In immigrant-heavy Elizabeth, NJ, Latinos and Muslims forge civil relations despite barriers

Morris Avenue is dotted mainly with Colombian bakeries, restaurants and markets. Julio's Cafe, which sells Cuban food, recently opened. And businesses that wire money to Mexico, Ecuador, among other places, also line the strip.

Just off Morris, Elmora Avenue teems with Latino businesses as well.

But Elizabeth’s main thoroughfares also house sushi eateries, Chinese food and Italian markets. Newer businesses sell Middle Eastern goods.

This is Elizabeth, New Jersey, where more than 50 languages are spoken, and where this weekend Latinos, the majority in the city, will hold a parade, following a recent festival that Muslims, a newer and rapidly growing community here, held at a local park.
Elizabeth is the hometown of Ahmed Khan Rahami, a suspected terrorist who police believe recently set off powerful bombs in New York City and New Jersey. Though Muslims represent a relative small portion of the city's population, the accusations against Rahami has focused an international spotlight on this city of 125,000.

Muslims are among Elizabeth’s newest groups, with many longtime residents saying they began moving to this mostly immigrant city about 15 years ago. The Muslim community, like the Latino one, is diverse, with people hailing from Pakistan, Afghanistan, India, Africa and more recently Syria, among other places.

There are about six mosques in the city.

Latinos are the Old Guard and the majority, accounting for about 60 percent of Elizabeth’s population. It is New Jersey’s fourth-largest city.

The first groups of Latinos to come in significant numbers were Cubans in the 1950s, Puerto Ricans around the same time, then Colombians, Peruvians and Dominicans.

Many of the city’s Latinos first lived in New York, and gravitated toward Elizabeth after learning that there were markets that sold products from their homelands. Then friends and relatives followed.

Alina Alvarez, a Cuban-American, arrived in Elizabeth in the 1970.

“There was very little diversity when I came here,” she said. “There were Italians, Germans, Poles. I went to Catholic schools and I remember the nuns were all Irish.”

Other Latino groups started streaming into the city in the 1980s and after, she recalled.

Like many Latinos around Elizabeth, Alvarez described the relationship between the community and Muslims as civil and respectful, albeit not close. But many say the younger generation – through school – have intermingled more and developed close friendships. Before he allegedly became radicalized, Rahami himself had a Dominican girlfriend with whom he has a child.

“[Muslims] have bought businesses, they own many of the local gas stations,” said Alvarez, who is president of the Elizabeth-based Latino Alliance for Progress, and is organizing the city’s first Hispanic parade, to be held Sunday.

The Rahami family was known in the community because they owned a relatively popular eatery, the First American Friend Chicken restaurant, which opened on a street packed with Latin restaurants. Piedad Bolanos, an Ecuadoran immigrant who has lived in Elizabeth for 14 years, said she had often gone to the restaurant to buy food and always was treated warmly.

“I wouldn’t say I knew the owners well, there was a language barrier, but got good, friendly service when I went there,” said Bolanos, who said she never saw the son at the eatery. “Everyone raved about the food.”

The business had drawn noise complaints from neighbors, according to news accounts, due in large part because of the round-the-clock hours, which then the city restricted by ordering that it close no later than 10 p.m.

But like Bolanos, other Latinos who did not live in close proximity said it was a regular stop for them.

Berta Quintero, a Cuban immigrant who has lived in Elizabeth since 1969, said that she hopes justice is served to Rahami if he is found guilty of the charges of terrorism and attempted murder because of a shootout with police in Linden.

But she said she would not want to see the Muslim community ostracized because of the actions of a few.

“There was a significant Muslim community in Cuba,” Quintero recalled, “this community is familiar to many Latinos. In Cuba, their community was positive, an asset. They were known to be warm, hard-working people.”

“Our experience in Elizabeth is that they are good neighbors,” added Olga Davila, who is from Guatemala.

The two groups, Muslims and Hispanics, have learned to co-exist in Elizabeth. A while back Rahami’s family sued the city, claiming they were harassed and their business targeted because they were Muslim. But Hispanic groups in Elizabeth said there has never been an anti-Muslim sentiment in the city and there will not be a backlash, in spite of recent events.

“In Elizabeth, we know them, we know they’re a positive [influence],” Alvarez said.

Elizabeth Mayor Chris Bollwage, who many Latinos and Muslims in the city say has made meaningful efforts to have a diverse staff in City Hall and in city agencies, said Elizabeth was “built on the backs of immigrants going back 300 years.”

“European immigrants helped build it in the 1800s toward the future, Cubans revitalized Elizabeth Avenue, and started small businesses there, and now there are many businesses owned by people of all different Hispanic groups,” Bollwage said.

About half of the city council is Latino.

In front of Elizabeth City Hall, the city’s Muslim leaders, accompanied by others from elsewhere in the state, held a press conference Tuesday to say that Rahami’s actions were deplorable and not reflective of their community or their religion.

They said that they were thankful to police because their lives, like the lives of other Americans, were in danger.

“In Elizabeth, which is our city, we don’t have a radical Islam problem and we don’t have imams who teach radical Islam,” said Hassem Abdellah, who is the Dar ul-Islam mosque, the oldest one in the city.

“It’s important to us that the country understands that in our city we have law-abiding Muslims who love America, who served in the military, who go to schools, who are police officers and law enforcement.”

Erik Munoz, who attends the Islamic Center Union County Mosque in the city, lives a blend of both the Muslim and Latino worlds as the son of an Ecuadoran mother and Palestinian father.

“I still related more strongly to Hispanics, I think because of the language, I know more Spanish than Arabic,” said Munoz. “My mother wanted me to know both the Catholic and Islamic religions. I went to Catholic schools, and to Islamic schools.”

But he also felt connected to Islam, he said.

About the day-to-day intermingling between Latinos and Muslims, despite their cordial dealings, Munoz said “everybody is just trying to build their lives. The Muslim community here is still new, but the [closer bonds] are happening day by day.”