Seven years ago, I married a wonderful woman. My wife-to-be was an Arab-American Muslim and I was a Cuban-American Muslim. Both she and I considered our ethnic identities incidental; after all, although my Cuban family raised me and she was brought up by her Algerian parents, we both shared the “American” after the hyphen, which made us quite compatible. For starters, English was our stronger language. We also had a similar taste in books and films, shared congruous views on the philosophy and practice of our faith, and both knew who “The Simpsons” were. We were a perfect fit, or so we thought.
From the start, my future wife warned me about the obstacles we’d face. Her parents were unlikely to allow their oldest daughter to marry a Cuban-American convert. More precisely, they didn’t want her to marry a non-Arab convert. Her father made this abundantly clear when I approached him about his daughter: “Over my dead body,” he replied. In his view, marrying a convert was a step “down” since my knowledge and experience as a Muslim was presumably less than that of his daughter’s. He wanted her to marry a knowledgeable Muslim, not a novice. More importantly, he was unprepared to let his daughter marry a non-Arab. Admittedly, he didn’t know much about Latinos at the time. About Cubans he knew even less. But it was enough for him to know that I wasn’t an Arab for him to decide that I could not marry his daughter.
My wife-to-be’s mother was less forceful in her response. While she didn’t outright refuse her daughter’s hand in marriage, she nevertheless expressed “concern” about her daughter’s marriage choice and its potential implications for their standing with the family back home in Algeria. As an Algerian, she should select an Algerian man as her husband. If not an Algerian, then a Moroccan. A Tunisian, maybe. The idea that she would marry a non-Arab was unthinkable; it was beyond the parameters of even an undesirable marriage scenario. By framing the situation in these terms, her family placed an immense burden upon my prospective wife’s shoulders. If she wanted to marry me, her mom cautioned, she would have to face the family with the most shocking news: her decision to wed a foreigner.
Fortunately, we had one basic fact in our favor: her parents lived in the United States, and had no intentions of returning to Algeria. The local Muslim community’s collective opinion carried weight in their eyes and its involvement could sway their otherwise hardened stance on the matter. I was fairly well-known within the community having worked on various anti-Iraq war campaigns and having spoken publicly about the Palestinian cause. My activism had earned me a great deal of respect within our community and it wasn’t long before several key figures expressed their willingness to quietly but persistently push the idea of our marriage upon my wife-to-be’s unwilling parents. They spoke on my behalf, defending my character and qualifications, and even placed their own reputations on the line stressing that, if it were their own daughters, they would bless the marriage.
Of course, I did not garner unanimous support. Several men in the community openly expressed their disapproval of our marriage; they believed in the “back home” practices of marrying within, not without. As a Cuban-American convert, I couldn’t be farther from the “in” they were talking about. Despite their strident objections, these men were not as influential as the team I had managed to assemble. I had successful businessmen and academics on my side who were also primary contributors to the community. If anyone could speak for me, it was this group of well-respected men.
The task of persuading my wife-to-be’s family was difficult and drawn-out. It took months to overcome the social and cultural boundaries my prospective wife’s parents placed upon our marriage, but eventually we prevailed. As time passed, I discovered that many other couples were wrestling with similar problems—it was not a potential match’s religion, economic status, or level of education that created a roadblock to marriage; rather, it was his or her ethnic identity. This was a troubling revelation, one that left me thinking about the future of Muslim marriages in the U.S. Could it be that ethnic/racial prejudice had poisoned our community? Like most of American society, was racism our problem too?
Michael Vicente Perez is a PhD candidate at Michigan State University and former senior editor of Islamica Magazine. He is currently a diversity teaching fellow at Montgomery County Community College in Pennsylvania.
Photo Credit: Tango Foxtrot