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.