De Puerto Rico To Islam With Love: A Collection of Poetry About Identity and Faith
By Wendy Díaz
Reviewed by Hamzah Vargas
“A New Minority Makes Itself Known: Hispanic Muslims” reported the New York Times in December of 2001 not long after the September 11 attacks began the ‘War on Terror’, an era in which Muslims in America found themselves under intense public scrutiny. One lady interviewed is Marta Galedary, a revert from Mexico that was organizing Spanish language sessions with the Islamic Centre of Southern California who told The Times that “Something in these Latino meetings that we keep telling people…is that you don’t leave your culture because you convert to Islam. You have to continue to be proud of whatever part of Latin America you are from”. Decades later this ethos has continued to be a recurring theme found not only in various Spanish dawah projects but also in the anthology by Wendy Díaz, ‘De Puerto Rico To Islam With Love’. As a Muslim of Puerto Rican descent, myself, I was eager to get my hands on a copy when I heard about it and Venture into the contents.
This anthology is autobiographical in nature and covers the years from her conversion in the late 90s and from then the various struggles in being a Muslim woman: from justifying conversion to her Catholic parents to proving herself as a good Muslim to a suspicious American society during the post 9/11 era. Probably the most bitter to read was ‘I’m Not A Convict, I’m A Convert’ which was inspired by “a humiliating confrontation with another Muslim woman outside the mosque” and the author’s powerful performance of this poem can be viewed on YouTube. There is righteous indignation at injustices perpetrated by the United States and by white supremacists at home and abroad and also a desire to simply be free to practice Islam without fear. Present throughout the collection is an immense and undeniable pride in both her cultural identity and her love for the island of Puerto Rico.
For the uninformed, Puerto Rico is an island in the northeast corner of the Caribbean and was the Spanish Empire’s colony in the New World following Columbus’ Second Voyage in 1493 and was their possession until the Spanish-American War. The island was ceded to the United States in the 1898 Treaty of Paris and in 1917 the US granted Puerto Ricans American Citizenship. Thus, decades later, Wendy Díaz’s father was able to enlist in the US Army and began the cross-country journey that she considers essential to her religious journey to Islam. Puerto Ricans define themselves as being, culturally and physically, in Díaz’s words “Indigenous, African, and European perfectly combined”. Of additional importance are the roles the Catholic Church and Spanish language played in the colonization of Puerto Rico and the development of a Hispanic cultural identity. Therefore, with generations of Puerto Rican artists, intellectuals, and politicians keen to preserve their identity in the face of American domination to reject Christianity in favour of an ostensibly Arab religion is often perceived as a rejection of a key root of Hispanic heritage.
One of Díaz’s poems in particular, ‘Confession’, explores this awkward post-conversion situation:
“What does it mean to be Latino and Muslim?
Are you turning your back on your customs?
Did you forget where you come from?
You must be following someone.”
Here the questions are meant to be a typical family’s response to the shocking news of conversion but within the interrogation, Diaz can’t help but interject “passed down from the Spanish conquistadores?” and acknowledge the role violence played in imposing Catholic beliefs and practises on first the native and later African populations. The implication is that by making an educated choice, one facilitated with but not compelled by her interaction with an Egyptian family, of Islam over Christianity the injustices of the past can be undone. Conversion is also presented as an improvement, not a loss:
“I only went from dreaming in ojala,
To hoping in Insha’Allah”
Yet ‘Confession’ does not address everything. Not the loss of Christmas and Three Kings Day in January nor the various recipes that will require halal dietary adjustments; no more chicharrón (crispy pork skin) in the classic mofongo. But it is an important start. This is reinforced in another poem, ‘Musulmana Boricua’ which is translated into English and features the proclamation that:
“I am a Muslim; my faith is Islam,
But I will never deny that I am Puerto Rican.”
This poem is also unique in being originally written in the Puerto Rican Bomba style which has African roots and in theory, could be performed with drums and maracas in what would be a unique expression of Puerto Rican Islamic culture. Hopefully, this is only just the beginning and future anthologies will be published that interact with Puerto Rico’s poetic and lyrical traditions.
Another recurring theme that I noticed within this anthology is the legacy of Andalucia, the Muslim era of Spain and Portugal. In ‘Confession’ Díaz explains that by rejecting Catholicism, she is spiritual time travelling “from Andalucia to the Present”. Díaz is not alone in looking to the past for inspiration, the 2001 New York Times article mentions Juan Galvan, who himself encountered a Hispanic Muslim at university who told Galvan “How Spain had been Muslim for 700 years, how so many Spanish words had come from Arabic”. Meanwhile, the Spanish language dawah organization, Islam-In-Spanish, has also taken aesthetic inspiration from this era of history with plans for their new Centre Islamic in Houston, Texas to feature architectural motifs from the Great Mosque of Cordoba. This legacy matters not only as an example of Muslim contribution to Hispanic culture but also to better understand the Catholic Monarchs’ behaviour following the “Reconquista”.
The historian Richard Fletcher claims that the process by which medieval Spanish and Portuguese kingdoms conquered Muslim subjects provided a model for their overseas adventures, “colonial Mexico and Peru and Brazil were medieval Andalusia writ large. Much that is central to the subsequent experience of Latin America follows from this.” In the poem ‘Ancestor’ Díaz acknowledges the Spanish portion of her ancestry but subverts it from proud Spanish conquistador to a graceful and pious lady who proceeds to the mosque in Umayyad-era Cordoba during their heyday of cultural efflorescence. The style here is in free verse, closer to prose than poetry to convey the narrative, and reveals a nostalgia for an era where there is no contradiction but rather only confidence in being a ‘Spanish Muslim’. This Muslimah of yore performs wudu in “breathtaking fountains that I can only admire in photos, Not even stopping to look around at the place where you pray” because of the relative ordinariness of the Great Mosque. But there is no envy in this text, only a yearning admiration where Díaz asks, “were your eyes like mine?” and “were you like me?” and gratitude, “will you know the influence you had on me and my brothers?”. It is interesting to reflect that although ultimately the Muslims of Spain were defeated, forced to convert to Christianity and eventually expelled from Iberia altogether, their legacy lives on and inspiration from that era is being taken by these new Muslims in the New World.
Diaz explains in the introduction her intentions of conveying her story, physically from Puerto Rico and spiritual to Islam, “whether out of sheer curiosity or astonishment or just to investigate the rise of Latin Americans in Islam, people are eager to hear our narratives” and this she does well. Today Puerto Rico is home to a small Muslim community established by Palestinians with a few mosques that I was able to visit in my trip to the island in 2017. However, Díaz credits travelling with opening her mind: “Traveling helped me meet all kinds of people and allowed me to be exposed to other points of view. Had I stayed in Puerto Rico, perhaps I would not have learned about Islam in this manner.” Wendy Díaz has also written various children’s books such as “Eid Empanadas” about a Latino style Ramadan and Eid-ul-Fitr and she is the co-founder of ‘Hablamos Islam’ which produces Spanish language dawah content for other Spanish-speaking seekers of truth. Her poetry springs from the heart and often conveys the feeling of having been jotted down in a moment of emotional catharsis akin to what Adler & Van Doren described as “a kind of spontaneous overflowing of the personality”. Overall, this anthology is meaningful and the author does a good job of capturing various facets from the spiritual journey of a Puerto Rican woman into Islam, warts and all. Her style may not be demanding but I think that adds to the accessibility and authenticity to the message she is trying to convey to those curious about the path she has taken.