When we think of Islamic cultural legacies, we often reflect on Islam’s Golden Age during the 8th to 13th centuries, Islamic Spain, the Mali Empire, and later the accomplishments of the great Ottoman sultans. Marvels like the Spanish Alhambra in Granada, the historic center of Cordoba, the Medina of Fez in Morocco, and the mud mosque (the Great Mosque of Djenné) in Mali still stand as testaments to the epochs of Islamic influence and power. However, we fail to realize that the descendants of those mighty empires still exist among us today in our fellow Latin American Muslims and non-Muslims.
While initiatives in recent years to explore the history of Islamic Spain, tour heritage sites, and honor our legacy are the first steps to recognizing and celebrating Hispanic heritage, we should also look at our contemporary history to find some of the lesser-known heroes. In the past century, Latin American Muslim figures emerged to make significant contributions to Hispanic dawah, social service, and education, and raise awareness about our forgotten Islamic roots. These individuals served as ambassadors of faith, breaking down stereotypes, and fostering connections between the Latino and Muslim communities.
Here are just a few notable Latin American Muslim figures whose stories and achievements deserve recognition:
1. Hajji Ibrahim Benjamín Pérez
Hajji Ibrahim Benjamín Pérez Mahomah was one of the first widely known Hispanic converts to Islam in America. He was born in Oakland, California to Mexican parents, and converted in the 1950s while living in the San Francisco Bay Area. He started off as a member of the Nation of Islam and later transitioned to Sunni Islam. Imam Perez became an active caller to Islam for the Latino community, lecturing in Spanish in California and in the prison system. He was the first president of the California Latino Muslim Association, a speaker at numerous Islamic conferences including the ISNA Convention, as well as a contributing writer to various Islamic publications. As a Puerto Rican, he felt an affinity for indigenous people and traveled around the U.S. to introduce Islam to both Hispanic and Native Americans. Imam Perez passed away after a battle with stomach and brain cancer in 2009 according to his obituary in Islamic Horizons Magazine (2010). May Allah have mercy on him, make his grave spacious, and grant him the highest paradise. Ameen.
2. Khadijah Rivera
Khadijah Rivera, born as Vita Milagros (Miracles) Rivera, was a Puerto Rican convert to Islam and the founder of one of the first organizations for Hispanic Muslim women in the U.S., Propagación Islámica para la Educación y la Devoción a Aláh el Divino, or PIEDAD – a Spanish acronym meaning “piety.” She embraced Islam in 1983 and established PIEDAD in 1988 to educate and empower Latin American Muslim women. PIEDAD was dedicated to the propagation of Islam, through educational initiatives leveraging audio-visual material, the internet, and advertising. It evolved into a nationwide network of Muslim women united for shared purposes of nurturing spiritual growth, fostering community bonds, promoting sisterhood, and education with a particular emphasis on serving the Hispanic community. Eventually, PIEDAD grew to three-hundred members with five chapters in different communities connecting non-Muslims and converts with other Muslim women.
Sr. Khadijah was a community activist who was deeply involved in social service projects fighting against hunger, advocating for the rights of farm workers, and teaching immigrants English. Despite being a mother to five children herself, she worked as an educator and tirelessly mentored new Muslims and the youth. Through PIEDAD, Sr. Khadijah worked to present the rich historical ties between Islam and Hispanic heritage, particularly emphasizing the legacy of Muslim Spain (which spanned for 800 years) and exploring interfaith studies programs.
After the attacks of 9/11, it was Sr. Khadijah who spoke on behalf of the Muslim community in Spanish on channels like Telemundo and Univision. She defended her faith passionately while remaining elegant and composed. She once wrote, “In the face of tyranny and prejudice I have become stronger and more resolved to not only raise a family of Muslims but also to become a Da’iee and spread the good word [of Islam] among Hispanics.”1 Sr. Khadijah was a woman before her time who fought for what she believed with fierce resolve. She returned to her Lord in November 2009 and will continue to be remembered as a leader in the Latino Muslim community, inshaAllah, God Willing.
A tribute to Sr. Khadijah was featured alongside the late, Imam Perez, in the same issue of Islamic Horizons Magazine, available here: https://issuu.com/isnacreative/docs/mar_apr_2010
3. Ibrahim González
With the arrival of social media, Latino Muslims and their organizations have increased visibility, however, many of those who are riding the waves of social networking sites are relatively new. The more popular Latino Muslim organizations and personalities are often touted as being pioneers or “the first” of their kind. However, decades before the recent turn of the century, there were Latino Muslims who paved the way for these newer generations. One of them was native New Yorker Ibrahim González. Br. Ibrahim embraced Islam as a 17-year-old teenager in 1973. As a child of Puerto Rican parents who settled in El Barrio in Spanish Harlem, he witnessed poverty and discrimination. He got involved in activism, speaking out against injustice at a young age, and joined the revolutionary civil rights group, the Young Lords Party.
Once he became Muslim, he continued fighting for the rights of his fellow Latinos, but within the framework of the Islamic tradition. He began working for the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) and translated some of their material to Spanish. Initially, he did not receive the support he expected from the mainstream Muslim organization, however. It was not until he spearheaded a successful Latino Muslim event at El Museo del Barrio in New York in 1985, that ISNA recognized the importance of Spanish dawah. After this breakout event, ISNA began inviting Latino Muslims to participate in their programs and conferences.
Br. Ibrahim went on to co-found one of the first, if not the first, Latino masjid/Islamic center in the U.S. – Alianza Islámica (the Islamic Alliance) – with friends and fellow Puerto Rican converts, John (Yahya) Figueroa and Ramon (Rahim) Ocasio. For almost two decades, between the late 1980s and the mid-2000s, Alianza Islámica held the distinction of being the most extensive and impactful Latino Muslim organization in U.S. history. It was built and run by Latinos to serve the needs of the Latino and Muslim communities in New York. Br. Ibrahim, along with other Alianza Islámica members were actively involved in grassroots initiatives in the inner city, conveying the teachings of Islam and providing assistance to those in need.
Brother Ibrahim passed away in June 2013, but the enduring legacy of his work continues. Fellow founder of Alianza Islámica and an activist in his own right, Rahim Ocasio, said of Br. Ibrahim, “He changed the way Latino Muslims are perceived today, opening the gates toward dignity and respect – something I believe is taken for granted by the current generation.” He and Figueroa continue keeping their work alive through speaking engagements, interviews, and articles on the website, alianzaislamica.org.
4. Sheikh Isa García
If you have ever picked up an important Islamic book in Spanish, chances are it was either translated or edited by Sheikh Isa García. Sheikh Isa was born in Argentina. He embraced Islam in 1989 in Buenos Aires and went on to study the Arabic language and Islamic Studies at Umm Al-Qura University in Makkah, Saudi Arabia. He specialized in the field of dawah and translated the Quran to both Castilian Spanish and Latin American Spanish. His translations of the Quran are a favorite among Latin Americans and are distributed by Islamic organizations worldwide. Sheikh Isa has been a speaker at numerous events in Europe, Latin America, and the United States, as well as online. He served as the director of the Spanish department at the publishing houses “Internacional Islamic Publishing House” (IIPH) and Darussalam, as well as the Spanish consultant for various websites.
Sheikh Isa has been featured as a special guest in numerous television programs for the Islamic channel Córdoba Internacional TV in Spain and others. Following his Islamic education, he obtained certifications as a mediator for conflict resolution and a facilitator in restorative justice processes in the U.S. He currently serves as an envoy of the Ministry of Religious Affairs of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to Colombia and a spiritual leader for the Muslim community in the city of Barranquilla. He is one of the most influential Muslims in the world according to The Muslim 500, an annual publication ranking the world’s leading Muslim figures.
5. Sheikh Dr. Juan “Yahya” Suquillo
Also ranked as one of the most influential religious figures in the world by the Muslim 500, Sheikh Yahya Suquillo, or Dr. Juan Suquillo, is one of Latin America’s most recognized leaders. Dr. Suquillo was born in 1959 and raised in Ecuador. Prior to his conversion to Islam, he served in the Ecuadorian military and is a decorated military hero in his country. After his service, he continued his education by pursuing undergraduate studies at Ferris State University in the State of Michigan. It was during this time that he embraced Islam.
Dr. Suquillo made history as the first Ecuadorian convert to Islam accepted to the Islamic University of Madinah in Saudi Arabia, where he studied Arabic and completed a degree in Islamic Studies. He later earned a doctorate in theology and religious sciences from Universidad Autónoma in Quito, Ecuador. Dr. Suquillo is the co-founder and President of the Islamic Center of Quito and serves as the imam of Masjid As-Salaam. Additionally, Dr. Suquillo is the General Secretary of the Interfaith Council CONALIR, dedicated to advocating for religious rights and combating discrimination. His Spanish-language books have gained widespread popularity, and he is acknowledged as a prominent figure and point of reference for Latino Muslim leaders and scholars.
In celebrating these five remarkable contemporary Latino Muslim heroes – Benjamin Perez, Khadijah Rivera, Ibrahim González, Sheikh Isa García, and Dr. Yahya Suquillo – we not only acknowledge their significant contributions but also recognize the legacy they have crafted for our Latin American Muslim community. In order to ensure a brighter future for those yet to come, we must honor our ancestors, the generations before us, and our current leaders, and, we must follow in their footsteps. As part of the broader Muslim community, let us all take the time to learn about and appreciate these inspiring figures who have made significant contributions to our faith and heritage. May Allah be pleased with their efforts and inspire those who are still living to continue in their service.
This means actively engaging with our communities, and establishing educational institutions, mosques, and Islamic centers that cater to the needs of Latino Muslims across the United States and Latin America. By supporting one another and the existing Latino Muslim organizations, we pave the way for a lasting impact that will resonate through the ages, ensuring that our rich heritage and faith continue to thrive. Together, we build a bridge from our past to our future, uniting Latino Muslims with the general community in strength and solidarity.
Further Reading Recommendation
Learn more about Latino Muslims and their stories in Latino Muslims: Our Journeys to Islam, compiled and edited by Mexican-American convert and another notable Latino Muslim, Juan Galvan (available on Amazon and in other online bookstores).
Photo Caption: Panelists address a crowd at the Hispanic Muslim Day event in Union City, New Jersey. (photo by Melissa Barreto)
By Wendy Díaz, a Puerto Rican Muslim writer, award-winning poet, translator, and mother of six (ages ranging from infant to teen). She is the co-founder of Hablamos Islam, a non-profit organization that produces educational resources about Islam in Spanish (hablamosislam.org). She has written, illustrated, and published over a dozen children’s books and currently lives with her family in Maryland. Follow Wendy Díaz on social media @authorwendydiaz and @hablamosislam.