Pilgrim Spirit

Recent Immigrants Remember Their First Thanksgiving

Like the original Pilgrims who were themselves newcomers to this continent, Thanksgiving is best understood through the eyes of more recent immigrants hundreds of years later.

My Cuban dad says he liked the holiday from the start. A young man in his early 20s, he was living with his family in Georgia after they left Cuba because of political turmoil. During his first Thanksgiving more than 40 years ago, volunteers from their new parish knocked on the door. In their hands they carried a turkey and a basket of goodies.

“I immediately liked Thanksgiving,” says my dad, Manuel Hidalgo. Free food!

More importantly for my father, the food was brought by people who were welcoming him and his family to their new American homeland.

His story reminds me of the Native Americans who welcomed the newly arrived Pilgrims and helped them with their crop planting. The First Thanksgiving was a shared Native-Pilgrim celebration. The welcoming of others is an integral part of the Thanksgiving spirit.

“Cubans have embraced Thanksgiving as something very dear to them,” says my dad.

The bland turkey wasn’t as seasoned as traditional Cuban pork. Mashed potatoes were in the end just mashed food. She didn’t understand why people would want to mix sweet cranberries with salty food. And the fruitcake. Well most teens don’t like fruitcake, and this Cuban teen didn’t either.

My mother’s first Thanksgiving was a culture shock in which she had to confront living in a new country where people ate foods that were not familiar and not comforting to her.

But the giving thanks part. “That is beautiful!” says my mom, Eloisa. And so once my parents were married they celebrated the holiday with gusto. Lots of family, friends, and food.

Over the years though my Mom has made the holiday a Cuban-American experience. She’s quit trying to cook turkey and has gone back to pork. Alongside other traditional American foods are Cuban yuca, black beans and rice, and fried plantains. More food for us!

About ten years ago my friend Jennifer Vergara immigrated to the U.S. from the Philippines. Her first Thanksgiving was celebrated with cousins who had already established themselves. But turkey in the Philippines is the poor man’s chicken, says Jennifer, so she was surprised at the central place turkey holds in the American tradition. Even so, she discovered she does “love turkey breast, stuffing, cranberries, and pumpkin pie.”

Jennifer, who comes from a devout Catholic family, says it was easy for her to adopt Thanksgiving as a meaningful holiday.

“As Catholics we were often thanking the Lord. And being in the United States we were thankful for the opportunity to have a better life here,” she says. Thanksgiving naturally resonated within her heart as a new holiday to enjoy.

Listening to stories of my immigrant parents and friends I more fully understand the true welcoming spirit that is at the heart of the best Thanksgiving celebrations.