Nahela Morales is a Mexican mother of one currently living in New Jersey, USA. She serves as the National Hispanic Outreach Coordinator for Why Islam, a non-profit dawah organization.
Recently, she and a team of volunteers traveled to Mexico to give dawah and provide aid for impoverished families. It was during this trip that she visited the city of San Cristobal de Las Casas in the State of Chiapas, home to a growing number of indigenous converts to Islam. This is her story of the Muslim mothers living there.
Where exactly is Chiapas and what kind of place is it?
Chiapas is in the south of Mexico, bordering Guatemala, Central America, Vera Cruz, Mexico, and Tabasco, Mexico. It’s a very humid, tropical area with lots of natural vegetation; it’s a rainforest.
Culturally, it’s a very rich place with lots of tourism, especially in San Cristobal de Las Casas. The people who live there are predominantly indigenous made up of Mayans and non-Mayans.
How did Islam originally reach Chiapas?
This is kind of a tricky question to answer because unfortunately Islam didn’t come in a very truthful way. It was brought by a group of Spaniards who adhered to a specific sect of Islam and held onto practices that were not actually part of the religion. When they migrated to the area, they built industry and created jobs for the indigenous people who lived there. But the jobs were not fair. They forced the people to work from Fajr time until 12 midnight for a pay of only about $10 per week.
Alhamdulilah, the indigenous people accepted Islam but ran into disagreements and were outcast by the Spaniards when they tried to subject them to practices that were not from the religion, such as never being able to speak to their family members.
This caused a lot of fighting and separation between the people and basically split everyone into two groups: those who tried to follow Qur’an and Sunnah and those who did not. Some who felt that these ways could not be from Islam traveled to Mexico City, about a 12 hour bus ride from Chiapas, searching for other Muslims who could teach them the correct practices of the religion and they brought those teachings back with them to Chiapas.
How many Muslim converts are living in Chiapas now and what is their community like?
Currently, there’s an estimated 300 converts living in Chiapas, but the number is still growing. Chiapas actually has the largest number of Muslim converts living in one location in the whole of Mexico. Pretty much all of those who converted are related to one another through the same two families and speak Tzotzil, the native dialect of the people.
The masjid is called Masjid Al-Kauthur and is located pretty much in the middle of the rainforest. It’s very small, maybe the size of an office conference room, and is made of mud cement. Despite the size, the masjid still offers daily congregational salat five times a day and the Jummah prayer on Fridays. It’s open for the both men and women.The Khutbas are given by one of two of the oldest Muslims in Chiapas who happen to be brothers. One of them studied in Spain and has been Muslim for 14 years and the other one has been Muslim for 18 years.
In terms of resources, the community is very poor. The work that’s available is very limited and the pay is inconsistent. You have agricultural workers, carpenters, construction workers, and taxi drivers, but none of them have a regular income. If it rains, the construction worker can’t work. If no one in the community needs something fixed, the carpenter can’t work. If the taxi driver is low on money, he can’t buy gas to run his cab. When a holiday comes and people only have four chickens to slaughter, that’s what they slaughter. During Ramadan, they fast all day and then break their fast with a piece of tortilla, some salt, and call it a day.
But the contentment is unexplainable. There, it’s really just them and Allah, and that’s it. To break fast with a piece of tortilla and salt, that shattered me.
They are all very united mashaAllah and help one another out. The whole community comes together to spread funds amongst everyone. If one family manages to grow a crop of tomatoes, they’ll split their tomatoes with the other families so everyone can eat tomato, mashaAllah. They’re really a living display of what it means to be one ummah.
Tell me about the Muslim mothers in Chiapas.
Most of the families live in the outskirts of San Cristobal, about a 15-20 minute drive away from the main part of the city. But it’s known by all that they’re Muslims. Even when people don’t know to call them “Muslim”, they call them the “different people who live in that town”. They have told me that for the most part they don’t feel any different because they speak the local dialect. But those who are from different tribes and speak Spanish have more difficulty mingling in and can feel rejected at times. But in general, the non-Muslims in the area are used to seeing the Muslims around so they don’t treat them as strangers or foreigners.
MashaAllah, one of the things that struck me the most about these women was their attire. It really impressed me how they adapted to a new way of life in Islam but still hold on to their cultural identity and dress, usually a long wool skirt tied with a string belt, a colorful blouse, a small sweater, and then the hijab. So they’re identified by others as being Muslim because of their hijab, but the rest of their attire makes it known that they are part of the indigenous community.
99% of the Muslim women in Chiapas are stay-at-home moms and about 99% of them all breastfeed their babies mashaAllah. Most of the women have at least 3 children. We saw some families with as many as 6 or 7 children.
The houses are very poor. The walls are made of lumber that’s tied together, kind of like when you tie Popsicle sticks together to make a wall for a toy house. Some of the women have to hang plastic on the inside to help keep the water out. The whole house is just one room that’s divided into areas by curtains. The beds are just mats laid on the floor. The bathroom is an outhouse with no drainage; you just poor water in before you go. The kitchen is run on a gas tank and when that gas runs out, the women have to cook in someone else’s house. Most of the homes don’t have refrigerators. But the families don’t have a lot of food in the first place so those who do have fridges just share their space with the ones who don’t. And look at us! We have fridges full of food and still open the door ten times before deciding that we have nothing at all, subhanAllah.
The women have to walk to the river to wash their laundry, bring it back wet, and then hang it outside to dry. A couple of the women whose husbands manage to bring home a little bit of money use the funds to sew and embroider items to sell such as mats or blouses. Because of lack of resources, the women almost always cook together. One sister only has beans, another only has rice, so they come together so all the families can have a little bit of everything.
But even in such conditions, the women are very content and satisfied with everything that Allah, subhana wa ta ala, has given them. The whole time that I was there, I never heard one complaint from a single one of them about their situation. They’re always smiling and they’re always together. They’re very united. When the men are out, they’re helping each other with the children, or cooking together, or working together to sell things. They have that true peace that comes with accepting the Qadr of Allah and an amazing sisterhood mashaAllah.
As a mother and Mexican convert to Islam yourself, what sort of connection did you build with the mothers in Chiapas?
When we got to Masjid Al-Kauthur and I saw these sisters, the first thing I did was start crying. And then they started crying. It was as if our sisterhood in Islam just immediately brought us together and made us so happy to see eachother. The hugs were long and the tears just kept flowing. It was an amazing feeling that I’ve never felt, and with people who I had never met in my life. The bond of sisterhood in Islam that brings us together is very powerful. It’s truly a connection beyond words.
Take away the environment and the lack of resources and I found that these mothers had many similarities with Muslims mothers around the world, regardless of where in the world you live.
The way they nourished their children and the way I nourished my own child were similar. The way they taught their children and encouraged their children to pray, especially the older ones, I felt was similar too. I mean, there were so many similarities. And I think it’s because no matter the situation we are in, as mothers we always want the best for our children and we care for them. We’re always the nurturers, the caregivers, and the protectors of our children.
What do you think is the greatest Islamic lesson we can learn from the Muslim moms in Chiapas?
The biggest lesson is to put Islam as a priority. Even with their lack of resources, Islam is the priority for these mothers. And it shows that you don’t need money, or a fancy house to pass on the single greatest thing that Allah has given us, the Qur'an. Even though they had little knowledge, they made sure to pass on whatever they knew of the religion to their children. As soon as they learned something, they passed it on mashaAllah.
We put so many obstacles on ourselves that we forget our priority should always be to insert the values of the Quran and Islam into our families. These women in Chiapas don’t have Friday night classes with guest speakers, or Al-Maghrib institute, or online halaqahs, but they are there learning their religion and passing it on while so many of us here (in the US) don’t.
Even in terms of manners and character. I will never forget little Omar, who was only about 5 or 6 years old, but he was the most helpful little boy I ever saw. He would run back and forth to help us and thank us. The lack of resources and education has not stopped them from teaching their families manners.
No matter where in the world we are, or what our situation is, Islam is one and the Sunnah of the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, is one. We should be teaching our families these two things no matter what. Don’t take it for granted.
Lack of time or money shouldn’t be an excuse for us to not teach our children the lessons they need to learn. And I say this as a full-time working mom.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
At one point when we were all cooking together, some questions came up about our lifestyle. After we answered them, we asked the women if they would ever want come to America. They said no. And I didn’t expect that. It surprised me because they were so full of questions and happy with all of the answers we gave them, but they had no desire whatsoever to take part in it. The lesson I brought home from this is that when Allah, subhana wa ta ala, chooses things for us and we accept what He’s given us, He puts that satisfaction in our hearts.
In America, we have everything and we always want more. But in Chiapas, they don’t have and they’re content, subhanAllah. There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think of my family in Chiapas and how accepting they are of Allah’s Qadr.
Sometimes we’re complaining over the most insignificant things when we’re really rich. We’re filthy rich. And not because we have a roof over our heads, but because we have Islam. Sometimes we focus so much on our actual hardships that we forget about Islam. But these women in Chiapas aren’t like that. They don’t even know if they’re going to have food to last them the day but they’re okay with it. It’s amazing subhanAllah.
To learn more about the Muslims living in Chiapas, Mexico, or to help out with some of the ongoing projects there, contact Nahela Morales directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.