The Sun: Mentone woman says Islam 'has given me a new life'
On a warm Thursday morning outside the John M. Pfau Library at Cal State San Bernardino, 24-year-old psychology student Gina Cuellar waited for her study partner. Other young women passed by her, many wearing blue jeans and boots.
Cuellar wasn't hard to spot.
A recent convert to Islam, she sported a hot pink head scarf known as a hijab, with her sunglasses propped on top.
"I think God watches over me whenever I wear it," she said. "You get blessings."
Her blessing for the day was an up-front parking spot in the university's otherwise crowded parking lot.
Cuellar's birth mother was a Mexican American who died when Cuellar was 11 years old. Her father is Caucasian.
The Mentone resident is among what many Muslim leaders say is a growing number of American women converting to Islam.
"The qualitative anecdotes are women particularly are converting at a much faster rate, particularly Latinas," said Ahmed Rehab, media relations director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Washington
Because the U.S. Census Bureau does not ask citizens about their religion, those trying to track the number of American conversions to Islam say the task is difficult.
Dany Doueiri, director of the Arabic language program at Cal State San Bernardino and co-founder of IslamiCity.org, said about 60percent of the website's traffic comes from the U.S. and Canada, and in the last three years, more than 1,000 visitors have contacted the website to learn how to convert.
Because so many have shown an interest in converting to Islam, he said he has been able to build a general profile of those who have recently become Muslims through his website.
Doueiri said he wasn't surprised by Cuellar's embracing of the religion.
"In the U.S., people who become Muslim generally are women of Latino or white heritage, who are between 17 and 33 years old," Doueiri said. "Then you may have men who are African-American who are somehow, somewhere incarcerated and also embrace Islam. Then, white men over 40 years old who are white collars."
Cuellar said she grew up in a Christian home but never felt comfortable in church.
"I had a lot of questions that weren't answered," she said. "They just told me to believe. That wasn't a good enough answer for me."
Eventually she met and married Domingo Cuellar, now a 26-year-old math tutor at Crafton Hills College in Yucaipa who had turned to Islam.
The couple are members of the Islamic Community Center of Redlands, which is on Redlands Boulevard in Loma Linda.
"It made sense to me," Cuellar said of Islam, "and I feel like a completely different person."
Cuellar said she partied a lot before her conversion and life seemed to be without purpose.
After a raucous night of drinking last summer, she said she had enough.
"The next day I woke up and was like, `This has got to stop. Something is missing,"' she said. "It had such a profound impact....This religion has given me a new life. It's given me a second chance."
A Sunni Muslim - the biggest sect of Islam, representing 85 percent of all Muslims - Cuellar said she has read the entire Quran, fasted from sunrise to sunset and prays five times a day.
Cuellar said she has become a more patient and peaceful person through Islam.
But aside from her Islamic brothers and sisters at the mosque, Cuellar said she hasn't received a lot of support.
She said her father feared her marriage would lead her to Islam. Cuellar said it didn't, that she chose the religion for herself and her husband was actually shocked.
Cuellar has lost friends over her faith. One called her a terrorist, she said.
"I have stuff like that happen to me every day," she said.
On a recent outing at a fast-food restaurant, she ordered an English muffin breakfast sandwich with egg white and turkey.
Cuellar said the clerk told her she had to get ham or bacon with the sandwich, but Cuellar said Islam forbids her from eating pork.
According to Cuellar, the clerk told her next time she ordered the sandwich, she would have to get ham or bacon.
"I felt discriminated against because of how I was dressed," Cuellar said.
Still, in describing herself as a regular American who enjoys reading and reggae music, Cuellar said she wouldn't trade her faith for anything.
"I'm happy that I can be an example for other Muslim Americans," she said.