Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Many Traditions, One Sentiment

New American families celebrate a holiday unique to their adopted country. THANKSGIVING

THE Pilgrims were immigrants when they celebrated their first Thanksgiving. In the fall of 1621, Gov. William Bradford of the Plymouth Colony proclaimed a thanksgiving in gratitude for the harvest and the colony's surviving that first bitter winter. Pilgrims and their Wampanoag Indian guests dined on wild turkey, venison, cranberries, and popcorn, among other things. Three and a half centuries later, today's American immigrants may celebrate Thanksgiving Day with equal gratitude, and in many different ways. The Monitor interviewed three first-generation American families to get their thoughts on this unique holiday.

Every day, the Montanos give thanks Pacoima, Calif.

About these ads

Growing up on a ranch outside Guadalajara, Mexico, Fausto Montano celebrated a once-a-year feast known as Acabo de cosecha (``finish of harvest''). All of the ranchers and farmers in his area did the same sometime between October and December, but not on any designated day. They butchered a pig, turkey, cow, or lamb, and made rice soup, Mexican breads, tortillas, horchata (a drink from rice and cinnamon), and Jamaican water (a drink made with flower petals).

Depending on what crops did well that year - corn, beans, garbanzos, peppers, tomatoes, peanuts - other traditional Mexican dishes were concocted in enough quantity that friends and relatives in the area could eat their fill.

Today Mr. Montano, his wife Teodora, and their 11 children are a classic example of the new American immigrant: The father went north from Mexico searching for a better life. He moved from migrant laborer to factory worker, gradually bringing his family over the border one by one. Illegals for many years, the Montanos are now halfway through the amnesty program set up by the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986.

``We love America now more than Mexico,'' Montano says from his family's small, linoleum-floored flat in a public-housing project here. ``There is a better life here, more opportunities for my children.''

Gratitude is a way of life for the Montanos. Each prays four times a day: when rising, before meals, before travel, before sleep. Since they feel there is no biblical correlation between Thanksgiving Day and Christianity, they do not formally celebrate the fourth Thursday of November.

They do, however, participate in its tradition of family gathering, giving gratitude for abundance, and feasting. For them, this means combining traditional American Thanksgiving Day fare (turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, cranberries) with Mexican food - tortillas, posole (corn soup), tamales, mole (see recipe) and pipian. Pipian is made from roasted, ground pumpkin and sesame seeds made into a tortilla dough, stuffed with onions, tomatoes, and peppers, and fried in butter, oil, or lard.

The elder Montanos learned the story of the Pilgrims from their children, who learned of the traditions of turkey and cranberries from the local elementary school.

About these ads

``We are grateful for the abundance of our adopted land,'' says Teodora, who notes that most of her Hispanic friends here make full use of the holiday with various combinations of Mexican and American fare. ``But we show it daily, throughout the year, in quiet prayer.''

The Montanos ``fit the classic scenario of the immigrant family in Southern California,'' says Linda Wong, president of California Tomorrow, a nonprofit organization that addresses changing demographics and builds multi-racial coalitions.

``They quietly assimilate over time, usually with the impetus brought from the surrounding area through their children. It's good for Anglos to be aware of this as a quiet adaptation rather than a feeling that immigrants don't want to assimilate. They just have to embrace their new land at their own pace, for their own reasons.'' -Daniel B. Wood

For the Chuis, a day to share with others Boston

``We mix [traditions] because in China we don't have Thanksgiving Day,'' says Judy Chui of Wayland, Mass., when asked how her family celebrates the holiday. She, her husband, I-Fan, and their four daughters get together with four other Chinese families for a Thanksgiving feast - Chinese-American style.

The families choose one home and devise a menu in advance, divvying up dish assignments. ``We make something for the children like turkey American-style, and each family makes a [Chinese] dish,'' says Mrs. Chui, who plans to open a restaurant.

Fixing a turkey and other American goodies for the children reinforces their link with US culture. ``Before, when they were very small, we didn't do that,'' she says. But as they got older it was important that they be like their friends. Chui emigrated to the US 20 years ago, and all her children were born here. ``We want them to be like other children,'' she says.

Gatherings like this are typical of Chinese-American Thanksgivings, says Chui. She values the time the holiday provides for family and friends. ``Sometimes we're busy and don't see each other,'' she says.

The festivities start early in the evening. Guests sit down at two big tables - one for adults and one for children.

Instead of preparing dishes at home, each family brings fresh ingredients and takes turns cooking while the others ``sit and enjoy time,'' says Chui. If you cook everything beforehand, it gets cold and loses flavor, she notes.

This Thanksgiving the Chinese menu features an assortment of shrimp, vegetable, and fish dishes. Mrs. Chui's contribution will be ``Vegetable Goose,'' a dish of assorted vegetables in bean curd sheets. (See recipe.)

The children are served a traditional turkey dinner (a plate usually makes its way to the adults, says Chui), followed by dessert - usually pie or cake. Chui's children often remind her of things to buy: ``Don't forget the apple cider!'' They don't want to miss out on any of the traditional Thanksgiving fare, she says.

Judy and I-Fan Chui's four daughters - Lisa, Luna, Lucy, and Lily - are willing helpers for this ``party.'' Whereas teens don't usually warm up to adults and chores, somehow this occasion is different, Mrs. Chui observes. ``Teenagers don't like to go to a regular [adult] party, but they go to this,'' she says with a quiet laugh.

``One thing I really like about Thanksgiving is that everybody's home,'' says Lisa Chui, 12. Her three sisters attend college.

Also, ``I've known these families since I was born,'' says Lisa. ``At Thanksgiving we're together again.'' A Soviet family is reunited Brighton, Mass.

This year, Russian 'emigr'es Yelena and Mikhail Gorovoy have something to be especially thankful for: the arrival of their daughter Kira Schmulovich, her husband Igor, and their two grandchildren, Leonid and Kathrine. It took seven years to get the family out of the Soviet Union.

``We're so appreciative of this country, because it's so nice and wonderful,'' says Yelena, as Kathrine leans against her, gazing up at visitors. ``We learned that Thanksgiving is a day of appreciation for us.''

The family were refuseniks, Russian Jews whose applications to emigrate had been denied. The whole family thought they could leave together in 1981, but at the last minute Kira and Igor were denied permission. So the Gorovoys stayed in the Soviet Union, but a year later felt it would be better to leave. They came to the United States and lived in Houston and San Francisco before coming to Boston.

``I thought it would be a better place to fight for Kira,'' says Yelena. ``People helped us so much. A lot of American people told their Congressmen, wrote letters, and visited my daughter.'' In March, the Schmuloviches, along with 40 other refusenik families, were given permission to leave.

Until this year, the Gorovoys have celebrated Thanksgiving with friends. It was a Houston friend that taught Yelena how to cook a turkey. ``We put it in the oven for all night. It was very soft and moist that way. It was good. We all work so we don't have a lot of time to do things,'' she says, laughing. Yelena is a translator in a community health center, Mikhail is a locksmith and carpenter, Kira is studying to be a medical technician, and Igor is a computer scientist.

There is no equivalent Thanksgiving holiday in Russia, says Kira, ``the harvests are so poor.'' They are leaving Russian holidays behind, remembering them only as ``revolutionary days'' on which they were expected to work for the state for free.

But the family has added some Russian dishes to their new holiday meal. In honor of a reporter's visit, Yelena laid out what she modestly described as a small sampling of what they'll be eating on Thanksgiving: a roast turkey with baked apples, baked potatoes stuffed with rice and mushrooms, a Russian salad of marinated vegetables, chopped liver, Russian bread - and apple pie. Catherine Foster

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.