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Thanksgiving embrace: Latinos give thanks for family, food

Published: Saturday, Aug. 1 2015 7:57 a.m. MDT

Dressed as pilgrims and native Americans, members of the Gomez and Torres families sing a song about the first Thanksgiving at their home in Eagle Mountain Friday, November 11, 2011 (Brian Nicholson, El Observador de Utah) Dressed as pilgrims and native Americans, members of the Gomez and Torres families sing a song about the first Thanksgiving at their home in Eagle Mountain Friday, November 11, 2011 (Brian Nicholson, El Observador de Utah)

With salsa now outranking ketchup as the No. 1 condiment in the U.S. (it accounts for $764 million sales per year), it is no surprise that many turkeys shared by families this Thanksgiving will have a bit more spice.

Come the fourth Thursday in November, Latino families — much like their Anglo neighbors — will gather around the table to give thanks for their blessings.

The food and drink may be different — frijoles instead of mashed potatoes, mojitos instead of cider — but for Latinos, the need to celebrate, to mark a holiday that reflects so directly on their immigrant status, and their arrival in this land of bounty, is undeniable.

Part of the reason this holiday resonates so much with the Latino community is that it enshrines two elements that are central to Latino life: family and food.

In the Hispanic world, life revolves around the family. Extended families live together and maintain close relationships. Food is central to all family reunions, whether they be to celebrate or commiserate. Food brings Latinos together and allows them to recall their homeland while savoring the culinary joys of the world they have settled in.

At top, Giovanni Spillari offers a blessing on the food prior to enjoying a Guatemalan turkey dish known as pepian at his home in Layton. Spillari's family embraces the American tradition of celebrating Thanksgiving. Above, Graciela Gomez sings with her children during a representation of the first Thanksgiving at their home.   (Brian Nicholson, El Observador de Utah) At top, Giovanni Spillari offers a blessing on the food prior to enjoying a Guatemalan turkey dish known as pepian at his home in Layton. Spillari's family embraces the American tradition of celebrating Thanksgiving. Above, Graciela Gomez sings with her children during a representation of the first Thanksgiving at their home. (Brian Nicholson, El Observador de Utah)

Anglo neighbors should perhaps marvel that Hispanics from so many countries are celebrating "el día de gracias" (day of thanks) in their own particular way, drawing on both the culinary and social traditions from, say, Guatemala or Colombia or Mexico, while also embracing traditional American forms of celebration.

Although many of these festivities may not seem like a typical Thanksgiving, they are examples of what the holiday in multicultural America truly represents: a celebration that connects all families living in this country as they gather to celebrate the things that came before and to give thanks for the blessings in their lives now.

It's been a decade since the Gomez family left Colombia for Utah, but come Thanksgiving, as turkey-traditional as their celebration is, they never forget their roots.

Dressed as pilgrims and native Americans, members of the Gomez and Torres families act out a representation of the first Thanksgiving at their home in Eagle Mountain Friday, November 11, 2011. (Brian Nicholson, El Observador de Utah) Dressed as pilgrims and native Americans, members of the Gomez and Torres families act out a representation of the first Thanksgiving at their home in Eagle Mountain Friday, November 11, 2011. (Brian Nicholson, El Observador de Utah)

"We adopted this celebration as a way of giving thanks for the blessings we have received and for the warm welcome this country has given us," said Armando Gomez, patriarch of the family.

Although they share many family activities, this holiday holds its own special place in the family's collective heart. Along with gathering around a great feast, as a family they express their gratitude to the Almighty.

"For us it is not just the turkey and the many dishes that accompany the dinner," Armando said.

"It is a day to recognize that we live in a free country that allows us to raise our children in a safe place such as Utah. It is a day to teach our children and help them to remember that although we are Hispanic, we live in this country with its own history and culture, which we must learn and respect," says Yvonne Torres, Armando Gomez's daughter. She is married and has four children.

 A Guatemalan Thanksgiving dish known as potatoes with saffron at the home of Luis Gonzalez in Layton Sunday, November 13, 2011. (Brian Nicholson, El Observador de Utah) A Guatemalan Thanksgiving dish known as potatoes with saffron at the home of Luis Gonzalez in Layton Sunday, November 13, 2011. (Brian Nicholson, El Observador de Utah)

Along with the gastronomical excesses of your average Thanksgiving, the family also indulges in a "talent night." Each family member shares a particular talent, be it a song, a dance, a poem or some off-the-cuff acting.

The youngest of the family, including siblings and cousins, represent the arrival of the pilgrims to the New World and how they were helped by the Native Americans.

"We do not use fancy costumes representing that time. Instead, we use something very simple that we can make, but (it is) very representative and original," added Yvonne.

As part of their celebration, they also adopted the song "This Land Is Your Land."

"Our father helped us with the guitar and all of us, after dinner, sit in the living room and sing the song.

"We feel that this is also now our land," Yvonne explains.

Ivonne Torres passes out lyrics to a song to members of her family before singing as part of a representation of the first Thanksgiving at their home in Eagle Mountain Friday, November 11, 2011. (Brian Nicholson, El Observador de Utah) Ivonne Torres passes out lyrics to a song to members of her family before singing as part of a representation of the first Thanksgiving at their home in Eagle Mountain Friday, November 11, 2011. (Brian Nicholson, El Observador de Utah)

As the evening progresses, the family group moves to Colombian folk music, bringing together the music from the land of their ancestors and their American home.

When in Rome, do as the Romans — and when in America, do it the American way. That's what Miki Osuna learned more than 30 years ago, when she emigrated from Veracruz, Mexico, to the United States.

"We were living in Houston, Texas, my children were babies, and some young members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints from the neighborhood brought us a full dinner to teach us about the traditional Thanksgiving. It was something new for us," she said.

Dressed as Pilgrims and Native Americans, the young members of the LDS Church gave a turkey, sweet potatoes and cranberry sauce to the Mexican family to give them a taste of the all-American feast.

To celebrate Thanksgiving, Giovanni Spillari and his son Dustin enjoy a Guatelmalan turkey dish known as pepian at his home in Layton Sunday, November 13, 2011 (Brian Nicholson, El Observador de Utah) To celebrate Thanksgiving, Giovanni Spillari and his son Dustin enjoy a Guatelmalan turkey dish known as pepian at his home in Layton Sunday, November 13, 2011 (Brian Nicholson, El Observador de Utah)

"They even brought decorations so we could put them in our house," she said.

Beyond the tradition and the celebration, Miki found a whole new world with a completely new flavor.

When Miki and her family moved to Utah, the tradition continued in her family, and her youngest daughter, Beymi, is now in charge of organizing the celebration each year.

"She always reminds me how to do it. She likes to set the table and to help me in the kitchen," she said. To give the night a Mexican flavor, Beymi adds a green spaghetti made with poblano chile to go along with the traditional dishes.

Over the years, the Osuna family has grown. Through the LDS Church, Miki found a new love: Fernando Osuna, an immigrant of Spanish origin, and his three children, who now all join the Thanksgiving family celebration.

Dressed as pilgrims, Danny Gomez and his brother, Santiago, act out a representation of the first Thanksgiving. Each year, the family indulges in a Dressed as pilgrims, Danny Gomez and his brother, Santiago, act out a representation of the first Thanksgiving. Each year, the family indulges in a "talent night." (Brian Nicholson, El Observador de Utah)

"Every year, we gather about 15 people, sometimes even more, when we add in-laws and the families of our grown-up children," she said.

During dinner the whole family takes a moment to pray and give thanks, and everyone is given a moment to express their feelings.

"When everyone is done eating we like to enjoy our time as a family. Traditionally, all our parties end with dancing, but on Thanksgiving it is just dinner and family time, maybe a board game, but nothing else, just a time to reflect and be together as family," she concludes.

"We adopted the day of Thanksgiving to thank God for bringing our families to this country," says Giovanni Spillari, who came to Utah from Guatemala. "We spend the day sharing anecdotes with friends and remember our homeland through our typical food."

To celebrate Thanksgiving, Luis Gonzalez serves up a Guatemalan turkey dish known as pepian at his home in Layton Sunday, November 13, 2011 (Brian Nicholson, El Observador de Utah) To celebrate Thanksgiving, Luis Gonzalez serves up a Guatemalan turkey dish known as pepian at his home in Layton Sunday, November 13, 2011 (Brian Nicholson, El Observador de Utah)

That's now tradition for many Guatemalans — or "los chapines," as Guatemala natives are called. They have embraced the American tradition of celebrating Thanksgiving Day while focusing very much on the culinary hallmarks that define Guatemalan cooking.

Luis Gonzalez came to Utah from the Guatemalan state of San Marcos 20 years ago. "In Guatemala we do not eat turkey regularly, except on special occasions like New Year's dinner," he says. "But once we moved to the U.S., we celebrated Thanksgiving day with our own version of a turkey dinner," Luis explained, by accompanying it with food that is typical of his Guatamalan homeland.

At his home in Layton, Utah, Gonzalez often gathers with his friends, local chapines, to enjoy the Guatemalan dishes he enthusiastically prepares. This upcoming Thanksgiving is no exception, and Gonzalez is busy with the preparations.

Dressed as native Americans, Vanessa Torres and her brothers, Nick and Michael, act out a representation of the first Thanksgiving at their home in Eagle Mountain Friday, November 11, 2011 (Brian Nicholson, El Observador de Utah) Dressed as native Americans, Vanessa Torres and her brothers, Nick and Michael, act out a representation of the first Thanksgiving at their home in Eagle Mountain Friday, November 11, 2011 (Brian Nicholson, El Observador de Utah)

"One of the most typical dishes is the 'pepián,' which is a fricassee sauce," he says. "We flavor the turkey with sesame and mild chile and add potatoes fried with olive oil and saffron." He bolsters the menu with white rice and cheese and some corn cakes stuffed with chicken and chile sauce. These are "chuchitos," which are served wrapped in a corn husk.

Another well-known Guatemalan dish from the Spanish colonial period is "fiambre," made with vegetables, sausage meat and cheeses. "It is traditional to consume it to celebrate the Day of the Dead on Nov. 1st and 2nd," he said, "but we will also be serving it for Thanksgiving this year."

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