Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Let’s talk turkey

My brothers and I grew up in Guatemala, celebrating Thanksgiving as el Día de Acción de Gracias. Mostly we celebrated it out of solidarity for my father – an American who had lived abroad most of his adult life (and indeed, most of his youth as well). We grooved on the food, were horrified by Pilgrim fashion, and generally, identified with Squanto and the other non-Puritans at the table.

Which is interesting, given that the Patuxet and Wampanoag Indians were the only non-immigrants at the table.

Thanksgiving -- as much as it is about family and food and giving thanks to God for both -- is about the citizens of an existing community giving welcome and rescue to the immigrants who washed up on the shores of their great, good land. Think about it – immigrants with no legal standing in the community sitting at the same table as those whose history in America was long-established. Hmmm.

This Thanksgiving, I’m delighted to say, family is traveling to Pennsylvania for the celebration. There will be lots of great food – Anna and Jhumpa are terrific cooks, and I’m not so bad, either – and even better conversation. Especially during the making of tamales, which just invites sharing (see my very first blog post to read about the tamal-making process).

When we sit around the table we will represent nearly every stage of the immigrant experience.

My brothers and I are second-generation Americans – born to a first-gen Greek-American and a Guatemalan – a long-time “resident alien” who became a naturalized U.S. citizen a scant year before her death. Alberto was born in Mexico, Bill in Guatemala, and I was born in Thailand. Despite being American citizens from birth (by virtue of the 14th Amendment’s jus sanguinis) we didn’t move to the U.S. until we were teenagers (or nearly so) and, in many ways, have had the f.o.b. (“fresh off the boat”) experience common to recent immigrants.

My husband, Bryan, was born in New York State, where his forebears – Welsh, English, French, German – settled generations ago. Jhumpa was born in England to Bengali parents, who soon thereafter immigrated to Rhode Island, where she grew up. Anna also was born in England, to an Irish parent and a Spanish one. And if the priest friend I’ve invited to Thanksgiving joins us, he’ll bring Philadelphia Irish-American ancestry (I think) to the table with him.

Then there are the kids – Morgan Sophia, Octavio and Noor. Octavio’s and Noor’s heritage unites two of the fastest-growing “minorities” in the United States; and Morgan fits into the long-standing tradition of new immigrant parent mixed with old.

Their names, their faces, their beings are the America of the 21st century.

I am not so innocent to believe that they will be immune from discrimination for who they are and who their parents and grandparents are (or were). Already Morgan has dealt with at least one schoolmate, who, finding out that she had some Latino heritage, decided to call her an “illegal immigrant.” But I am hopeful. And as I keep saying in these blog posts, that is really what the United States means to any immigrant: hope and possibility.

If my priest friend does show up for Thanksgiving, no doubt he’ll be asked to lead us in our prayer of thanksgiving before the meal (always ask the expert to do the job). But if he doesn’t, this is the grace I’ll be praying – a Marist prayer for immigrant justice on this most immigrant of holidays:

O God,
Who welcomes all His children,
and embraces even the prodigal ones,
help us open our hearts
and welcome all who come, searching
as our ancestors did,
for the promise of a new land, a new life.
Root out fear from our souls;
help us form the words
“sister” and “brother”
as we greet the newcomers.
Let us remember that,
with Your grace,
there are enough loaves and fishes
to go around
if we come together
as Your family.
Give us the courage
and the compassion
to respect the rights of all
in this country of abundance.
To embrace all in
the name of Your love.

Happy Thanksgiving!


  1. Thanks for the relevant Thanksgiving message. Have a great holiday with your wonderfully diverse family.
    Susan Bauman

  2. Is there a country where this mix would be more welcome?

  3. Norma,
    You might be interested to know that the following countries outstrip the United States in terms of percentage of foreign-born nationals (immigrants) within the population: Austria, Canada, New Zealand, Australia and Switzerland. An interesting read: http://oberon.sourceoecd.org/vl=5662338/cl=17/nw=1/rpsv/factbook/010302.htm

  4. Touché, chapina.

  5. Sabrina - happy belated Thanksgiving. I just sent a FB request to you. My father's sister, Diana, was married to Takis. I loved Leander - he taught me several things.


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