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Faiza Ocasio

Oral history interview conducted by Zaheer Ali

October 06, 2018

Call number: 2018.006.46

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OCASIO: All right.

ALI: I'm Zaheer Ali, Oral Historian at Brooklyn Historical Society, and today is Saturday, October 6th, 2018. I am here at OMG Pastures in Westminster, Maryland, conducting an oral history interview with Faiza Ocasio for the Muslims in Brooklyn project. Sister Faiza, if you can introduce yourself to the recording by giving your name and when and where you were born.

OCASIO: My name is Yvonne Betancourt. That's my name that I was born with. I was born on [date redacted for privacy], 1953, in New York City.

ALI: So tell me -- what part of New York?

OCASIO: I was born in Manhattan, and I lived on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.

ALI: OK. Tell me about your family background.

OCASIO: My parents both were born and raised in Puerto Rico. They migrated here 1:00in the '50s. And I'm going to -- I am a product of my parents. So my mother was a jibara de la montaña, and my father a luchador de Canóvanas. And what that means is "hidera" means "countrywoman," or someone from -- that tills the land and is in the farm and in the mountains. "Luchador" means a person who fights but also a person who struggles. So just like in Arabic the meaning of words are multi-leveled. So in Spanish if you know the word you can't just translate it into one word; it has layers of meaning. So -- now, that's me. I'm both my mother and my father. I'm a struggler, I'm a fighter, and I'm a countryperson. [laughter] At heart.

ALI: So what -- what were -- what did your parents do --


OCASIO: My father --

ALI: -- while you were growing up?

OCASIO: -- was a painter. And my mother worked in a factory sewing and cutting and things of that nature. And we grew up in a neighborhood that was with different kinds of people. They were -- the Chinese people from Chinatown; there were the Jewish people that lived in the co-ops; and the Black and Latinos also lived in the projects down there in the Lower East Side.

ALI: And so who would you say your peers were comprised of? Who was, like, your -- your -- your hanging group growing up, or your childhood playgroup?

OCASIO: OK. Just as I just described the neighborhood, that -- those were my --

ALI: Yeah?

OCASIO: -- friends. I had a Jewish friend named Iris Molloch [phonetic]. I had a -- a -- a -- not a boyfriend, but a friend who was a boy, and he was Black. And 3:00another one that was Italian. So -- that I forgot about, Little Italy is also on the Lower East Side. So my friends compo-- were composed of different types, different nationalities. Of course I had Puerto Rican friends, 'cause I lived in a Puerto Rican neighborhood. So -- and the thing about the neighborhoods in those days is that your -- you didn't live in your apartment, per se. Back then, you lived in the apartment and the street.

So there were a lot of games being played; people were always sitting at the window with a pillow under their elbows looking out the -- out the -- out the window, talking to the people when they came back from work, knowing who's who. Everybody had a pulse on everybody else because everybody was very visible to one another. So I grew up on the street. And in my home, of course. My mother 4:00was always watching out for me, and -- but basically I went -- I had my breakfast, go out to play -- in front of the house, always in front of the house -- games. Games of hopscotch, double Dutch, all those types of things. And so, you know, it's a very different world now. We don't do that much.

ALI: What was your religious background, your family's religious background?

OCASIO: OK. My mother was Catholic, and my father called himself Catholic, but he didn't go to church. And so I was a devout Catholic. I went to church every Sunday. I went to catechism classes. And I was what they call an "hija de María," which is, like, a group of girls that would go for classes, and on Sunday they would wear a special blue ribbon with a metal on it, and they would sit apart, and it was kinda like a little club.


ALI: And -- and what -- what earned that honor or that identification?

OCASIO: You just had to -- like, it was like a club. You had to sign up for it and come every Saturday and catech-- to catechism class. Yeah.

ALI: And did you go through all of the -- the rituals, like --


ALI: -- confirmation --


ALI: -- and things like that?


ALI: Tell me what that --

OCASIO: We had --

ALI: -- that was like or what was --

OCASIO: We did --

ALI: -- involved with that.

OCASIO: -- the confirmation; the communion, of course, the first communion, you know, we went through all of that, where you dress up in your white dress, and -- and we had the -- the -- that's basically the two things that -- baptism. My mother baptized me when I was little. And then it is communion. And after communion comes confirmation. And you have to go to confession. So even now I -- I remember what I had to say when I walked into the confession box, to tell the priest what I did right or wrong, and then I had to struggle to see what was it that I did wrong? [laughter]


ALI: So -- during this time, so you -- as you said, you went every week. You were part of this select group of -- of young women. So is it fair to say that you had a kind of complete devotion or understanding or -- an understanding that made sense to you religiously, or did you have questions at the time?

OCASIO: I did have questions. I did have questions. And the -- the -- the -- the Trinity, I didn't understand it, but they said, "Oh, you just have to take it for what it is and keep on walking." But the Trinity did not make sense to me. What made sense to me was that there was one god. What made sense to me was that there was a -- a -- a -- a being that was above all of us that controlled everything. And that -- that -- that -- I just pushed the -- the -- the questions to the side because I didn't know what else to do at that time. But as 7:00I grew older, I was seeking the truth. This is what I called it. I was seeking what was right. And I think that ultimately led me to Islam.

ALI: So before we get to -- to Islam, tell me a little bit about your -- your home life. Did you have siblings, and where were you in the order of siblings?

OCASIO: OK. I am the oldest of four children. And I played that role. That was my role, the oldest.

ALI: [laughter] What does that mean?

OCASIO: The oldest is responsible for everything. If the -- if your -- if the little brother wants to go to the park, you take him to the park. If your mother needs help, you give her help. If your sister's doin' wrong, you tell your sister she's wrong. So I have one sister and two brothers. So there were four of us --

ALI: How --

OCASIO: -- two girls, two boys.

ALI: -- how spaced out were you?

OCASIO: Between me and my sister, 3 years. And then between me and my brother is 8:0012 or 13 years. And then between my other brother and him is 4 more years.

ALI: So --


ALI: -- so you were -- you were a teenager, and you had younger siblings. So --


ALI: -- so that's even more of a responsibility that you were --


ALI: -- able to take on.


ALI: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.

OCASIO: The other thing about school is that because my mother mostly spoke Spanish, and my father spoke some English, I had to do everything myself. There was nobody to help me do homework. And I knew that, so I had to do it myself. And alhamdulillah that I was, I guess, smart enough, and the -- the school saw that, you know, I was able to do this on my own. And I would go with my mother and translate to her what they were saying about me and, you know, stuff like that. So.

ALI: How -- how unusual was that, or how usual was that experience among your peers?


OCASIO: It was -- see, this now, that the children always come home and the parents always help them with homework, did not exist at that time. A lot of the people in my environment were Spanish-speaking. So they sent their kids off to school to learn English and to come back, but there was not that much involvement between the teach-- the parents and the -- the -- the students, or the -- or the children.

ALI: So tell me a little bit about your experience in school. What high school did you go to, and what was that experience like for you?

OCASIO: OK. I went to Seward Park High School. And that's also on the Lower East Side, on Grand Street. And one of the reasons why I went to that school was because it had a pool. And there were very few schools that had pools in my day back then. But I did go to swimming classes there. And I learned to swim there. 10:00But it's -- it was a good high school. And I became involved, and I was elected student president of the -- the student organization, S.O. And I tried to, you know, give my input and -- and -- and try to make changes, 'cause I -- I love to -- I love to invoke change. I love to see things grow.

ALI: Well, you know, you were -- you were coming of age in the late '60s and early '70s. There was significant -- I guess some people would say turmoil, change -- in -- in the air, right?


ALI: So there's the civil rights movement, Black Power --


ALI: -- there's the --

OCASIO: Young Lords --

ALI: -- Young Lords (speaking in unison) -- there's the --


ALI: -- anti-war movement. Tell -- tell me what you remember of that -- how you saw that during that time, growing up.

OCASIO: I was so excited. I wanted to be part of it. I -- it was to me a very progressive time in history. And it was also a scary time for those in power. 11:00OK? That's how I see it. They -- they were just afraid that there would be rebellion, because there was so much happening at that time. And actually I remember in college they -- they had a -- a -- they had a -- a -- a club for the Hispanics, they had a club for the African Americans, and they would ask us to come in and talk to us because they wanted to kinda quell whatever things were going on, you know? So they tried to stay in communication with us. And eventually they minimized and downplayed those organizations in the -- in -- in -- in the college. But I was there when they was a big deal. It was, you know, there -- the people had a voice.

ALI: Did you -- your -- your family, your -- the elders in your family, your 12:00parents -- you said your parents were migrants, and they -- you know, and their whole idea was, like, to send you and their children to school. Did -- did they -- what did they tell you about these political things happening? Would they -- what was their advice to you?

OCASIO: They -- they were not involved with it at all. They were not involved with the social, economical policies or the political policies. They -- they knew who was running for president, but -- that -- that was the extent of it. They didn't know why or what or how. And that was fine with me because in a way they were from another world, and now I'm in this world, in -- which I was brought up in. So -- they -- they didn't have much to say about it.

ALI: So tell me about your -- you mentioned college. When did you -- where did you go to college?


OCASIO: I went to college at Fordham University. And actually I got a full scholarship and had a few dollars in my pocket, which was fantastic, because, [laughter] you know, my parents were not from -- well-to-do. Then -- we all struggled all along. And I had a good time in college.

ALI: Did you -- did you move closer to college? Did you commute, or what was --

OCASIO: I commuted. I took --


OCASIO: -- the subway every day from -- well, at -- at times I was in Brooklyn, right. From Brooklyn, right, to Fordham University I would take the Norwood Avenue train sta-- and go into Manhattan to go to school. And at one point I did go to the campus on the -- in the Bronx. And I stayed there for a semester and had a dorm room. And my father was enraged. Because he was very, very, very 14:00traditional Puerto Rican man. And there was --

ALI: What does that mean?

OCASIO: That means -- that means you can't even wear pants. That means you are home at a certain time. That means you never stay out in anybody's house. And God forbid you would want to live somewhere else besides your parents' house. And so --

ALI: How -- how did you get to go for the semester? [laughter]

OCASIO: I moved out! [laughter] I took my bags; I packed them in my car, which he gave me, the Ford Fairlane 500; and I left. I didn't ask permission. I said, "I have got to go and just live my life." And I just left.

ALI: Did you -- some of the other rules you mentioned -- did you -- did you comply --

OCASIO: I abided by them.

ALI: You did?

OCASIO: Yeah. Yeah.

ALI: So you didn't wear pants?

OCASIO: No, I didn't wear pants.

ALI: Really?

OCASIO: Couldn't wear pa-- oh, well -- well, you know what I did was we would 15:00have skirts, right?

ALI: Uh-huh.

OCASIO: I would put the pants on and roll 'em up [laughter] above my knee, and then I would have the pants on, and when I came home -- you know, I would let them come down, take off the skirt, and then when I came home I -- I put on my skirt and roll the pants back up. [laughter] Because my father didn't want me to wear pants. Or my mother to wear pants. So --

ALI: So --

OCASIO: -- that's --

ALI: -- you -- you -- you said -- by this time you were in Brooklyn. What -- tell me about the move from -- from Manhattan to Brooklyn.

OCASIO: Well, when my father passed away in '72 that's when we moved to Brooklyn. My mother was not sure what to do, and my grandfather helped her, gave her some money for the down payment. And she and my grandfather went and found a house in Greenpoint. And then we lived here for a while. I went to school, came back, and when I -- when I had gone to the dorm I would come every single Sunday 16:00back home, because I wanted them to know I wasn't trying to leave and to not be a part of their life anymore; I just wanted to live my own life. So anyway.

ALI: Your -- your father, he passed while you were in college? Or --

OCASIO: Yes. Absolutely while I was in college.

ALI: What -- what was that experience like for you?

OCASIO: My father passed away when -- OK, he -- my -- his car and my car -- I think my car was there too. I think 'cause my car wasn't working. And here was a Ja-- a cold January day, and he went out to fix the car or to put some antifreeze or something. And when he came back he had a -- he had a little club next to my mom's, you know, house, or where my mother lived in the apartment in Manhattan, right? So he went into the club -- he was diabetic, and he was getting, like, stomachache or chest pains. They gave him some antiacids (sic). 17:00And then his friend -- who was Jewish -- he -- Marty -- called the ambulance, and they -- they took a half an hour to get to my father. Now, the -- the hospital was, no lie, half a block away. OK? And they took a half an hour to get to my father. My father passed away. So I was kind of upset because they could have carried him over there in less time than it took for the ambulance, half an hour, to get to him. So he -- he -- he passed away; then my mother had to figure out what to do, and that's when she decided she was gonna buy the house, and my grandfather helped her.

ALI: Did you -- 'cause you -- you know, you were -- as the -- as the oldest child, did your -- how did your -- see your responsibility in this process? 'Cause you were also in college, right? And you're trying to do what you're trying to do --

OCASIO: Right.

ALI: -- and then this happens. How -- did that change your -- did you consider 18:00not continuing college, or you just --

OCASIO: No. No. I did not. I -- I knew I had to keep on that path. My parents both thought that education was very important. And basically my mother handled it with my other siblings, my brothers and my -- my sister. And that was -- that was fine.

ALI: So tell me, what was Greenpoint like at that time? Describe the neighborhood.

OCASIO: Greenpoint at that time was a lot of Polish people. And also it was an -- kind of like an industrial section. And some of it was actually dilapidated and not -- not worth very much. Matter of fact, that was one of the reasons why my mother saw the building; she said, "This is a nice brick building, and it has a lot of potential --" Now, mind you, my mother had a third-grade education. She 19:00never graduated from high school. My father went to high school. So she and her father decided to buy that house in Greenpoint. So the -- like I said, it was not at all what it is today. It was a lot of Polish people. They would look at us a little bit funny. There were some Spanish people around too, which was good, because it made you -- you were accustomed to something familiar. And not too much goin' on in Greenpoint.

ALI: So tell me about your experiences in college. What did you study?

OCASIO: OK. In -- at Fordham I studied social sciences. I studied math, accounting. And I minored in education, meant I took -- I took 12 credits of education. That made it a minor. And I -- I enjoyed myself. I have to say, I -- 20:00I liked the -- the interaction, the opening up of your mind to different ideas, philosophies, and things of that nature. Matter of fact, when I met my husband, we had a deep philosophical argument. [laughter]

ALI: Tell me about that.

OCASIO: So at -- we -- we were -- we were think-- we were thinking about the concept of absolute. What is absolute? So we just had different views upon it. But not really different, but it just seemed that way at that time. So we argued about it. so after I had this conversation with him, I was like, "Whoa, I -- I really enjoyed talking to him -- a lot." I mean, we went hours and hours talking. So that was, like, the first step towards getting married. And then it continued from there.

ALI: Well, how did y'all meet? How did you --

OCASIO: Now, that -- that was actually -- 'cause we shared classes in the beginning.

ALI: Oh. OK.




OCASIO: So we would -- and then also we went to the same Hispanic club. So then we met there. But that was a -- a -- a -- a big factor in my relationship with him, that he ca-- he was also intelligent. He graduated cum -- cum lauda (sic) and stuff, you know, so -- and so that really was something very attracting to me. And at -- when I first met him he was not Muslim.

ALI: Right.

OCASIO: But la--

ALI: What was his name?

OCASIO: His name? Ramon F. Ocasio. And he lived in the East Harlem. So when I first met him, I always would take my little car and drive up the East River Drive to East Harlem and to -- to meet with him. And he didn't have a car, but I did. Anyway. After he became Muslim -- it was maybe the third year of college when he became Muslim -- then he saw me somehow, you know, in the hallway, 22:00whatever, and he started talking to me about Islam.

ALI: So you had known him before he became Muslim.


ALI: And would you say that you were -- what was the nature of your interactions with him? Were you consider-- did you consider yourselves in a relationship with each other before he came -- was, like -- how close were you before he became Muslim?

OCASIO: Well, yeah, like, we went out for a little while. And then we broke off.

ALI: Oh, OK.

OCASIO: So it was that kind of a -- a casual type of relationship.


OCASIO: But --

ALI: And then you saw him later.

OCASIO: And he was Muslim.

ALI: Right. And did you -- was it -- what did you make of that?

OCASIO: I was like, "Whoa, he's Muslim? What is that? Why is he Muslim?" You know? And then he started talking to me about Islam and all that. In my mind my -- I had preconceived notions of Muslims. I said, "OK, they're militant, they're Black, and, you know, they're very different." So I was like, "OK, I'm gonna 23:00think about this." And I did think about it. And he didn't say, "Oh, you have to become Muslim." But he was kind of pushing me that way, giving me literature and -- and showing me what -- the Qur'an and telling me a little bit about Islam. And then I read The Autobiography of Malcolm X, and that really intrigued me. And that's -- shortly thereafter I reverted to Islam.

ALI: So --

OCASIO: In Dec-- in December --


OCASIO: -- of 1974.

ALI: OK. Where did your ideas for Islam -- for Muslims -- come from? You -- you gave a list of what you thought Muslims were: that they were militant, that they were Black, that they were --

OCASIO: Just the media.

ALI: -- where does -- yeah.

OCASIO: Just the -- and plus, you know, Nation of Islam was in full force. So whatever I saw the -- you know, in the newspapers, whatever I saw on the TV, 24:00whatever things -- people were saying, that's how I got my information. And so it was a little bit scary, like I said. And there were -- and actually, you know, in those days they were a paramilitary group, you know? They were very -- they had their -- their -- all their rules and regulations. Everything was strict and to a certain code, even the way the women dressed and what they ate, what they didn't eat, you know. All that stuff. So that was a little bit daunting to me.

ALI: And -- and how did your -- how did Ramon compare to -- to that when you met him -- when you encountered him, and he's like, "I'm Muslim," how -- did you have this conversation with him, where you're like, "What?"

OCASIO: No. I did not have that conversation with him. [laughter] But, I -- I -- because I didn't -- he was actually -- before he became actually Muslim, he was dealing with the Five Percenters. So I didn't want to have to do with that, for 25:00sure. So -- but then he became Muslim, and then he started talking to me about real Muslims, what real -- what is the real way to deal with Islam, the generalities of the laws and what they did and didn't do and, you know, that kind of stuff. So --

ALI: So you said he -- before he -- he was -- he was a Five Percenter, or he was kind of famili-- getting familiar with the Five Percenters? Was that --

OCASIO: I -- I think he was contemplating being a Five Percenter. He was going to their meetings and stuff and talkin' to the people. But --

ALI: Did you know him during this time?


ALI: When he was doing that?


ALI: Oh, OK. OK.

OCASIO: He just told me about it.

ALI: Oh, OK.

OCASIO: He just told me about it.



ALI: So what is the first experience you had with -- well, let me -- before I do that, what were the changes you saw in him from before you -- you know, the time that you knew him before he was Muslim, that -- like, did you see any difference --


ALI: -- in him.



ALI: Tell me a little bit about what that was like for you.

OCASIO: Yes. When he was not Muslim he had a different character. When he became Muslim he was more subdued. He was more -- peaceful, less aggressive, and -- just -- just a little different. Yeah.

ALI: What was your first experience with a -- a Muslim community?


ALI: Like --

OCASIO: -- when I became --

ALI: -- before was it -- was it -- I mean, did you meet other Muslims before you became Muslim --


ALI: -- and what -- no.

OCASIO: No. Actually, maybe I had met one couple that lived in -- in Harlem, Jafar [phonetic] and his wife Aisha. I think that I -- I went to visit them one 27:00time. And they were also into health foods. He does -- he was doing tai chi. And that kind of, like, interested me, because they knew different styles of living and -- and doing things. So --

ALI: How did you know them?

OCASIO: Through my husband!

ALI: Oh, OK.

OCASIO: My husband --


OCASIO: -- that was his friend Jafar --


OCASIO: -- and he wanted me to come meet them -- he -- they introduced me to brown rice, you know? [laughter] And so that -- that was an interesting encounter. Now, my families -- my friends and my family, they did not like the fact that I was Muslim. My friends knew that that meant it would-- I wouldn't be the same person anymore. I couldn't do the same things anymore that I was doing before. My mother did not like the fact that I would come in and say, "No, I can't have any bacon" and "What did you put in that rice?" and all that stuff. 28:00She said, "But it's good food! What are you talking about?" So they didn't say much about my garb or my -- my headpiece, but they would ask, you know, "Aren't you hot?" That's my -- the number one question: "Aren't you hot with that thing on?" And I'd say, "No, I'm not hot with this thing on. It's covering me from the sun, can't you tell?" (Oh, sorry.) And then -- so that was the main thing. They -- other than that, I think my family actually felt that I became even more responsible when I became Muslim, you know? They knew -- I would take time to spend with my family more. I would do things for them, favors and, you know, little things like that. And so I -- I -- I think I gained a little more respect, in the long run, from my family.

ALI: So I want to back up, and for people who may not understand and -- and even just to tell -- when you say you became Muslim, what was that process? What 29:00exactly --


ALI: -- did you do where you said, "OK, now I'm Muslim"? Tell -- tell me a little bit about that process for you.

OCASIO: All right. When I became Muslim, what it is that you -- first of all, the -- someone who is helping you to be Muslim will talk to you and tell you what are the articles of faith; they will go over the respons-- Five Pillars of Islam, the responsibilities and what that means and when you have to -- you have to pray, you have to make your wudu, which is a -- a washing before you pray; the -- the -- the rites of -- of -- of Hajj that you have to perform. You know, the Five Pillars and everything. And then you raise your finger and you say, "Ashahdu an la ilaha illa Allah, wa ashahdu anna Muhammadan rasul Allah," which means "I bear witness there is no -- there is only one god, and I bear witness that Muhammad is the last messenger." And once you say that, and you have 30:00witnesses, that's it; you're Muslim. And once you're Muslim, another wonderful thing is that all your sins are forgiven from that. From the point before that shahada, before that pronouncement, all those things, whatever you did, is totally erased. Not only then, but one of the best things about being a woman is that every time you have a child, all those sins are totally erased. See? So you're -- you had a lot of good chances to be nice and clean.

ALI: Who -- who were your witnesses; do you remember?

OCASIO: OK, yeah. Well, my witnesses were Yahya Figueroa, who's the founder of Alianza Islámica; Abdullahi Rodriguez, who is still now in -- in -- in da'wah work up in Boston and on the internet, on Facebook and everything. He's always 31:00connecting people and giving da'wah. He's a dai; my husband; and I believe Ibrahim Gonzalez -- he used to work with WBAI -- also was there. So I had a core group. And we were in the projects, OK? [laughter] And it was the day after Christmas. So. The day before -- I said, "This is Christmas, I'm gonna celebrate Christmas this last time. And then I'm gonna give it up." [laughter] So that's how -- that's what happened.

ALI: What are some of the other things that you either did or knew that you had to do in terms of changing your -- your life --


ALI: -- that you [inaudible].

OCASIO: -- I knew -- I knew that there's no alcohol anymore. I knew there was no -- no kind of drugs. I knew there was no illicit sexual relationships; you had 32:00to be married. And basically that was it. At that time, you know, I was always interested in the -- the Latino movement, the -- the -- the push towards independence, and I used to go to some of the meetings for helping to free the incarcerated -- that -- that -- that were -- the -- you -- there was a time where there -- in the '50s, I think it was -- Lolita and the other one, they -- they took a gun out to shoot the president or something, and then they got incarcerated. Well, we were trying to get them out of jail. It was, like, 30 years later, you know? So we -- and then there was the Young Lords Party. I wasn't actually part of the Young Lords Party, but I was involved in going to the rallies and stuff like that. So I was --

ALI: What -- what kinds of things would happen at a Young Lords rally?

OCASIO: They would --

ALI: Or, before we -- for people who don't know who the Young Lords are, from 33:00your experience, who were the Young Lords?

OCASIO: The Young Lords were a group of Latinos based in East Harlem that tried to invoke social change. They tried to help the people. They had a breakfast program. They had other things that they did, legal things. And they were also defending themselves. So they had, you know, some military background, you know. But their -- their goal was not to fight. The goal was to help the community, OK?

ALI: So what -- tell me what it was like going to a Young Lords rally.

OCASIO: So it was basically a way of protesting and proclaiming what we felt was right, you know, and against what was wrong, whatever that could be at the time of the rally. And it was not -- it was not a -- a mili-- it wasn't, like, a -- a 34:00fight, or it wasn't an outbreak. It was pretty calm, pretty -- you know, quiet in -- in -- in terms of -- there was, like I said, no fighting and no arresting. Or some arresting may have happened, but it -- it wasn't that much.

ALI: Was there a particular -- or any reason in particular why you didn't join but you remained a supporter?

OCASIO: I didn't know what it all entailed. So I didn't -- and I was still young. So that was -- this was late teens. So I -- I just, like -- I was looking from the outside kinda thing. You know.

ALI: You mentioned -- when you talked about the witnesses to your shahada, to your testimony of faith, and some of the people you named are considered the pioneers in -- in teaching Islam to the Latino community.



ALI: And you mentioned the organization Alianza --

OCASIO: Islámica.

ALI: -- Islámica. Tell me a little bit about that organization and what your relationship was to that organization.

OCASIO: OK. Alianza Islámica was based in East Harlem. The -- actually, the founding members before it was established were friends and became Muslim around the same time, those people I mentioned before. So --

ALI: Including your husband.

OCASIO: Including my husband. Yeah. And Alianza Islámica had the background -- or, I should say, the people who founded Alianza Islámica had the background of wanting to do community work. Yahya was especially interested in the people who 36:00were incarcerated and became Muslim and trying to give them support as they come into the real world, and also the importance of the drug problem and the HIV and all that kind of stuff. So Alianza Islámica addressed the social ills of the community. At the same time, give da'wah to them. So we had people come, stop by. They would sit down; they would sit with them; we would talk with them, give them some tea, tell 'em about Islam, you know. And what was important is that the community was hearing it from people just like them. This was very important. I mean, of course, I had to wear my garb and -- and all that, but still they could tell that I was Puerto Rican. And the other guy was definitely Puerto Rican. And people all around them were Puerto Rican. So that made it 37:00easier to talk to them.

ALI: Why -- why do you think that was so important for -- for people to see or hear?

OCASIO: Because when you have -- when you see another person who's the same like you in terms of their cultural background and where they -- their family's from, you have an affinity to that person. You naturally -- if there are three people there, and they all needed your help, you would go first to the person that is most like you. That's just a natural tendency. So I think that's why it's important to establish a trust between people, because one of the main things about giving the da'wah to people is that you have to have -- they have to trust you. Because what you're saying, it's gonna make a difference in their lives, you know?


ALI: You -- you used the term in talking about your encounter with Islam and your becoming Muslim as -- as "revert," a reversion. Tell me why you used that term, and -- and what it -- it means to you. And I -- I -- I know "revert" means "to return," but I -- I'm asking this because you also in -- in talking about your family's -- your own religious background, that you were a devout Catholic. And most people see a very strong cultural presence of Christianity in -- in most Latino cultures.


ALI: And -- and so -- tell me in that context why you would use the term "return" or "revert" to Islam.

OCASIO: OK. When -- when Europe was in the Middle Ages -- which means they were in the Dark Ages, let's put it succinctly, exactly what it is -- Spain was 39:00flourishing under the rule of Islam. So you have remnants, still, in the Puerto Rican language of that. The -- the word "pantalón" is "pantaloon" in Arabic. The word "azúcar" in Spanish is "sukar" in Arabic. So there are a lot of things that -- of course we -- I say "Muslim," but also Muslim and Arab was mixed at that time.

The -- the whole system of lighting the -- the streets of Seville and -- maybe not Seville. I'm not sure the city -- but lighting the streets of the city, and the whole sewage system that was developed, was all developed by Muslims in Spain. Spain had a glorious Islamic reign. So because we as Puerto Rican have three components: Boricua, from the Indian, from the Taíno; the African 40:00American, Black, from the slave trade; and Spanish, from the conquistadores, which is Spain. So we have a piece of that already in us. So we're coming -- going back to what was already part of us.

ALI: What were some of the kinds of ways that Alianza represented Islam as something that was familiar to Puerto Rican culture? How did -- how did the celebration or -- or, you know, demonstration of Islam in -- in Alianza reflect the --


ALI: -- that culture?

OCASIO: We -- we would invite people, of course, to Alianza. We would give the khutbah in Spanish and in English, OK, which was not done anywhere. We had bilingual publications, which my husband was the head of. We had -- we had 41:00dinners in front of the place, or give away food, or we would give away baked goods or sell some baked goods in front. And the Eid celebrations were very much reflecting our culture. And, you know, culture is a multifaceted thing, because you -- the -- culture's not just music and the food you eat. Culture's music, the food you eat, the manner in which you speak, how you treat people, how they treat you. So the -- the celebrations, when you went to the Islamic Eid celebrations, they -- we would have those things we were familiar with: food and everything. We had the congas, which are the, like, drums, but they're tall. And 42:00we -- we had congueros, who played the dru-- the drums for us.

And we had -- we even played some of the music. We didn't try -- we didn't overdo it, but a little of the Puerto Rican music. We had people actually recite poetry. The -- I'm trying to think of the -- Nuyorican poets. We had some -- some stuff from that. And we had the play -- we had a play they put together, which made us laugh. And so they really made us feel happy in this time of Eid because we were imbibed with what was familiar to us.

ALI: What did you have -- what role did you have in the organization, given that your husband was one of the -- the leaders?

OCASIO: OK. I -- I went to classes, and I also gave classes. All in all, when I 43:00was in -- in Washington I went to classes. When I went to State Street, at the Muslim Cultural Ladies Society, Saturday classes. So all along I -- you know, there was classes involved to make sure that I was understanding and getting everything that I needed. Then eventually I started to give classes once a month or so because I was also involved with so many different things. I was part of Al-Madrasa Islamiya, I was part of Islamic Family Services, and then I was part of Alianza. So I also -- with Alianza, I would attend whatever special events that they may have, and I would cook. I love to cook. And at one point I tried to help them to establish a charter school. I did the paperwork for that.

ALI: What -- what -- what -- if I were to ask -- and maybe this is a dumb question, but I'm'a ask it anyway -- if I were to ask what is Muslim Puerto 44:00Rican food like --


ALI: -- what -- what is -- what is the spread?

OCASIO: OK. [laughter] Muslim Puerto Rican food would be arroz con gandules -- that's rice with pigeon peas, which, you know, the Caribbean people know about that, but we cook it a little bit different; pasteles, which are vegetable base with meat inside; leg of lamb, which is done in the traditional way you do a pork butt, which is cooked a certain way and with certain seasonings and -- so I do that very well. And arroz con dulce, which is rice pudding, and flan, which is like custard. And tres leches cake. Guisada [phonetic], which is stews a certain way. All that. You make a certain -- certain thing called sofrito, which is onions, peppers, and a lot of other herbs. You -- you grind them up and put 45:00'em in a jar and then use them when you need to make a stew or some beans or something. Which is very close to some of the other Caribbean cooking. But it's dis-- it's slightly different. [laughter]

ALI: OK. So let's -- let's back up, 'cause we -- we jumped a little bit of ahead.


ALI: But -- so you were married in '75.


ALI: And when did you graduate college?

OCASIO: Seventy-five.

ALI: Oh, OK.

OCASIO: Because it was April of '75 when I got married, and in June we graduated. And actually, I didn't want to get married till June, because marriage is a big step, and there's a lot of responsibilities involved, and I didn't want to mess up my -- what do you call that? -- the final exams [laughter] for college! But -- but mashallah, you know, I made it, I -- I got through it all, even being married, and I gr-- I graduated in '75.


ALI: And then where did you live after graduation?

OCASIO: After '75 --

ALI: 'Cause you mentioned Washington and your --

OCASIO: Yeah, yeah --

ALI: -- [inaudible].

OCASIO: -- I moved that July.

ALI: OK. And you moved to Washington, DC.

OCASIO: Washington, DC. And I --

ALI: What --

OCASIO: -- I stayed at my friend Bayyinah's [phonetic] house. She had a house, and she had a bunch of kids, and she let me stay in the living room with my husband. So that's --

ALI: What brought you to DC?

OCASIO: My husband. He wanted to be part of the Islamic Party. He thought this was such a progressive organization. It was based on a constitution. It -- it -- it -- it was a -- it was community-based living. There you go. Islamic Party of North America believed that in order for you to be able to fulfill your role as a Muslim, that you have to be community-based, lived together -- or in close 47:00proximity of one another. So that's what we did. And it was very interesting. It was -- it was good.

ALI: You said interesting --

OCASIO: Yeah. [laughter]

ALI: -- and I'm gonna -- I'm gonna, like, drill down a little bit more --


ALI: -- to that. Because you're just married.


ALI: And you are living in the living room?

OCASIO: In the living room.

ALI: Tell me -- tell me what that felt like. What was that -- what was your feelings about that?

OCASIO: It was -- [sighing] it was a struggle, [laughter] that's for sure. I -- I was, like -- in other words, it's like taking somebody out of one place and putting them in a totally different environment. I -- I think I actually got a little depressed, because I was used to very -- being a very independent woman and having my own apartment and all that, to now living in somebody's living room. But I was -- but because my husband was very gung ho about Islamic Party and because it looked like this was the place we needed to be in order to do 48:00what we had to do, that I got through that. And then eventually we got an apartment, and, you know, we -- we had -- we had two apartments: one on Florida Avenue and the other one on Park Road. Park Road was, like, half a block away from the masjid. And --

ALI: What kinds of activities were you involved in while you were there?

OCASIO: Oh, all kinds of activities. They had -- me and Sister Sakeena, who was -- what was she? Bajan. She was Bajan -- we had what they called -- 'cause we had single brothers, and then we had married people, right? So we had the single brothers' dinners. We would cook them on Tuesdays, and all the single brothers would come and eat from the community kitchen. And we would sell -- oh, they had -- I used to make carrot cake, and -- and sweet potato pie or the bean pie or 49:00the -- what's the other one? -- pumpkin pie. And I would sell 'em at the bookstore, you know? And people would come and buy it. They would love that stuff.

And I would go to classes. All -- all the women went to classes. We -- we would have the Eids together; we would have -- after jummahs at the backyard. They would -- you know, kids would play. You know, I would help, you know, with the mothers that had a lot of kids, 'cause I didn't have any. So, you know. And there was -- one beautiful thing was where I used to live, in the morning you could hear the adhan for fajr. And that was such a lovely thing, to hear the adhan. Because, you know, in New York City, you're not gonna hear the adhan unless you're right underneath the masjid or something. But you would hear the adhan, and it would, like, be such a pleasant sound, and you could -- you'd wake 50:00up with a smile instead of a frown, you know? So that was a very nice thing.

ALI: So I -- I have a couple of questions. So Alianza was Puerto Rican.

OCASIO: Mm-hmm.

ALI: Islamic Party, who -- you mentioned one sister who was Bajan. Who were the -- this organization was --

OCASIO: They were mostly African Americans. Now, that was a change for me. I only realized this -- I only realized this later on in life, that I was kind of in shock from being around people just like me to being around all African Americans. Not that I was trying to be prejudiced or anything, but you're just kind of born a certain way, and that -- I think that it was a little bit depressing for me, and I would want to come home to New York, to Brooklyn, and -- and see -- see my people again. [laughter] I hate -- you know, it sounds 51:00racist, but it's not. It's just a -- a reality of life, you know. I -- not that I disliked anybody there. You know, I had some good friends. But it was just different. Yeah.

ALI: The other thing I have a question about, you talked about the -- the things that you baked for the bookstore. You mentioned a bean pie. Tell me the story of how you came to bake bean pies, knowing that it was -- you know, this was a pie that was developed by the Nation of Islam.


ALI: So tell me how you came into baking bean pies, as a Puerto Rican Muslim from Brooklyn living in Washington, DC! [laughter]

OCASIO: That's a mouthful. Well, my friend Zakhina, she said, "Well, why don't we just make some sweets?" So I said, "Fine." And then we just started baking. And then she would bake, and I would bake, and then we just decided carrot cake and this is what they like, this is what we're gonna give 'em! And they -- they -- I -- they actually loved my carrot cake the most. And it actually was kind of 52:00weird, because the carrot cake was dense. But I guess for some reason they liked it. And right now actually my daughter is a baker. I have a daughter who works at a bakery and loves to bake.

ALI: Where'd you get the bean pie recipe?

OCASIO: Probably from a book. [laughter] Yes. A book. 'Cause there was no internet back then.

ALI: Right. Right.


ALI: OK. So how long did you stay in DC?

OCASIO: Two years. Then we went back to Brooklyn.

ALI: What -- what prompted you to move back?

OCASIO: My husband. He said that Yahya said it -- it -- we were do-- we were there trying to learn about the Islamic Party and to see what we could bring back to New York. So my husband and Yahya Figueroa decided, or talked about it, and said, "It's time for you to come back." And I was more than happy to come 53:00back, to tell you. Because my mom was still here, my -- my siblings, everybody, you know, that I grew up with. So I came back. And we -- we moved into the apartment that my aunt recommended 'cause she knew a guy next -- across the street who had an apartment. And we moved in there.

ALI: And where was that?

OCASIO: Hale Avenue -- 181 Hale Avenue. That's -- there -- Cypress Hills.

ALI: So tell me what -- this is nineteen seventy--

OCASIO: Seventy-something.

ALI: -- seven, '78?


ALI: Describe -- is this before or after the blackout?

OCASIO: Oh. I think this was after the blackout.

ALI: Oh, OK. OK.

OCASIO: Yeah, yeah.

ALI: So you weren't in New York City when the blackout happened.

OCASIO: I -- I don't remember. 'Cause I think there was -- I think there was a blackout when I was young. And I remember -- I was -- I was ironing -- I was ironing something. And I was not -- you know, I was --

ALI: Yeah.

OCASIO: -- a child.

ALI: But not the '77 blackout.

OCASIO: OK, no. I wasn't here for that.




ALI: So -- so just describe what Cypress Hills was like in -- in the late '70s. What was New York --

OCASIO: It was --

ALI: -- what was New York City like in the --


ALI: -- late '70s?

OCASIO: It was kinda nice, Cypress Hills, because it was country -- not country exactly, you know, like real country. But it had trees and stuff. It's not like, you know, the concrete jungle of Manhattan. It had -- it had parks nearby. Like -- it -- it was nothing like when I was growing up. Remember I told you we were out in the streets? There were no people out in the streets. There -- very few. I had interaction with my -- my aunt and my cousins and stuff there. We lived right there next to each other. It was a -- a quiet -- a quiet place. And it didn't have a lot of crime at that time there, no. Not in Cypress Hills.

ALI: How long did you live there?

OCASIO: Ooh, wow. I don't know. Eighty-nine, seven -- maybe till '85? Something 55:00like that.

ALI: And where --


ALI: -- and where did you move from there?

OCASIO: From there we moved to Evergreen and Myrtle Avenue. Which was not -- which was not too far -- and actually, I think in '87 we moved to Evergreen and Myrtle Avenue. 'Cause we stayed there for two years, and then we bought the property on Covert Street.



ALI: So Evergreen and Myrtle -- this is Bushwick?

OCASIO: Bushwick section, yes.

ALI: Bushwick.

OCASIO: Kind of Bushwick.

ALI: Kind of --

OCASIO: Because Bushwick --

ALI: Yeah, it's like --

OCASIO: -- is Coleridge Street, but --

ALI: Yeah.

OCASIO: -- the -- the further down -- you go down south a little bit, this is still kind of Bushwick slash Williamsburg.

ALI: Right. So this address, Evergreen and Myrtle, was a -- a block or so away from a very prominent Muslim community in Bushwick in the '80s especially. They were known by various names: the Ansaaru Allah, the Nubian Islamic Hebrews --



ALI: Tell me what you may remember of -- of that community, since you were living so nearby.

OCASIO: Well, I remember there were always guys with their white robes walkin' up and down the street, talkin' to people with things in their hands, whether it be mishwaks or newspapers or something. I heard stories about them. I heard about -- that -- I knew -- I knew a few people who were living there for a little while and got out, but that they told me it was very difficult to get out of the community once you were in. I heard about the famous Green Room, where they said the women had to go and be with the leader for a night or two every once in a while for some reason, which I'm not even gonna get into.

And then it was -- it was -- I didn't want -- I didn't want to get involved with 57:00them, because when I heard that they were, like, tight with the people and they didn't -- and they were dictating things and that -- I also heard that the leader or the leaders had a music group or a music band that they used to play in and stuff like -- it was like -- so that was, like, totally crazy stuff! I'm like -- so I stayed away from them. I used to see them from back -- from the outside, and that's it; walk away. I hope I'm not [laughter] backbiting any -- but this is -- was my impression.

ALI: No, this is -- I -- yeah, I asked your -- What -- what did it -- so -- so I guess you stayed away, but what -- what did the -- what did it look like? What did they -- if you walked by that block --

OCASIO: It was impressive.

ALI: -- [inaudible]. Yeah, what did you see --

OCASIO: It was beautiful.

ALI: -- what did you see?

OCASIO: The -- actually, they -- the front of the houses looked nice and clean. The guys look clean. And there were all kinds of people, you know, like, you 58:00could -- you could look at this -- say, this one was a thug before; this one looked like somebody out of college -- you know, they were different personalities. But they all looked the -- paramilitary type of look, all looking the same, see? Conforming to a certain way. Which did not sound right to me.

ALI: OK. So what different -- or what communities were you involved in when you were back in Brooklyn? Besides Alianza, what were some of the other communities that you were --

OCASIO: Well, we would -- we would always go to Masjid at-Taqwa. We would go for jummah there. We would have Eid prayers. Because I taught at the school sometimes also the children would, from the school, go to Masjid at-Taqwa for jummah. And my friend -- my -- my -- my personal friends would go to Taqwa, and my children's friends would go to Taqwa.


OCASIO: So we'd go to Eid prayer there too, you know? And so aqiqahs, which are 59:00the birth celebrations, where they cut the child's hair and they give money in -- in sadaqah or in charity. And then there was State Street Masjid, and there I -- I would go for classes. A Syrian sister named Azzah taught classes there. I learned a lot from her.

ALI: What kinds of things were taught in the classes?

OCASIO: The meaning of surahs. The concept of Tawhid. The prayers. The stories of sahaba. Those kinds of things. I also went to a class there -- I forgot the 60:00name of the sheikh, but he was -- I used to go after school, after three o'clock for a five o'clock class from 5:00 to 7:00, and it was all men, and I would sit in the back back, and they wouldn't see me. But he was -- he was -- he was very good. I forgot his name. They had classes there. And when I first became Muslim I had classes at Islamic Center of Seventy-Second Street with Imam Dunya, where I used to go to classes with Imam Dunya there too.

ALI: How do you spell that name?

OCASIO: Imam Dunya, D-U-N-Y-A.

ALI: Mmm.

OCASIO: Yeah. And there I met -- at State Street was where I met Sister Hajja. And Sister Hajja became friendly with me. We did things together. The -- the -- the affairs -- we would have community affairs. I still have some of the flyers and stuff. And work out the food and all that for the sisters. So we would have 61:00social events.

ALI: Describe who Sister Hajja was -- [inaudible].

OCASIO: Sister Hajja Hodge was an American, White American lady. She was tall, on the slim side, with a very commanding type of personality. She was interested in helping people, and that attracted me to her. She was always trying to implement some kind of program or change. And she -- she would -- she spoke very well. And, you know, we got to working together, and that led me to work with her because she was establishing Islamic Family Services. And Islamic Family Services was the first foster care agency for Muslim children. And I also worked 62:00with Heshaam Jaaber, who was a big leader, a prominent leader, in Jersey. And he was a board member. And he and I used to sit and talk a lot. I -- I actually worked with his son too, Ali Jaaber. But --

ALI: Yeah, I think --

OCASIO: [inaudible] --

ALI: -- Heshaam -- Heshaam Jaaber --

OCASIO: He passed away --

ALI: -- he officiated --

OCASIO: -- like --

ALI: -- at Malcolm's --

OCASIO: -- ten years --

ALI: -- funeral --

OCASIO: Yes. He was right there.

ALI: -- Malcolm X's funeral, yeah.


ALI: Yeah.

OCASIO: Heshaam Jaaber.

ALI: Yeah.

OCASIO: Yeah. And so --

ALI: So tell me -- the first time I heard about the need to provide services for Muslim foster children, I was surprised, because I guess my understanding is that -- you know, a Muslim family -- the -- the emphasis on family in Islam would be such that this would not be a need that arises. Tell me, you know, how 63:00-- how -- how much was this needed, or how did you discover this to be an issue?

OCASIO: Well, everybody sees things through rose-colored glasses sometimes. And they see those things that are successful, those things that are in the forefront. But there's a lot of -- phht [phonetic] -- that goes on on the lower echelons, the lower level. And that's people who have encountered problems. Some of these Muslims, maybe they were incarcerated and then became Muslim, and they have girlfriends, and then they become Muslim. So they -- they may not have the background, they may not have the wherewithal, the economic proclivity to be able to hold together a family. So many times also the society we live in will be quick to take children away from their parents. Especially when the parents 64:00don't have any legal recourse.

If it were a -- a family that, OK, had a problem, but they had money, heck, they'd get the lawyer, and the lawyer'd make sure that those children don't go anywhere. But when we're dealing with the low -- lower economic strata, they're not gonna have the facility to be able to save their children or to keep their children. They're quick to take the children from them. So of course they have a responsibility; the foster care agency has to make sure that children are brought up properly and that they are safe and they're not gonna be abused or neglected. You know? So I understand that. But at the same time they're very quick to take the Muslim children.

So now once the Muslim children are out of the family's realm, what do they do with them? Well, they put 'em with a good Christian family, what else? What else is there to do? The -- the -- the Catholics and the Christians were already 65:00entrenched in this foster care system -- and the Jews, by the way. So those people had their people set up for that. But there was nobody set up for the Muslim children. So they went -- where did they go? To the Christian families and here and there and everywhere. So they suffered, because their -- now their Islam is even weakened, more so, because they are now being brought up in an un-Islamic environment. Not a bad environment, per se, but an un-Islamic one. So we needed -- we needed foster care. And I believe there's some foster care work being done still for the Muslims, but I -- I couldn't tell you which -- what -- and what they were.

ALI: What -- in your thinking, either at that time or now, what is an Islamic environment?


OCASIO: OK. An Islamic environment is one in which the children are brought up doing those things that are expected of Muslims. The Islamic -- Islamic environment is one where the child gets up to make their fajr prayer. And they make their five prayers daily. And they're taught how to read Qur'an, and they're taught how to react and act in different situations, how to treat their family members -- because in Islam your mother and your father are very important, and you have to have certain respect and a certain kindness for them. And how they treat their peers, and to be just and fair. I mean, actually, Islamic values are social values, but they're just -- not only any social 67:00values, but the correct social values that we need to have.

And of course another thing about bringing up Muslim children is [laughter] that you have to make du'a. You have to make du'a that your child is going to be raised as a Muslim and continue to be a Muslim after you leave them. And when I was teaching at Al-Madrasa Islamiya, I knew that I had it covered until eighth grade. Then when they went to high school I was like, "Oh, Allah." Every night. "Oh, Allah, please save my children from any bad things out there, and let them continue to be Muslim." And, you know, that -- that was a very big concern. Alhamdulillah, they're all Muslim right now. Alhamdulillah, I hope they stay -- they will stay Muslim, and I think they will. But imbibing a certain spirit and 68:00showing them what it is to be Muslim is living yourself the example, you know?

ALI: So I -- I want to get to the school. But before then, what kind of work did you end up doing with Islamic Family Services and --


ALI: -- how did you transition, or why did you transition, out of that?

OCASIO: OK. With Islamic Family Services, I was actually the CFO, chief fiscal officer. I handle all the money situations. I have a -- I like dealing with numbers and money. I don't know what -- why, but I -- I do. And I'm pretty good at, you know, keeping track of things. So I was helping her with her 501(c)(3). I was helping her with the foster care reimbursements. I was helping her with starting up new programs, writing up the budgets for the proposals.


ALI: And "her" is --

OCASIO: Sister Hajja Hodge. She was the chief fiscal -- I mean, chief executive officer. So, you know, we went hand in hand. And I actually also did a little social service work too. I wasn't a social worker, but I already knew the routine; I already knew what to ask; I already -- I was right there, sitting there. So -- actually, one of my friends, when she -- she was telling me about her problem, I -- I talked to her, and she said, "You sound just like a social worker." [laughter] I say, "[Inaudible] I learned a little." So -- yes, I -- I -- I dealt with the finances. I dealt with the finances in Islamic Family Services. I took care of the bills, and I look for the reimbursements, and I was always advising her. Whenever I thought that she was going a little bit to the wrong side or instead of left, go right, I would advise her. But she was -- I'd 70:00say she was a strong-headed woman and did what she wanted to.

ALI: And I guess we should say just for the record Hajja Hodge was arrested --


ALI: -- in 2007 around financial impropriety.


ALI: -- with Islamic Family Services.


ALI: Do you want to say anything about that, or -- I don't know where you --


ALI: -- were at that point in time with the organization, but --

OCASIO: I -- I was with the organization all the way to the end. And actually somebody blew the whistle and talked to the state agencies, and then she got investigated, and she was arrested. I was trying to help the situation by asking her to step down, but she didn't listen to me, so it didn't happen. And even after they arrested her I tried to stay in the -- in the office and tried to 71:00keep -- I kept the office open for at least a month or two. And I just couldn't get it -- nobody was gonna pick up from there. Nobody wanted to pick up those pieces.

ALI: What -- did you have any -- anxiety or concern, since the nature of her crimes were financial, and you were --


ALI: -- the CFO? Like, what --


ALI: -- was your [laughter] sense of this?

OCASIO: I was in a state of anxiety. [laughter] I was thinking, "Oh my God, I'm -- I know I didn't anything wrong. But I -- still, because I dealt with the numbers, that -- they may come after me." But alhamdulillah, my signature was not on any of those checks. And I had nothing to do with it, and they didn't ask me anything. Thank God.


OCASIO: 'Cause I had little children right then. I said, "I can't go to jail." [laughter]


ALI: OK. So now -- some of this is overlapping timeline.

OCASIO: Right.

ALI: So we're gonna kind of come back to the -- the kind of -- one of the main Brooklyn-based institutions that you were a part of, which was Al-Madrasa Islamiya.


ALI: Tell me how your -- how did you -- how did you discover this school, and what led you to discover this school?

OCASIO: OK. Saida Abdul-Qaabidth, Ahmed Abdul-Qaabidth's wife, was a teacher at the school, and I knew her through my sister. Then she said they're looking for teachers. And at the time my daughter -- I had started her there at the school, and she was pre-K or something. And then shortly thereafter I interviewed, and they accepted me.

ALI: And what year was this?

OCASIO: Around '80, '81. And they were in Staten Island. So I took my broken-up -- broken-down hooptie and [laughter] drove to Staten Island every day. And took 73:00my kids there, to Al-Madrasa.

ALI: The -- where were -- since they were in Staten Island, is that where most of their students came from, or who were --


ALI: -- the students there?

OCASIO: No. They had buses coming from Brooklyn, buses coming from Queens. And some -- some of the students were from Staten Island, but few. They were from mostly Brooklyn.

ALI: And what was the demographic of the student population?

OCASIO: It was mixed, actually. It was a lot of African American, some Pakistani -- not many Latinos. I would say I was the only one. From the islands, you know, Caribbean. I think that the -- the beginning of that school was Caribbean. I think so. And Al-Madrasa was in Staten Island for years, and then they had some 74:00kind of a -- a tax problem, and then they moved to -- to -- to Bedford. When I -- when I worked there, I knew the importance of education, but I also wanted to be involved and be on site when my children were being taught.

ALI: Why -- we talked a little bit about your -- your commitment to having your children raised in a certain environment. Tell me what you feel Al-Madrasa offered as a parent of -- of children there as well as someone who worked there, what do you think Al-Madrasa offered that was unique for -- you know, in the context of education in that time period?

OCASIO: OK. When I first brought my children there, what I liked was that it had a strong academic curriculum. And that the children were not left to do 75:00anything. They were -- there was a program, and they had to stick to the program, and they learned very well with this -- with the program. Then, of course, the fact that they stopped to make salat, and they talked about Islam, and they taught them Arabic, and they taught them Qur'an -- all that was a plus, because that meant I didn't have to do it -- personally, you know? And, so, you know, my children -- and when they got out of Al-Madrasa they could read and write Arabic. Which is a -- I mean, to me, a -- a great feat. That's wonderful. So what they did with that afterwards is their business. But I'm saying at least I got them there.

And so -- I also noticed that the staff was good. The -- the hub of Al-Madrasa right now, the people who are the administrative body of Al-Madrasa, they have 76:00been there forever. Like me, I was there for a long time -- 30 years. So it's not like here today, gone tomorrow. And they're very hard-working, dedicated individuals. I'm talkin' about people who don't get paid for a month because the money flow is not right and then, you know -- you -- you don't find people who accept that kind of commitment and that -- accept that kind of response from the -- from the organization.

ALI: Did you experience that?


ALI: And how did you --

OCASIO: Not -- in the beginning we -- were paid peanuts. Peanu-- today you could say they were still some peanuts, but I think they're more of them. But the -- the -- we were paid very little. Two hundred dollars --

ALI: How did you get through --

OCASIO: Well, we were fine, because, you see, my husband had a full-time job, so -- really I didn't have to worry about money, per se. Whatever I earned it was 77:00for my pocket. And that was another good thing about my husband is that he understood the Islamic injunctions, and -- and it's true, if a woman wants to give of her money, she does, and if she doesn't want to give of her money, she doesn't. So he took care of the financials, and he took care of the house.

ALI: How did -- how did that impact your morale?

OCASIO: No, that was fine for me. I -- I had no problem with that, because in the Qur'an it says men are the maintainers of women, so --

ALI: No, I mean, the -- working somewhere where, like, pay wasn't regular, or --

OCASIO: Oh. Well, the pay was kind of regular in Staten Island, but it was very, very little. But it was fine, because I wasn't there for that. I was -- I'm -- I -- that was just a little, like -- like a little perk. I was there to teach the kids and to have my children taught. So, you know, how much we got paid was not 78:00an issue. And we tried to over the years increase the pay. And even now the pay has been increased. But, I mean, I don't think a regular teacher earns more than twenty-five or twenty-six thousand dollars -- right now. And that's peanuts. She should be earning twenty -- double that -- fifty-something thousand dollars.

So -- and we -- the -- the -- like I was talking about the hub? It's me, Sister Belquis Defendini, Sister Sariyah Abdul Wasi, Sister Habiba Muhammad, who's a cofounder, and Brother Abdul-Basir Muhammad. Those are the -- and Bro-- ohh, I forgot Brother Amateka Morgan. And Brother Amateka Morgan. Those are the ones that will, you know, stick by it, thick or thin, work as hard as you -- I mean, Brother Amateka would come in the first day of school, and he'd be falling asleep. Why? He had spent two days and two nights working on the school to have 79:00it ready for Monday morning. That's the type of person -- people -- that we're talkin' about. So I --

ALI: So they -- they were in Brooklyn -- when did they move to Brooklyn, back to Broo-- or move to Brooklyn, I guess?

OCASIO: OK. Eighty -- I'm not sure. My sons were in school. I don't remember when we moved into Brooklyn. But it's been at least 15 years. Half the time that -- that -- 15 or more years. Yeah.

ALI: And it's now located where?

OCASIO: It's now located in Sunset Park, 5224 Third Avenue. And it's not too far from another Muslim school called Al-Noor School. We were around before Al-Noor. Actually, I would say to you that Al-Madrasa Islamiya is the oldest indigenous school in New York City. I think the only school that's maybe an -- a couple of 80:00years older is the Muslim school in Pennsylvania, Masjid As-Saffat. But we have been -- well, just think about it, from the late '70s. It's a long time ago.

ALI: You used the term "indigenous" in the context of talking about Muslims or Muslims in America. What does "indigenous" mean when you use that?

OCASIO: People from here. People who were born and raised in America. Indigenous. And that could be so many different ones. Because I'm indigenous. You're indigenous. You know. America's a melting pot, so there's a lot of indigenous people here. They're not immigrants, you know; they're indigenous people. And so --

ALI: OK. And so tell me about the different roles you played at Al-Madrasa Islamiya.

OCASIO: OK. Basically I was a -- a teacher for the upper school. The upper school meant fifth, sixth, seventh, or eighth grade. I think at that time they 81:00had a fifth-grade teacher, so it was sixth, seventh, and eighth. And I taught several subjects. I could've taught in the beginning Spanish and math and -- actually, the teacher -- the -- the principal came to me and said -- because they were trying to teach Arabic and Qur'an and all that, but they had trouble teaching the Arabic. Well, if you know Arabic, Arabic's not a easy language to learn because it's a whole different alphabet; it's a whole different sound system and everything.

So the principal came to me saying, "Well, how are you doing so well with teaching this Spanish?" And I said, "I don't know." I guess he was trying to see if I could help with teaching something else or how he could take ideas from me to teach the Arabic. And I said, "I don't know, I just -- you know, just -- teaching -- I -- I -- they like my teaching," and -- and -- and I did well with teaching the children.

ALI: What -- did you have to do --



ALI: Go 'head.

OCASIO: -- as -- as the --

ALI: [inaudible].

OCASIO: -- years went on, my responsibilities grew --

ALI: Right.

OCASIO: -- and I became multifaceted and had to do different things because we would -- with not having a -- a -- much of a salary, it was very hard to find teachers, neverthe-- not only find teachers but find good teachers, you know. So I would have to teach social studies; I would have to teach language arts, all the subjects for, like, the middle grades. I ended up teaching biology Regents classes, algebra Regents classes, which we offered -- and we still do offer -- Regents classes, which is not eighth-grade math or eighth-grade science; it's ninth grade. It's the high-- you get credit for high school. So we -- we always tryin' to push the academic envelope because we know we can do that. And if you ask me to push the Arabic envelope I can't do that, OK? But I can push the academic.


ALI: Tell me how you -- what steps you took to transition to becoming a teacher. Because, you know, you --


ALI: Yeah.

OCASIO: -- I -- I became a teacher when I first became Muslim. Because at Islamic Party they had a small school, Community Mosque Academy. And I taught there for free. Volunteer work. And that's when I started teaching, from there. So I was thinkin' about being a psychologist at one point. But it didn't fit into my lifestyle. [laughter] So I didn't become a psychologist. But teaching is psychology and subject matter and a lot of things.

ALI: How did you -- how did you blend that to -- for a kind of standardized classroom experience?

OCASIO: Well, I -- I knew -- I knew certain things already because I had taken classes, education courses. And then I -- I established routines, which is what 84:00you have to do when you're a teacher. And you command a certain amount of respect and attention. And you keep them busy. That's a big clue right there. Keep them busy. Don't -- be prepared, also. It's a very important part of teaching. If you walk in there prepared, you're gonna have a good day. If you walk in there unprepared, you're gonna have a bad day.

ALI: So I'm interested in -- in a little bit more about this. You know, a lot of people are completely afraid of walking into a room full of young children [laughter] who are looking to them for instruction, guidance, you know --


ALI: Tell me why that isn't something that -- that scared you. You know, people would be like -- I -- I don't know; they just, like, mystified idea of what it 85:00takes to be able to do that effectively. Tell me why you think you were able to do that effectively, and what were your -- what were your some of, like, tricks of the trade that you began adopting for that -- for -- for that experience?

OCASIO: Yeah. Well, first of all, I think that teaching Muslim children is easier than teaching non-Muslim children. I do believe so because there's a certain line that they may or may not cross, but it's there, at least. The non-Muslim children may not even see the line. But these children see the line. It's there. And they know that they shouldn't cross that line.

ALI: A line in terms of -- of --

OCASIO: Of their behavior and what's expected, not expected, and things like that. The -- not -- there is a difference from when I was first teaching to when I was teaching in 2010, '12, '15. I have to be careful what I'm saying here. 86:00When teaching the children, like my children and children of my friends and the people who were brought up in America, in United States, there was more of a control of the environment and better behavior. When I started to teach the Arab children, it was a whole 'nother ballgame. I think the Arab children are brought up in such a way that they are treated very special. So in being treated very special, they feel more entitled than other people. OK? I'm trying to be frank, 87:00but at the same time tactful, OK? So you have to know who you're teaching the -- the children, where they come from, and so that's how you would then shape your instruction to fit your students. 'Cause that's -- that's very important. If you're not structuring your instructions to shape those students, then you're not doing your job.

ALI: So you have to have -- I guess people would call it cultural competency, right? That you have to --


ALI: -- understand the culture --


ALI: -- that -- that people are coming --

OCASIO: And be open to it.

ALI: -- from -- yeah. Yeah.

OCASIO: Yes. And not be prejudiced and biased. Because then you're not gonna --

ALI: Were there -- were there people who saw you as a -- a Muslim of Puerto Rican heritage and thought, "I -- I don't know if she can teach my Muslim children"? Did you ever encounter anyone kind of questioning your Muslim bona 88:00fides as a --

OCASIO: Actually --

ALI: -- as a Puerto Rican?

OCASIO: -- yes and no. I think that they were -- some -- OK. Some cultures loved me. Like the Pakistanis. The Pakistanis' mothers and fathers, I had no problem with them. They -- they just -- they revered teaching, and they feeled like a teacher was a special person, and I was -- I felt so happy because they understood what I was trying to portray to them and all that. So different -- different people saw me differently, that's what I can say. And whenever -- whenever -- anyone had anything to say about what I was doing, I stood up and said, "Look. A, B, C, D, E. This is this, and this is the reason why, and that --" and -- because there were people who would question you, right? So once I 89:00answered their questions they backed off.

ALI: Can you give an example of an incident or a moment and how you handled it?

OCASIO: Yeah. The -- I was teaching the Regents math. And I believe in drill and practice. OK? That's just a personal thing. Some people don't do drill and practice that much. I -- I think that if you drill and practice you get it under your belt tight, and you're good.

ALI: And what is drill and practice?

OCASIO: Drill and practice means, like, you learn a concept, and then you go over and you -- and you do the -- that type of problem over again in a different way and blah, blah, blah, and -- and get all the -- like, even drill and practice could be, like, for spelling. If you have a word and -- and your -- it's your spelling word, you write it five times and write it in a sentence, that's a drill and practice. So one parent came to me and said that -- that was 90:00an old-fashioned thing to do, drill and practice, and that I'm holding back the class by doing that that way. So the class that we're speaking of was the Regents class. I said, "How I do my class is my prerogative. And the class that we're speaking of is an advanced class that your child is getting Regents credits for." And then that was the end of the story. [laughter] That was the end of that conversation, you know.

But everybody's gonna question you here and there, one -- here -- but, you know, one thing is that Latino Muslims are not recognized as they should be. They're sometimes treated as second-class citizens. The different cultures might just be 91:00looking to marry a Latina and not really have any respect for the culture or the upbringing of the individual. So, you know, I think that the Latino Muslims have made an impact on all of New York City and different parts of the United States: Texas, you know, Florida -- I mean, I know people from different parts, and I've gone to the conferences in different places. And you have -- you have Wendy Diaz, who is an author of Spanish literature for Islamic children's books. She's excellent. We know her personally. And actually there's a network. There's actually a network of people who know each other and know of each other that work, and as we speak, they are putting together a council.

ALI: You -- you -- I'm interested by your observation that you feel that 92:00sometimes Latino Muslims are not seen equally.


ALI: Or, you know, there isn't a respect for the culture. Can you give some examples or experiences that you may have had --


ALI: -- with that -- you saw that happening, and how did you respond at that time?

OCASIO: Well, mostly my husband has dealt with that. And, you know, he's -- he's put together groups; he's given classes on Tawhid. He writes. He -- he's a speaker, lecturer and whatever. And so I think they were putting together some kind of a group for learning or whatever it was, for Latinos. And they were in the masjid. And they were speaking Spanish. So this Muslim brother comes up to him, says, "You can't speak Spanish here!" And my husband said, "What -- why 93:00not?" "No, no, no, no. No Spanish. Only English." And so, you know, they had to leave. They wouldn't let them stay there 'cause they spoke Spanish. So then, like, OK. And then I've known of the situations where women have come to me complaining about the treatment that they get when they married the Arab brothers. They don't even consider them -- sometimes -- mashallah -- sometimes they don't even consider the marriage to the Latina as a real marriage but a mut'ah marriage, which is a temp-- they call it a temporary marriage.

So it's like, you disrespecting us. It's not correct. This is not right. How could they do that? But we just, you know, stand up for ourselves and you -- we want to be treated with respect and -- and -- and dignity. Just like anybody else.

ALI: How --


OCASIO: 'Cause --

ALI: Yeah.

OCASIO: -- you know, just because I became Muslim and I don't speak Arabic fluently doesn't make me less of a Muslim than one who is Hafiz of Qur'an! Doesn't.

ALI: How -- how many children do you have?

OCASIO: I have six children.

ALI: You have six children.

OCASIO: Three girls and three boys.

ALI: In raising your children, what were the ways that you sought to ensure that they not only were brought up in an Islamic environment but in an environment that respected their Puerto Rican heritage?

OCASIO: Mm-hmm. I was very close with my children. I used to take my children with me everywhere. So when I went to Islamic classes they were there. Whether they're learning or not or whether there was something that was subliminal, [laughter] I don't know. But we went to -- as a family together -- to different events. We always used to go to the Eid in the parks. We -- we -- we sat 95:00together at the fajr. We -- we fasted during Ramadan. We talked about what's -- you know, the reasons why we fast and how we fast and -- and -- and that Allah's pleased with us. Imbibe in them the -- the -- the -- the -- the idea of who Allah is and -- and -- and that we have to life believing in Allah and -- and the last messenger, Muhammad (salla Allahu alayhi wa sallam).

So that and -- I will have to say it again -- du'a. Make your du'a -- if you're a Muslim parent, let your child stay Muslim all their life. Because that du'a is very important. And that alone could do it, but you have to help it along, you know. [laughter] You can't just make du'a and then go off and party or 96:00something. You've got to back it up with your own, you know, actions.

ALI: And how 'bout the Puerto Rican side?

M: [chanting call to prayer]

ALI: Do we -- do you want to --

OCASIO: Well --

ALI: -- stop for prayer now, or --

OCASIO: Yes. I think we should.


(break in audio)

ALI: OK. This is Zaheer Ali. It's Saturday -- still Saturday, October 6th, 2018, and I'm here with Sister Faiza Ocasio. We are continuing the oral history interview that we began. We're in Westminster, Maryland, and this is for the Muslims in Brooklyn project. Sister Faiza, when we left off you were talking about the ways -- or the things that you did to ensure that your children grew up with a Muslim identity. I'm interested in hearing from you the things that you did to ensure that they had a Puerto Rican identity.


OCASIO: OK. Well, needless to say that my children were an -- an integral part of my life, and they went with me wherever I went. So I would go and visit my mother and my aunts and my uncles and my cousins, and they would come along with me. We'd go on events and different places. And we'd be speaking Spanish most of the time. So, you know, they learned some Spanish that way. And they also were given a Puerto Rican diet because that's what I grew up with, and that's what I -- I fed them. I learned how to make Puerto Rican food and -- and -- from when I was little, and I continued to, you know, hone my skills and get better at it.

And I -- I was interested in knowing how to make anything and everything that 98:00had to do with Puerto Rican cuisine. When my kids were little we -- I would take them to my aunt's house or to my mother's house and -- or my cousin's house -- and they would put the salsa music, and we would all dance. And so my sons learned from my cousins or my aunts how to dance salsa. So that, you know, was another thing that they did. And we -- I would go to events, family events, not because I wanted to necessarily be part of it but because I wanted the exposure for my children, and I wanted them to understand where we come from. And so I just filtered the events that I went to. If I knew that there was going to be drinking and stuff like that, I -- I would not go there. But if it was more of a family type of get-together with just some food, I would, you know, go there. 99:00Like, for Thanksgiving I would go to my mom's house, and she would make a spread for my kids, and, you know, we would have a good time there. So they also learned from me and from my mom the mannerisms and the -- the -- the behaviors that we exhibit, you know, day to day.

I'm not saying they got all of it or they became -- because as you go from one generation to the next, it kinda -- it kinda gets diluted. And the culture is not quite the same. There's some there, but not as strong as from the beginning. So right now three -- three of my children speak Spanish well -- maybe four. Three to four. And then two of them -- like, my youngest one, he barely speaks Spanish. And I kind of was a little sad about that, but, hey, that's what 100:00happened; that's how it -- it came about. But they all identify with being Puerto Rican. And they used to go to Alianza Islámica, and they -- we -- they been to the Eids, you know, so -- you know, family imbibes culture and helps to, you know, let them remember who -- who -- who -- who they are and where they came from.

ALI: I'm interested, you -- you mentioned your mom and -- and your family being so important. And I know that when you first embraced Islam -- or reverted to Islam, as -- as you -- you termed it -- your mother was not so pleased, or was -- had apprehensions. When -- when do you think was the point -- or maybe it was gradual -- but when was the point where you think that kind of turned or changed for the way that maybe some of your apprehensive families -- family members and 101:00friends responded to you? Do you remember that moment?

OCASIO: I think that in the beginning they were vocal and -- and -- and protested. But as they saw that I was adamant and was not going to change from who I was or who I'd became, then they let up a little bit. And I also tried to, you know, smooth the road a little for them. Like, I -- I would eat my mother's food, but I would make sure that she didn't put any pork in it. And she now knows no pork. And stuff like that. Little by little. And I think that they actually, you know, felt that me being Muslim -- after a few years. Not right away -- but me being Muslim was a good thing. They -- in other words, they may have been afraid of me changing into something totally different, you know. 102:00Because older people are conservative in their ways. And whenever change comes about they're a little -- they're more than apprehensive. And they -- you know, they want to keep their little circle as it is, as it always will be. And they don't want to make any change. Well, I'm the opposite; I like change. I like to be different, and I -- I beg to be different.

ALI: And in being different -- and this is true for -- for many Muslim women who choose to cover their hair is that they are easily identified in the public as Muslim.

OCASIO: Mm-hmm.

ALI: Can you talk about what that experience is like, or have you ever felt misunderstood or misread even before people get to know you because of -- of who they think you are based on your appearance? And -- especially in the moment 103:00where people have -- already have conceived ideas about who Muslims are -- have you ever worried about that or experienced that, for you or your children?

OCASIO: Well, I have experienced a negativity when they see me and I'm in a Muslim garb. Especially since 9/11. And sometimes I've had people look at me with eyes full of hate, and they don't even know who I am. And -- and -- and as I would say, "Listen. I am American. I am as American as American can get. I watched Howdy Doody and Superman when I was a kid, OK? So don't look at me like I'm some strange terrorist from another country," you know? But in general people are nice. In general. But I've had experiences with people off the cuff. And so -- Really -- I mean, the -- we -- this is very -- it's very wonderful to 104:00be part of a melting pot and a milieu of different cultures and things. It's just opens up your mind and opens up your heart. And I'm glad that I'm Muslim, Puerto Rican, Nuyorican [portmanteau of "New York" and "Puerto Rican"] individual! This is -- and -- and a woman, who's done quite a lot for the fact that people believe Muslim women are subjugated and low-- second-class citizens and not worth the dime, you know? So my husband has never gone against anything that I have done because he felt that what I've been doing was a good thing and a right thing. So, you know, I'm here to testify that being Muslim is not being oppressed.

ALI: So as we close the interview, as I introduced this interview, we are in 105:00Westminster, Maryland, at OMG Pastures, which is a farm. And this project is called Muslims in Brooklyn. So what is a Brooklyn -- as you say, a Puerto Rican, Nuyorican, Muslim city kid doing in the middle of farm country, Maryland? Tell me how you -- how did -- how did you get here?


ALI: What brought you here?

OCASIO: All right. Well, in nine-- we were thinking of selling the property -- we have a property -- my husband has a property on Evergreen Avenue, and we have another property on Covert Street. So in actuality my mother owned a property of six units. So she knew how to take care of a property and what to do, and I 106:00would help her when she got papers in the mail that said, "You have to have your apartment stabilized," and blah, blah, blah, the legalities of it all, right? So my husband and I bought an apar-- a six-unit building on Evergreen Avenue. And then we moved out of there 'cause it was too small. The units were too small for us. And we moved to Covert Street in Bushwick. So we decided to sell the property. So my -- me and my husband, we both decided that it would be half and half. So that's what we did.

In selling the property, I decided that my half was gonna go towards the dream that my children had gotten together and thought of. Mostly children -- when I say "children," I mean my daughter Sabriyya, my daughter Nasiha, my daughter Sultana. Not the boys so much, but the three girls. And Cheo [phonetic], which is my son-in-law. They wanted to be in a place where they would be able to live 107:00a better life, a cleaner life, in terms of -- as you know, there's GMOs out there -- the food is all full of it; pesticides; the water, some of it is toxic -- all that kind of stuff.

So they came up with a plan to live somewhere where they could be more green, energy-efficient, sustainable kind of life. And I agreed to that. And in agreeing to that, later on I made that commitment that whatever monies came from the sale of the property was gonna go towards buying a property where we could move to. Now, this is a -- a big move and a big deal because not only did we move into a -- an area where there are a handful of Muslims only, as opposed to 108:00New York City, where it's full -- chock full of Muslims, but also very few Latinos, and it's -- it's -- it's vanilla country. It's mostly White people here, you know. I like vanilla, but it is just mostly White people here.

But we found a nice spot that has the things we want. Wanted to have some animals. We raise some goats, and -- and -- and I milk the goat and get goat's milk. We have chickens; we get the eggs, so I know where the eggs come from that I have every morning. They're not tortured. You know, Islamically we have to, like, know where our food comes from and know that the animals and the earth is treated properly, you know. So you can't overcrowd the chickens in a -- in those big, gigantic hoops that they have now, hoop houses. And you have to treat the 109:00animals kindly.

And even when they're slaughtered they have to be treated kindly, and they can't be killed in the wrong way or -- or slaughtered the wrong way. And -- and -- so now I feel that it's -- it's more healthy for us. And it's actually community living now because -- I'm used to having my own household, OK? But now we have a community household. My sis-- my -- my daughter Nasia, who's unmarried; my daughter Sabria and her full family of four kids and a husband, and myself and my husband, we live here, in this one house. And we -- actually, it's good, 'cause you share all the utilities and all the expenses.

So you -- you live more economically when you live in a community than if you were to live as a -- you know, the nuclear family is the -- the norm for the 110:00American society. So we're doing community living, which is what I -- from the beginning I've always wanted to do. We -- we have land. We have water -- well water. It's not from the city. Y'know I don't have to worry anybody added anything to this water, 'cause it's straight from the -- from the ground. And we have animals that we plan to slaughter and eat and -- and -- and chickens and eggs.

And so I'm -- I'm satisfied with this. I mean, there's more to come. I'm not saying satisfied in terms of, "OK, that's it." I -- I have other -- I have more plans. [laughter] There's more to come. Inshallah, if Allah allows it.

ALI: Well, I thank you so much for sharing -- first of all, thank you so much for having me here --

OCASIO: OK, you're welcome.

ALI: -- for opening your home up to me so I could do this interview, and thank you so much for sharing your -- your story with us --



ALI: -- for this project. I really appreciate it.

OCASIO: You're welcome.


OCASIO: Alhamdulillah.

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Interview Description

Oral History Interview with Faiza Ocasio

Faiza Ocasio was born in 1953 in New York City. She was raised in a Catholic Puerto Rican family in the Lower East Side neighborhood of Manhattan. She married her husband and reverted to Islam while studying at Fordham University in the Bronx. After receiving their degrees, they moved to Washington, D.C. to work with the Islamic Party of North America. They returned to New York two years later, settling in the Cypress Hills neighborhood of Brooklyn. She became active in several Islam-centered organizations, including Alianza Islámica, a Latinx activist organization co-founded by her husband; Islamic Family Services in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, which offered support services for Muslim children in foster care in Brooklyn; and Al-Madrassa Al-Islamiya, a school in Staten Island and Brooklyn. She retired in 2015 and moved to Westminster, Maryland in 2016 to live on the family's farm.

In this interview, Faiza Ocasio discusses growing up in a Catholic Puerto Rican family in the Lower East Side neighborhood of Manhattan. She speaks extensively about her Muslim faith, including her initial exploration of Islam, Latin Americans' ancestral roots in the religion through the Muslim conquest of Spain in the Middle Ages, and the relationship between her Muslim faith and Latinx heritage. She also remembers organizations that she has been involved with, with particular emphasis on the Islamic Party of North America in Washington, D.C.; teaching at Al-Madrasa Al-Islamiya in Staten Island and Brooklyn; and serving as Chief Fiscal Officer with Brooklyn-based Islamic Family Services prior to the agency's closure over its Chief Executive Officer's financial mismanagement. In addition, she talks about her relationship with her husband and buying a farm in Westminster, Maryland. Interview conducted by Zaheer Ali.

This collection includes oral histories conducted and arranged by Brooklyn Historical Society in 2018. The interviews reflect varying approaches to religious observance among Muslim Brooklynites in relation to a wide range of communities and traditions within Islam, including Sunni, Shi'i, Sufi, Nation of Islam, W. D. Mohammed community, Five Percent, Dar ul Islam, and Ansaarullah. Collectively, there is particular focus on cultural and religious customs, practices, and gender roles within these communities; education and the arts; immigration from South Asia and the Middle East; the Nation of Islam; Islamophobia in the wake of the 1993 and 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center as well as after the 2016 presidential election; political activism and engagement; and community relations with law enforcement and government officials.


Ocasio, Faiza, Oral history interview conducted by Zaheer Ali, October 06, 2018, Muslims in Brooklyn oral histories, 2018.006.46; Brooklyn Historical Society.


  • Al-Madrasa Al-Islamiya (New York, N.Y.)
  • Alianza Islamica
  • Islamic Family Services (Brooklyn, New York, N.Y.)
  • Islamic Party of North America
  • Ocasio, Faiza


  • Agriculture
  • Education of children
  • Faith-based human services
  • Hispanic Americans
  • Muslim converts from Christianity
  • Puerto Rican Catholics
  • Religious education of children


  • Brooklyn (New York, N.Y.)
  • Lower East Side (New York, N.Y.)
  • Washington (D.C.)


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Finding Aid

Muslims in Brooklyn oral histories