“Accepting,” “tolerant,” “supportive,” “positive” – these are some of the words a group of Muslim locals used to describe the community’s general attitude towards them.
Their stories are a refreshing shift from negative accounts of Muslim experiences seen in the media, which reached a fever pitch after the Sept. 11 attacks. As today’s political climate continues to stir the pot, the Islamic Center of El Paso aims to debunk any misinformation and welcome the community to ask questions about Islam during the annual open house this Saturday, Oct. 21.
Omar Hernandez, who converted to Islam 35 years ago, is the spokesperson for the center, located on the West Side on Paragon Lane. Being a Muslim in El Paso has been a normal, natural experience, he said, save an isolated incident after the Oklahoma City bombing when people left harassing messages at the center.
“We had people leaving messages on our answering machine saying, ‘We’re going to come after you,’ and so forth,” he said. “It ended up being an American who’d committed that crime.”
Conversely, the center and its members received an outpouring of support after Sept. 11. While the tragedy led to a new wave of fear toward the Muslim community, the shockwave was not as severe for local Muslims, Hernandez said.
“It actually had the opposite effect,” he said. “People told us, ‘We know this is not representative of your community.’ People sent flowers and roses to the center.”
He is one of about 100 of his family members who’ve accepted the faith, making them the largest Hispanic family in El Paso to have done so. Their reason for doing so is simply a resonance with the basic tenets of Islam, which include worshipping one God and adherence to the holy text.
Hernandez stressed the tenets of his faith are very similar to those of Catholicism, and has not found it hard to reconcile his cultural heritage and upbringing with his religious practice. He hopes that Saturday’s open house helps rectify the “misconceptions that exist out there.”
“If you’re getting information from the news, then you know absolutely nothing about Islam,” he said. “It’s not until they talk with us that they understand we’re regular human beings like everybody else. We try and do as much as possible to educate the community. We never try to hide anything because people need to understand what we believe in.”
For a community that’s heavy in Catholicism, a surprising number of people accept Islam every month. Hernandez said they see about one new convert a month.
Hernandez said that the reverence for humanity and outlook on life are important in Islam and is often overshadowed by the events we see in the news.
“Other countries that are looking from the outside in to the United States and seeing everything taking place nowadays probably wouldn’t say, ‘That’s a Christian nation,’” he said. “Trump’s actions and words don’t reflect Christianity. It’s easy for us to separate his actions from Christianity. But when it comes to Islam, people will put together religious beliefs and crimes even if committed by one person, and roll it all up and say ‘that’s Islam.’”
For immigrant Muslims, the travel ban and its future brings a separate set of issues. Hosna Rostegari, an Iranian-American who’s lived in El Paso since she was 17, said she’s felt the effects of the ban. One of her aunts has been in immigration limbo awaiting a visa so she can see her son who lives in Michigan.
“My aunt just wants to see her son,” she said. “We don’t know what’s going to happen because Trump opened up the ban again.”
Rostegari said she finds that El Pasoans have been “open and understanding,” which she believes is partially because of the similarities Mexican and Arabic cultures share.
Her husband, Hussein, received his visa this February, after two years of waiting.
“It was a long process,” she said. “I’m so relieved he’s here.”
Despite the challenges Muslims often face, many locals find several reasons to convert to the practice. Thirty-year-old Xochitl Marentes was exposed to Islam by her Hispanic husband, who grew up Muslim in the United Arab Emirates. The premise of the faith didn’t click for her until after she picked up the Quran and was curious about “this religion people have been bashing for so long.”
“I always questioned religion and God, and the Quran started to make sense and answer a lot of my questions,” she said.
For her, El Paso has been a good place to be Muslim and so far, the only real struggle is reconciling her culture and faith.
“My ancestors were indigenous people and they believed in many gods,” Marentes said. “Islam’s the total opposite ¬– there’s one god.”
Her parents are activists and the directors of Centro Sin Fronteras, where they offer a safe haven and social services to migrant farm workers. She was instilled with compassion from a young age and finds her faith resonates with that quality.
In the wake of President Donald Trump’s leadership, she admits being fearful of the repercussions his actions could have.
“It was scary for Muslims when he got elected,” she said. “We live in the 21st century, and I’d think we wouldn’t have to deal with something like this.”
Thirty-seven-year-old teacher Amanda Westbrook converted to Islam 12 years ago after researching the faith for a school project. She said she found answers to many of the existential questions she’d been asking and gained a deeper understanding of Islam.
“I was researching Ramadan and came across how culture influences [Muslim practices] and what the actual religion teaches,” she said. “If you study it, you find the quality and care that’s provided for the family as a unit and how people are supposed to be treated.”
She wears a hijab, the headscarf worn by many Muslim women. Traditionally it is a symbol of modesty and meant to sanctify their devotion and faith.
The hijab does evoke questions, but those come mainly from her students. Her overall experience after conversion has been positive.
“El Paso is accepting,” Westbrook said. “I think because we’re a minority city it keeps us balanced.”
Westbrook said the portrayal of Muslim women as oppressed and Muslim men as radical extremists are inaccurate generalizations. Although the portrayals may reflect actual events, they do not speak for the entire body of Islamic practitioners, she added.
“[The prophet] Muhammad’s wife was a successful business owner when Islam first came to be, and he was a poor orphan” she offered.
Westbrook’s 31-year-old cousin Nicole Ortiz also has a positive outlook on her city.
“El Paso, I believe, is one of the best cities to be Muslim in,” she said. “We’re pretty diverse here.”
Some of Ortiz’s and Westbrook’s family members and a handful of others were responsible for establishing the original Islamic Center that was located downtown. The existing center was established in 2003. Ortiz teaches math at the center’s school.
Her hope is to expose people to the foundation of her faith.
“We’re a people and religion of peace,” she said. “If you reached out to your local Muslim community, you would see we’re just like anybody else. We just have a different belief system, but at the same time, we share a lot of similarities.”