From Mexico to Mecca How a Latino immigrant
reinvented himself in America as a Muslim
Sunday, January 5, 2003
By Ana Campoy
When the doorbell rings, Daniel Denton rises from the
"Ah, Martin!" he says, opening the door a crack. "Babe,
Martin is here," he shouts to his wife, who rushes to get
her veil and fits it around her face tightly, so none of her
wiry black hair shows. The couple hasn't seen Martin in
months. He is Daniel's cousin and has just arrived in
Stockton after a day's drive from Rosarito, Mexico.
Roxanne approaches the door, smiling reassuringly. "How
are you Martin? Come on in." "Fine," Martin says, but he
stays put, out there in the November cold, his heavy boots
not budging, no matter how many times Roxanne invites him
Five hundred miles of driving and still nothing can
convince him to enter their warm living room, decorated with
colorful Mexican sarapes. His discomfort is palpable, as is
They both know the problem. If he were to come in, he
would have to take off his boots. He'd have to leave his
dignity and manhood at the door next to his niece's tiny
pink sneakers and Roxanne's flip-flops, and then feel naked
in his socks, holding the glass of water or tea that his
cousin's wife would offer him.
No, he stays outside, his feet bound in well-worn
leather, in the chilly wind, and chats with his shoeless
cousin about the traffic on the highway, the workload of a
traveling mechanic, but not the single most important thing
in Daniel's life: Islam.
Once upon a time, Daniel -- like Martin, like 93 percent
of the Mexican population -- was Catholic. Growing up in
Tijuana, his mother taught him to go to church, but when he
was 22 years old, Daniel walked away from the Catholic
doctrine and embraced a faith virtually unknown in his
For years, the Vatican has struggled to keep its Latin
American sheep from dispersing into less "acceptable" folds
of Christianity -- evangelical Protestant sects, Mormonism
and the Jehovah's Witnesses.
Islam, with its veiled women and monthlong fasting, has
not even been on the priestly radar screen. But its numbers
Thousands of Hispanics -- estimates range from 50,000 to
75,000 -- now attend mosques all over the United States,
according to the American Muslim Council, an Islamic
Daniel's departure from the church is in line with a much
older tradition of anti-Catholic sentiment in Mexico.
Liberals and church had been antagonistic since the
establishment of the Mexican republic in 1823, says Alex
Saragoza, professor of Mexican history at University of
From Benito Juarez, the president who declared the
separation of church and state in 1857, to the Cristero war
from 1926 to 1929, when armed Catholics revolted after the
government suspended many of their rights, certain sectors
of Mexican leadership have discounted religion. Now, after
more than two decades of intermittent economic crisis and
political scandal, belief in all Mexican institutions,
including the church, is diluted, and traditional and
cultural practices that had long dominated life are replaced
by imports, from music to faith, says Saragoza.
"Mexican youth are looking toward spirituality that is
not tied to any institutional form of religion," he
Transfer this situation across the border, where instead
of a cohesive religious system there is a myriad of options,
and cases like Daniel's will start emerging from places like
Stockton and Los Angeles, New York and San Antonio.
In a sense, their journey is no different from that of
other young Americans, exposed to the limitless lifestyle
choices available, says Saragoza.
"It's almost like a buffet. You take what you want," he
explains. "It's like guacamole in a sandwich. I'm sure the
Aztecs never thought of putting it on white bread with
luncheon meat." But in a country like the United States,
where new and old cultures are in constant flux, that's what
ends up happening.
Daniel's is the story of one man's conversion. It
wouldn't have happened in Mexico, where Islam is virtually
unknown, but his new country provides the freedom to pick
and choose among diverse belief systems.
Being Muslim involves intensive juggling to meet secular
and religious obligations -- especially hard during Ramadan,
when Muslims commemorate the revelation of the Koran to
prophet Mohammed by setting aside from dawn to dusk all
their worldly desires and wake up before 5 a.m. to eat.
Changing spiritual stations can be a challenge. As we
shall see, it has had profound effects on Daniel's thinking,
his family, his lifestyle, his career and even his view of
Black curls still crushed from bed, Daniel trudges to the
kitchen to fix the only food he will taste until darkness
falls again: tea, cereal and dates. Then he subdues his
unruly mane under a turban and prays. His black eyes close
again as he recites in Arabic lines memorized from the
With his tall frame, olive skin and thick black beard,
Daniel looks like one of the conquistadors, maybe not a
Catalonian or a Basque, but an Andalusian - - his intense
dark eyes inherited perhaps from the Islamic Moors who once
conquered Spain. By the time they headed for the New World,
Andalusians and other Spaniards had repudiated any Islamic
or Judaic religious influence, and sailed with Catholicism
as their banner.
But 500 years later, after growing up around
impoverished, dangerous Tijuana, Daniel slowly pulled away
from Catholic doctrine, which had not met his spiritual
By the time he attended high school in San Diego -- after
his father died, his mother remarried an American citizen,
who adopted Daniel -- he was already following another
tradition his father and his grandfather before him had
practiced assiduously: drinking. He drank every night he
spent in the U.S. Army, which he entered as his best shot at
getting through college. After three years of combat
training, he walked out of his Arkansas base carrying a
green duffel bag and the resolution to reform his drinking
habits and search for the morality he felt he'd lost.
He found it in Stockton, 80 miles east of San Francisco,
where many of his relatives had settled years before, lured
by agricultural jobs. It was just not in the expected
After some failed attempts to re-enter Catholicism, he
inadvertently stumbled onto Islam. It is an unlikely mecca,
but there were many Middle Eastern immigrants in blue-collar
Stockton, field workers like his family; Daniel learned
about Islam mostly through their children, who attended
community college classes with him. When he first heard
about Ramadan, as a several-meals-a-day-plus- snacks-eating
Mexican, he was shocked at the idea of going without food
for hours. But he agreed to fast from sunup to undown for a
week anyhow, and kept the promise. "I had already given my
word," he says. "I've always been poor, so that's the only
thing I have."
Daniel found himself so enthralled with the revelations
that came to him on an empty stomach that he fasted for the
whole month, then devoured the Koran, chapter by chapter,
and started to secretly pray on an old sarape after his
relatives went to bed.
In the teachings of Mohammed, he read of the justice and
equality the Catholic Church had visibly failed to give the
poorest in Mexico. "There's a saying in Islam: The right
hand must not know what the left gives," he says. "It's not
like in Catholicism, where people inside the church give
money during collection while people are starving
Daniel walks around King Elementary School in Stockton,
where he teaches third grade, with his hair wrapped in white
cloth, almost inviting rude comments from students.
"Sometimes they stare at you and laugh, but then you
reprimand them and they get the idea," he says.
Behind his desk, leaning against the wall, two worn-out
posters show Mecca and Jerusalem.
To Daniel's mostly Latino and black students, the faces
of Che Guevara and Cesar Chavez on the wall are as familiar
as George Washington or Abraham Lincoln -- absent in this
classroom -- are to other American kids.
While students gulp down high-energy snacks in the
cafeteria, Daniel works silently in the classroom; when they
run to the playground for recess, he prays without missing a
beat in the rhythm of his recitations.
By the end of the school day, Daniel's cheek presses
against his ungraded papers as he takes an involuntary nap.
It's three hours till dinner.
Family and Faith
With a veil on her hair and a brown baby with curly black
hair on her hip, Daniel's Jamaican wife, Roxanne, is busy
preparing the meal. After shocking his relatives with his
conversion, he shocked them again less than four years later
by marrying a black woman. Interracial marriages in the
United States still account for fewer than 5 percent of all
couples and, because of historically strained relations
among blacks and Latinos, weddings between them are
Then again, so are Mexican Muslims -- or, for that
matter, Jamaican Muslims.
Roxanne's mother was also just digesting her daughter's
conversion to Islam; now she, too, had to swallow the idea
of her marrying a man she barely knew. "She didn't want to
tell anyone," says Roxanne. "She was worried what everybody
else was going to think."
Given the raised familial eyebrows, the couple held their
wedding ceremony, not in a mosque or church but in a
university hall and had both a pastor and an imam, each
reading from their holy book.
The result was a little confusing for some guests. "I
didn't know what was going on," comments Daniel's teaching
colleague Lilian Guerra.
Like her, Stockton's mostly white and Latino residents
have had few dealings with Islam. Even though veiled women
have strolled down supermarket aisles for years,
Stocktonians still stare. On a trip to Safeway, Daniel and
Roxanne seem immune to the glares as they buy supplies for
Iftar, a gathering to break the Ramadan fast. Roxanne and
some Muslim friends take turns hosting such dinner parties;
this week it's at her house. As soon as they get home, she
sets big pots and pans over the stove to prepare a dish that
would never be served in Mecca -- chicken curry with coconut
milk, a recipe from her mother, with fried plantains, a
As the sun goes down, she has the crispy plantain
fritters frying in oil, scenting a house that fills with
hungry women, who arrive bringing different pieces of the
culinary geography of Muslim Stockton. Nagat, the daughter
of a Mexican American and a Yemenite, brings a platter of
chile con carne; a woman of Indian descent who was born in
South Africa carries in packets of puffed bread. The dishes
sit alongside Somali spaghetti and defrosted fish sticks,
baklavas and chocolate cake.
The veiled women talk loudly, joking and laughing about
fashion, politics and marriage. "People have all these
preconceived notions," says Roxanne. "They think, 'Her
husband is making her wear the scarf and stay at home,'
(that) you're uneducated, oppressed . . . "
Self-confident and assertive, her personality sparkles in
her hand gestures and her black round eyes, which open wide
every time she wants to make a point.
Yet for all her self-assurance, she kept herself locked
inside her house in the days after Sept. 11, when, as she
was driving in full Muslim garb, someone in a speeding car
yelled, "Go home!"
So she did.
"I thought it was cowardly that they didn't say it to my
face. They were going so fast I couldn't even see the
Even before the attacks, Roxanne did not venture much
into the outside world. She sells a line of cleaning
products by phone and computer and takes care of her little
girls. Islam teaches that if you raise three daughters as
good Muslims, heaven is guaranteed. Daniel only has two but
he has already taught Sahala, his eldest, to say Bismilah,
in the name of God, every time they travel somewhere by car.
But Sahala, who is only 2 years old, does not know that the
Arabic proverbs hanging in her living room and the Christmas
tree she sees at a conference her parents attended with her
recently belong to different worlds. She only knows that she
likes the lights and shiny spheres on the tree.
Putting the pieces together
In many ways, the Dentons live the two-car suburban
dream. Their daughters keep a normal toddler quota of
colorful toys, from play kitchens to dolls, in their room,
and the television set anchors the living room.
But Daniel faces the additional challenge of
incorporating his identity, a credo made of pieces of
political philosophies, religions, national sentiments and
consumer patterns, into the American dream, like putting
together a jigsaw puzzle that came with no picture on the
box and a collection of mismatched pieces.
After years of study, he has found in the Aztec calendar
connections between Mexico's indigenous past and Islam. The
Aztecs used the calendar, a 25- ton basaltic stone believed
to have been sculpted in 1479, to keep track of their
agricultural and religious cycles. Into the elaborate
carvings of jaguars, crocodiles and sacrificial knives,
Daniel has read the coming of Islam to Aztec lands, focusing
on Quetzalcoatl, a plumed serpent God who promised to return
from the land of the sun wearing a beard and a robe -- the
very image of Muslims.
In a manila folder, he collects evidence proving Islam is
the natural course of spiritual life in Mexico: historical
facts, mathematical equations and a stack of colored
acetates of Mesoamerican figurines, including one depicting
a kneeling woman, resting her hands on her thighs. "To a
Muslim, it's a woman in prayer," he says.
Such archaeological artifacts portray the people who,
Daniel believes, were awaiting Quetzalcoatl, but received
the conquistadors instead.
"Were the Spanish the Quetzalcoatl?" he asks. "No, not by
a long shot."
"Were they the beautiful brother that came from the land
of the sun?" he adds passionately.
"Again, I'm going to tell you no."
"Islam is our tradition as Latinos, Chicanos, Mexicanos,
people from Latin America -- we are part of this, this is
part of us," he says. "Peace and justice -- that is what we
want as Latinos. Islam presents this as an option."
Last summer Daniel and his family packed their sarapes
and Koranic scriptures, and moved to San Diego, where his
mother lives. This way his two daughters can spend time with
their grandmother and learn Spanish from her. The climate is
also better, says Daniel. Although he refers to Southern
California's sun, he means the religious environment, too.
Here the Dentons have found a Muslim community where they
fit in better.
"Everyone we know is a convert. They all have families of
a different religion, we're all going through the same
things," he says. Daniel has also found a job where his
search for a new grounding force is likely to reemerge: He
teaches newly arrived Mexican children.