Samantha Young just finished her second year at Hudson County Community College, as she’s on her way to becoming a registered nurse. At 19 years old, she is the only Muslim in her family, and this July, she celebrates 4 years since the conversion of her newfound faith. Samantha’s mom is from Honduras, while her Dad is from Belize.
“The Latino culture and Islam is the same, very little is different,” she said.
Samantha’s love story with Islam began at 15 years old during her sophomore year in high school. She had friends who were Indian and Pakistani — and she was intrigued and attracted to their culture. Soon enough, she realized they weren’t of the same religion as her. She began to ask questions, “But they answered as any average high schooler would have, ‘It’s just what we do, it’s our culture,'” she said.
Their answers weren’t satisfying enough, so she decided to take initiative in reading books and beginning her own research into Islam.
Her dedication surprised many. She had one male friend who was particularly impressed that at age 15, she knew so much about the religion where most born Muslims don’t. He gave her a number to an Imam to further help her research.
And although she was mature at such a young age — she was also scared. She had many questions and fears at the same time; she remembers asking, “Is it against the law to change my religion?” She was scared of her mom’s reaction, so she told herself she would wait. After a week, she called the Imam at midnight whispering, taking her Shahada over the phone. “I couldn’t wait any longer, I knew in my heart I was Muslim,” she said.
And so at 15, Samantha converted. But before this defining moment in her life, she was a dancer — and still currently is. She was on the dance team and captain for all 4 years in school. So for her first 2 years, her conversion was a mental conversion — she saw life differently. Yet when it came to the outward aspect, she didn’t think she was ready for all that. “I’m not ready to give up dance,” she said.
All her friends who knew, supported, and admired her. “They thought it was the coolest thing in the world,” she said. She would tell her friends that after she graduated, she would start wearing the hijab, begin praying, and all things alike. To fully wear the hijab, it took her two years.
In high school, she would carry a scarf in her bag. “I wanted to wear it so bad — but I was so scared because of people,” she said. On one rainy day, she decided to wear the hijab the entire day and walked into her home with it on.
“My mom’s reaction was, ‘Oh, I guess your name is Aisha now!’ and she started laughing,” Samantha said. She then expressed to her mom that she wanted to start wearing it, and her mom didn’t give her strife in that decision. “I thank God for her everyday. She’s awesome, my mom,” she said.
“I’ve been wearing it for about and 1 and a half to 2 years,” she said.
Her family saw her on the computer reading about religion, and she would wasn’t doing it in secret to begin with. She would often share with them what she was learning. They were fully aware of her research and they witnessed it first-hand, but they didn’t think she would actually convert.
While researching Islam, she decided to research her own religion, and from that point — began to research all religions. “I mean I researched!” she laughed.
“People often tell me, ‘You just left your religion.’ No — I probably know more about your religion than you do,” she said with conviction. As surprising as it may sound, she wanted to read anti-Islamic readings. The way she viewed it was, “If Islam is the truth, it can totally stand up to these things.” And so she spent time reading opposing views to strengthen her research, as any educated person should do when approaching any topic.
“When I first converted, I didn’t use the word. I didn’t say, ‘Hey mom I converted to Islam!’ It’s a heavy word,” she said. She just told her mom she had Islamic beliefs.
She remembers her mom’s first reaction. “‘Oh, you want to be a terrorist now?’” she said. Samantha believed her mom to be joking. Unfortunately, her mom worked with Arab Muslims, “She didn’t have a good taste with them,” Samantha said.
However, her mom is now her number one supporter. “My mom now tells me, ‘You’re still my child you’re not doing anything bad, you’re still my child, you’re still trying to get close to God,’” she said.
Her entire family is Christian, but they don’t really practice, she tells. However, now her mom goes to church. The only person who indeed gave her a hard time was her sister, as they used to get into debates sometimes.
Although she is the only Muslim in her family, she has many Latino Muslim friends who are Columbian, Ecuadorian, and Puerto Rican and she sees them on a regular basis.
“I think it’s a very beautiful experience, in the sense that I can relate to them more,” Samantha said. By ‘them,’ she means other Latina Muslims or Latinas who are looking into Islam.
Samantha is not Arab, and she wasn’t born into a Muslim family. What she knows and understands is the Latin culture.
“The Latino culture and Islam is the same — very little is different. I love It because I can still relate to my own people and get the message across more clearly than an Arab or a born Muslim,” she said.
Too many of us Latinos, especially Latinas, know far too well about our perception of beauty. Samantha has experienced something that I, along with 99% of my Latina and Hispanic friends have as well. Mainstream media has the tendency to depict the curvy vivacious Latina with long thick hair and red lips to match her red dress.
“For us Latinos, you have to be beautiful — you have to show your hair,” she said.
Samantha, alongside other Muslims, offers a different idea, “Conserve your beauty.” She explained the hijab concept to her best friend who is Columbian and a non-Muslim. “She understood where I was coming from, she thought it was beautiful!” she said.
“If you love Mary, the mother of Jesus, I look just like her and I love her just as much as you do,” she said.
“When you first convert, you feel like you were once blind — but now you can see. You just get so excited and you want to just jump up and down!” she laughed. When Samantha first converted, all she wanted to do was talk about Islam — but she was aware that drove people away. Her advice is, “Tell people the beauty of Islam through your actions, because that is what it was meant to do. Through your actions, everyone around you will notice.”
Given Samantha’s relationship with her mom, as women I can argue we often find ourselves in similar positions. What life decisions have you made in your lifestyle that have brought peace and mind to you, while they’ve brought discomfort and confusion to some of your loved ones?