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Preserving Latino/a Culture and Identity in Your Muslim Children?

Preserving Latino/a Culture and Identity in Your Muslim Children?

by | May 23, 2017

Self-Image and Pride Matters: A Second Reflection from ICNA Baltimore 2017

by guest writer Yamil Avivi García

The last segment of La Voz Latina, or the The Latino Voice, entitled “Instilling a sense of identity and leadership in our children,” was, in my opinion, the most compelling one among the three. The discussion involved cultivating the wellbeing of children through empowering them to love and affirm their cultural roots, particularly in this current political moment in which Latino/a culture and identity are often seen as second- class and inferior to other cultures. How and why should parents and educators nurture self-love and pride in their children by dignifying their Latino/a identity and roots? Ultimately, such affirmation of children’s origins invokes self-confidence and security in them that shape their adult lives firmly and successfully and as future leaders of grassroots and formal political agendas within the Muslim community. Panelists including Jose Acevedo (Islamic Society of Baltimore), Nahela Morales (Humanitarian/Activist/Da iya), and Jamal Abdul-Karim (Al Huda School) raised the urgent need of engendering and/or sustaining Latino/a ethnic pride and identity within Latino/a Muslim households and in Islamic schools. Jamal Abdul-Karim stated firmly in his talk: “Whatever your roots are, don’t forget your roots.” For Latino/a Muslim parents and their children, this can be challenging in a Latino/a Christian-majority culture that feels like it represents the past while living their present lives within a Muslim-majority culture. Despite that, Abdul-Karim advocates that Latino/a Muslims “not forget” those roots but keep them present along with their Muslim faith and culture. The panelists described a climate within the larger Muslim community in which – for several reasons – Latino/a culture and identity were often (self-) perceived as inferior to other older and dominant Arab, Desi, and Pakistani Muslim cultures and identities within the larger US Muslim community. Despite this climate, these leaders came together to address how asserting pride in Latino/a ethnic cultural identity and history within the home and in school can be a path to a healthy self-image and pride for youth.

Jose Acevedo pointed out how parents must assert their own self-pride in ways that “we [dismantle] feeling inferior, [which] is an aspect that we have to show our children, our confidence,” and an aspect “…we have to show to brothers and sisters [of dominant and older Muslim cultures].” Acevedo emphasized this sense of self-confidence in various moments of his talk calling on parents to raise their awareness about promoting the richness, history, and legacies of Latino/a culture and identity. When children ask questions about their different cultural roots, parents must step up respectfully to entertain those questions to the best of their ability and as informatively as possible. In effect, when parents exude self-confidence they are transmitting to their children their own value and dignity “as they are” that should not be silenced, downplayed or changed to resemble or fit into a dominant Muslim culture. Acevedo emphasized that “Children need to know that [their roots are] not a choice; it’s not an or.” Aside from that, he explained that parents must also give children some flexibility to interpret their identities for themselves while being equally informed about both sets of their cultural roots. He explains that (upon being informed) “[children ultimately] need to say whatever they say [they are]; they need to be empowered [in their own right]” to say, for example: “I am Puerto Rican.” “I am Muslim American.” “I am an Afro-Latino/a Muslim.” I am a Latino/a and Pakistani. “I am Colombian- and Mexican American.” “I am Latino/a and Muslim.” The meaning and value of each of these cultural identities can change for the individual as he or she gets older. In effect, Acevedo stresses here the importance of youth firmly asserting (and wearing) their cultural identities and roots knowledgeably to preserve love and/or respect of their cultural identity rather than trying to change it for the sake of belonging or assimilating into a larger Muslim community.

Further, Acevedo’s talk centered on the reality of how Latino/a Muslims run the risk of downplaying their Latino/a cultural ethnicity and identity when marrying other Muslims outside their race and ethnicity. He emphasized that in these predicaments parents need to be self-confident about their cultural identity or else the children will learn to perceive their Latino/a origins as inferior to the other, more favored culture and identity. Ultimately, Acevedo emphasized the urgency of parents viewing Latino/a culture as equal to traditional and older Muslim cultures to prevent privileging one culture over another, which can have negative consequences for children’s self-esteem. In light of that, one concerned audience member, a first-generation Latina Muslim immigrant who is married to a first-generation Egyptian Muslim, expressed to me her deep concern about whether or not the Mexican and Egyptian cultures within her Muslim ArabLatino/a household were equally represented. Her anxiety suggested that she felt like she had work to do to consider how her Latina identity could be more centered and dignified alongside her husband’s Egyptian culture in ways that were healthily transmitted to her children. At that very moment, she was retracing from the panel session whether or not her parenting exuded a sense of inferiority to traditionally Arab and Muslim cultures. However, after she explained that her kids spoke both Spanish and Arabic, I told her that, in my opinion, she was off to a very good start. Preserving and passing on the languages of both cultures is one strong way of balancing them, although there are cases of circumstances outside parents’ control when language and culture cannot be easily preserved and sustained, such as in a divorce (or single-parent household where both cultures are realistically not easily transmittable), loss of a parent, or lack of parents’ language skills. In spite of the need to inculcate deep pride in all the cultures in the family, it’s also important to recognize that every household and its circumstances are unique. For example, my paternal grandfather, a Syrian Arab Muslim, died when my father was only four. His early passing had a profound effect on the transmission of Arab and Muslim culture in my own family.

Some of the panel’s discussion focused on schools and their resources. Nahela’s noted that her son felt different and ostracized by his classmates in his Islamic elementary school for not having a typical Arab or Muslim name. She shared with us how her son often asked her why he was named differently from the other kids. Her son’s name is actually a standard name in U.S. culture and society, like Michael, John, or Steven, but he wanted to be named Mohammed, Abdul, or Karim, which are in line with a majority Arab, Desi, and Pakistani Muslim student body. She simply explained that the name she gave her son before she converted to Islam felt like it was a strong name. Personally, I recall how I often nagged my parents about why in the world they named me, “Yamil,” which marked me as an outsider to my Latino-majority peers. I felt beside myself with my foreign name because I anticipated (and was often right!) that my mostly Anglo teachers and Latino/a and non-Latino/a peers would not be able to pronounce it correctly. I remember feeling so nervous when hearing my teachers and peers mispronouncing my name and laughing at how odd it sounded compared to recognized names among white, Latino/a, and black peers. At first, Nahela described how she sympathized with her son’s “identity crisis,” but ultimately she explained that instead of giving into her son’s sense of not fitting in with the dominant Arab and Muslim student body, she asserted to him that, “there is no need to change [and erase his past in light of their present Muslim identity].” Unlike my parents, who allowed me to use “García” to fit in more, Nahela discouraged her son from changing his name. Like Acevedo’s position that identity and culture are not a choice, her decision not to permit him to change his name was to help him assume his name and accept his difference instead of making the “choice” of changing it to fit in more easily. In effect, Nahela had reinforced in her son that he should “sit through difference” and find the value of his name and cultural difference that represents a different positioning to not bedevalued. Keeping in mind that her son’s name is actually a pretty typical English language name, both he and I share the pain of having oddball names in school. In my view, my parents and Nahela named us a certain way because our names had meaning that should not be erased. Today, I could not be prouder of my parents’ choice to name me Yamil, and my hope is that Nahela’s son will also get it and wear his name with deep pride. I am sure he will, if he has not already!

A final topic discussed was how Nahela’s son’s and other children’s experiences in the Islamic school could help us to also understand that genuinely centering Latino culture and identity more in ways that dignified – to all Muslim students – the richness, history, and legacies of Latino/a Muslims (past and present) would build on this sense of Latino ethnic pride and identity within the larger Muslim community. Creating different school materials for educators (and parents at home) to intersect Latino/a culture, history, and U.S. political leadership around ethnic solidarity with Muslim culture and identity within their classes and among their peers could certainly enhance a sense of self-dignity, pride, and a healthy sense of difference for Latino/a Muslim children within the greater Muslim community. For one, Nahela raised how the founders of Hablamos Islam, who have written storybooks for Latino/a Muslim children in Spanish, might consider exploring the possibility of developing school materials on Latino/a culture and identity for the classroom. In light of this, the panelists thought about the ways that their leadership could continue developing long-term projects on these issues that raise awareness at home and in school to preserve the healthy self-image and cultural identity of Latino/a Muslim children.

Yamil Avivi García (PhD, American Culture, University of Michigan) is a second-generation Colombian American whose paternal Arab and Muslim grandfather immigrated to Colombia between the mid 1920’s and early 1930’s. He does research and teaches classes on Arabs andMuslims in Latin/o America, and is an ally to Latino/a Muslim grassroots and formal political organizing initiatives. You can reach him at

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