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From Illinois to Puerto Rico, Latino Muslims navigate faith and quarantine among their non-Muslim families

(RNS) — As someone new to Islam, Ritchie Jaimes has found quarantine restrictions particularly challenging.

Jaimes, who was raised Catholic, converted to Islam just five months ago and has experienced his first Ramadan amid a pandemic that has shut down mosques and churches and mandated stay-at-home orders that bar in-person gatherings.

He breaks fast on his own during weekends at home when he’s not working the late shift Monday through Friday. It has also been more than a month since he last saw his mentor, who was helping him learn about hadiths, reported sayings from the Prophet Mohammed that guide Muslims in living their faith.

“It’s been hard,” said Jaimes, 39, an engineer who shares a home in Carpentersville, Illinois, with his adult son and mother, who are not Muslim.

“I do sometimes feel lonely because you want to break your fasting in a group, in a community,” said Jaimes. “I can’t, because one, I’m at work, and during the weekend I’m at home and we can’t come out that much.”

In the wake of the pandemic, Latino Muslims are experiencing quarantine in households where they may be the only converts practicing Islam. While COVID-19 has disrupted in-person worship services for all people of faith, it has further impacted Latino Muslim converts whose religious community can be exclusively outside their households.

Latino Muslims are described as a growing community, with estimates ranging anywhere from 50,000 to 265,000 people out of the 3.3 million Muslims in the U.S., according to a 2017 report published in the Journal of Race, Ethnicity, and Religion.

For Jaimes, messaging platforms and social media have helped him remain in contact with his mentor and others with the Ojala Foundation, a nonprofit established by Latino Muslims who do community outreach in Chicago.

Jaime "Mujahid" Fletcher. Courtesy photo

As a response to the pandemic, the nonprofit Islam in Spanish has hosted weekly Facebook Live Q&A sessions every Wednesday during the month of Ramadan, answering questions in both English and Spanish. 

"For us, Ramadan is a time when community comes together and they're able to share a meal," said Jaime "Mujahid" Fletcher, founder of Islam in Spanish. "This year is a bit different because we have people who have become Muslim that actually have never felt what that means."

Fletcher — who also opened Centro Islamico in Houston, believed to be the nation's only Latino-led Islamic center — said they will assess whether to continue the live scheduled sessions after Ramadan. Fletcher said they've hosted live webinars before COVID-19, but the Wednesday sessions were in reaction to the pandemic.

"This was a way for us to be able to let people who needed to vent (to do so), and also allow for people to be able to feel a sense of connectivity and not feel isolated," he said.

On Facebook, Islam in Spanish has offered lectures, recorded prayers as well as daily Ramadan tips for converts. 

This period of time, Fletcher said, "has allowed us to go deeper in discussions with people online," Fletcher said.

For some Latino Muslims, the pandemic has been an opportunity for family to learn more about their Islamic religion and practice.

Jessica Berrocal, who has practiced Islam for more than 20 years, said her Sephardic Jewish mother has recently asked more questions about her faith. They live together, and Berrocal, who was raised Christian, said her mother has been particularly curious how fasting works during the pandemic.

She has also seen her daughter’s faith in action.

Jessica Berrocal. Photo via Instagram

From her home, Berrocal organizes a volunteer operation with the New Jersey Sisterhood that helps feed more than 600 people in need due to the virus.

Berrocal calls grocery stores asking about leftover produce and contacts wholesalers to buy food in bulk to donate. She helps assemble care packages and mobilizes volunteers for deliveries. She also does grocery shopping for seniors.

Berrocal said her mother has been supportive of her faith but was under the impression that Muslim men would have an issue with her taking charge.

“She has asked me, ‘How are they dealing with you doing this?’” Berrocal said. “She’s shocked that this is really happening and I’m allowed to do something like this.”

“I say, ‘Mami, no, the religion doesn’t say women can’t do this,’” she said. “She has been made aware of more things, how it works in the religion.”

Although this has been a silver lining, Berrocal said honoring Ramadan has been tough during the pandemic. Normally, she and her daughters would be at the North Hudson Islamic Center in Union City, New Jersey, breaking fast with their Muslim brothers and sisters.

Right now, she breaks fast at home with her three daughters who also practice Islam.

At the end of Ramadan, Berrocal and her family would also gather at the mosque for a carnival held for Muslim converts who are not just Latino, but also black, Filipino and white. The North Hudson Islamic Center funds the event and provides toys for the children, she said.

For Berrocal, these gatherings were a lifeline. While she is appreciative of the online events and lectures her mosque has provided, she admits that “it’s been lonely.”

“We don’t have family like the Middle Eastern, or the Pakistani, South Asians or the families that are majority Muslim,” she said. “We don’t have family that celebrate it.”

For Miriam Colón, who has practiced Islam since 2001, spending quarantine with her non-Muslim parents and two younger brothers in Puerto Rico was a choice. Photo courtesy of Miriam Colón

Since this weekend's carnival can’t be held at this time, Berrocal organized a drive-thru for this coming Sunday to provide 1,500 toys to children for the local Islamic community. She said she’ll be taking her daughters along since they’ve been confined in their home since March. 

For Miriam Colón, who has practiced Islam since 2001, spending quarantine with her non-Muslim parents and two younger brothers in Puerto Rico was a choice. Colón, a kitchen and bath designer, lives in Houston but decided being in lockdown with family would be best.

Colón said her parents are supportive of her faith.

They know she’s fasting during Ramadan, and they make sure not to offer her food or drink during the day. They eat during their regular hours, but recently have waited a bit longer to share a meal with her once she breaks fast in the evening.

Her mom also asked Colón to teach her how to put on a hijab to wear on her trip to the pharmacy. Colón posted a video on Instagram for people seeking to "cover their heads, faces, hands and complete bodies in hopes of protecting themselves from the coronavirus."

Colón said she feels at ease as a Muslim woman in Puerto Rico. 

She doesn't get any weird stares when she's out. And while she's in Puerto Rico, she's researching her own lineage to find a connection to her Islamic roots. She's curious to learn when Islam came to the island.

In Puerto Rico, she said, "I feel like everyone accepts me."