TIJUANA, Mexico -- Mexico is a predominantly Catholic country, but the border city of Tijuana has always hosted a more diverse population of worshipers. In the last few years, one of the largest religions in the world has begun making inroads and building a presence there.
Every day, at a small, nondescript building in Playas, Tijuana, a handful of people gather to pray. They are worshiping at a masjid, or mosque, one of two new Islamic centers within a mile of one another, both of which have opened within the past three years. This mosque is called Masjid al-Islam, and it opened just over two years ago to give the estimated 200 practicing Muslims in Baja California a place to worship.
The population here is small, but incredibly diverse. People from all over the world attend this mosque; there are people here from India, Costa Rica, the Middle East, and of course all Mexico and the United States. They are all bumping up against the border together. While some live in this sleepy beach community by choice, many more are stuck here waiting for visas or, in recent years, deportees caught up in the net of the United States' ever-more-aggressive immigration policies.
"It changed my life, you know," says Amir Carr. He is a native Californian, and a convert to Islam. He is lanky and tall, wearing glasses and a taqiyyah, or prayer cap. He is sitting in a wheelchair across from his wife, Na'eema, who is wearing a loose blouse and a head scarf.
"I was a — a street kid, you know. I got put in this wheelchair for hanging out and hanging out with gangs and stuff like this, and I got shot. And for the first time I sat down in my life and listened, and when I listened to Islam, it actually changed my life," Carr said.
After Carr got out of prison in California, his wife Na'eema, a Mexican national, was deported.
“They pulled us over for speeding, and they deported her within about an hour. It was so quick that you just couldn't even believe it," Carr says, shaking his head. He ended up moving to Mexico to be with her. That was five years ago, and they have both been there since.
Samuel Cortes, another convert, grew up in Glendale, on the outskirts of Los Angeles. He was a longtime gang member who was deported after spending time in prison for aggravated assault.
“I started gangbanging when I was 9. I stopped when I was 21. When I decided to put that aside, if it wasn't other gang member from other neighborhoods who were trying to kill me, it was my own neighborhood that was trying to come after me because I wanted to change my life," Cortes said.
Cortes said he was ready to settle down, and he has. He got married and now has a baby daughter. While he admits that moving to Tijuana was not his first choice, he is happy with the turn his life has taken.
"I left everything back there [in the United States] and that's fine. I mean, hopefully, one day I'll be able to get my visa and go back forth and just visit my family. But for the time being, I'm just mostly concentrated on my daughter, Islam, and work," he said.
Cortes and Carr are part of what the Council for American-Islamic Relations calls says is the fastest growing number of post-9/11 converts in the United States. According to CAIR, Latinos made up 12 percent of all converts in 2011, compared to only 6 percent in 2000.
Dr. Khaleel Mohammed, a professor of Islamic and religious studies at San Diego State University, says he believes that the relatively high rate of Latino converts is due to the influence of the Roman Catholic Church.
“The Catholic emphasis on family and family values meshes a lot with Islam. The difference, however, is that whereas many Catholics see the Roman Catholic values being eroded in the United States in particular, a lot of them are seeing in Islam a difference in that there are more Muslims trying to stick to the traditional Islamic values than leave them aside," Mohammed said.
Combine that alignment of values and growing number of converts with the United States' stricter immigration controls, and you end up with a visible Muslim presence in Tijuana.
Muhanna Jamaleddin is the imam (spiritual leader) and founder of Masjid al-Islam. He was born in Ramallah in the Palestinian territories.
"I never thought 'I'm gonna live in Mexico,' honestly. So all these reasons come from God, and we thank Allah," he said.
He, too, followed a winding path to Tijuana, moving here from the U.S. with his wife after she lost her visa. Now he conducts sermons in three languages: Spanish, English, and Arabic.
Amir Carr says many Muslims, whether or not they end up in Tijuana by choice, end up staying in Mexico rather than trying to get back into the United States. He said it's much easier to be openly Muslim here. He compares that to stories from the U.S., where people routinely demonstrate against Muslims moving into their neighborhoods, or building mosques.
“When we open a masjid here they don't even blink. They look with curiosity and they ask, but for sure they don't march. I mean, for sure nothing negative comes out of them. They just accept it as they would accept anybody else," Carr said.
The worshipers are not entirely transplants. Amidst the international crowd are converts from within Mexico. Imam Muhanna says that describes half the people who attend there, and possibly even more — and growing.