On the last Thursday of November, this country celebrates a family holiday with special characteristics comparable only to Christmas or perhaps New Year’s. The day is Thanksgiving, or Día de Acción de Gracias in Spanish. It has also been “spanglished” into Tensgivin, or simply Día del Pavo—Turkey Day. Among those immigrants who have been here a while, the day is no longer novel. For recent arrivals, however, it can be something entirely new and, at times, confusing.
Thanksgiving is one of few traditional holidays in America, if not the only one, that has not crossed borders and penetrated the rest of the world. In Mexico, for example, Halloween, even without “trick-or-treating” children, is merged with the Day of the Dead. Christmas, with its Anglo-Saxon lighted tree, obligatory gifts, snow—which doesn’t exist in Mexico in December—and the iconic figure of Santa Claus coexist seamlessly with the Christ Child and even grapes, champagne toasts and good wishes for the New Year. Not to mention those totally American sporting events like the Super Bowl, with its spectacular half-time shows and events that are copied in the Olympics and the World Cup, the World Series of baseball and the N.B.A. playoffs, now watched everywhere on T.V. (and in Mexico even before globalization).
When asked about the significance of Thanksgiving, Latinos offer different responses, unaware as they are of its origin. They usually think of it as a religious holiday, since one must give thanks to God, although they don’t know for what, exactly. Is it for a good life, favors received, one more year? For Mama’s or Uncle’s or Grandma’s recovery? And so on ad
The truth is that the way we celebrate Thanksgiving, along with its unclear origin, generate confusion. There is nothing like it in Latin America.
The holiday is an annual family get-together, with great food in abundant quantities, including turkey and other traditional foods. It starts in the early afternoon and family and friends are invited. Others may attend public celebrations put on by a community group or church—adding yet more confusion to the holiday with the inexplicable charity of social service organizations.
An immigrant who arrives during this season can be offered food and even a turkey before he is unpacked; if he has no family, he can go to a community celebration. The nature of the party, which promotes togetherness, love and mutual appreciation between loved ones, puts immigrants in the best disposition to join the festivities and at the same time to keep their distance from gringos.
After enjoying this celebration for a year, most immigrants are willing to celebrate it as their own, in spite of there being nothing like it in their countries of origin. There are some who confuse it with the fiesta of the patron saint of their village and have told me it is celebrated with a solemn mass followed by a community-organized meal for everybody. The truth is that Thanksgiving just doesn’t exist outside the United States.
I have Latino friends and acquaintances who are already getting ready to prepare Tensgivin dinner, but with a twist. Unlike American families, many will use the dishes and food of their countries of origin. Thus, along with, or instead of, turkey, there will be chicken or pork tamales, pupusas, atole, pozole, moles of different kinds and an endless selection of other dishes and desserts from their home countries. The time of day is not really important: one can begin at noon, afternoon or late at night, with a dinner similar to the one that will follow a month later, at Christmas. Some even pray or attend mass, and of course they won’t watch any football game, but perhaps something for the occasion on Spanish-language T.V.
I too had to adjust to this celebration. I remember going to Thanksgiving dinners during my first years in this country where no one could tell me the reason for such an elaborate and food-filled party. I finally realized that the reason is not the point.
The important thing is to continue a tradition that, for many, represents perhaps the only time during the year when they get together with family to demonstrate the gratitude, love and affection that is normally difficult if not impossible because of distance, work and all the other distractions of modern life.
Victor Reyes is a Sonoma-based translator, language teacher and writer, and a native of Puebla, Mexico, with decades-old ties to the Point Reyes Light. The Spanish language version of this column is available at ptreyeslight.com.