one of the first reverts in 2009. A group of 10 women – college students, a teacher, an accountant, an estate agent and a factory worker – followed. They would gather at her home to pray and study Arabic and the Quran, but soon outgrew the space, pooled their money together and created Masjid Al-Islam.

“This has grown so fast,” says Alvarez, who has plans to create another centre that will incorporate a school and a place to help single mothers and the disabled.

At his home not far from the Masjid Al-Islam, Amir Carr carefully leads Abdullah, who converted nine months ago, in a lesson on the character endings of Arabic at his home. Abdullah traces a series of “wah”s over and over on lined paper as Amir’s wife Naima sorts through piles of clothing donations in the next room. “The difficult thing about Islam in Mexico is illiteracy. Our goal is to get brothers and sisters to study. It’s important to study Arabic so that we capture the true inspiration of the Quran itself and not the interpretation,” says Carr, who moved to Mexico in 2009 to join his wife. He taught himself Arabic after converting to Islam in a Texas prison, where he was held for a short period for an attempted car robbery. Now his focus in life is to obtain a degree in Islamic studies through an online university. “Islam, the study of it, teaching it and practising it are the few things that have given me a sense of balance and satisfaction,” he says.

In the most unexpected of places and with limited resources, Islam has begun to prosper due to the enthusiasm of a handful of believers. The community hopes it will soon be able to find an imam who speaks Spanish.

“We are looking for a teacher,” says Amir Carr. “We sent a letter to the Egyptian embassyin Mexico City but heard no response so far. We’re looking for volunteers. We need help with materials and things. We’re not going to stay in this mosque forever.”

Amy Leang is a photojournalist and writer based in France.