Holiday Guide 2011

With blended customs, Salvadoran family celebrates Thanksgiving

Katherine Frey/THE WASHINGTON POST - From left, the Lima family Abraham, Maria, Deborah, Bella, Nehemias and Abraham Jr., sit down and pray before Thanksgiving dinner.

The papaya, mango, coconuts and pineapple, scented with cinnamon, had simmered for hours in an aluminum pot, filling the Rockville home with the aroma of ponche, a tropical fruit drink.

For this family, ponche — introduced two years ago after a son brought it home from a trip to Guatemala — is Thanksgiving. So is the turkey recipe, featuring Goya seasoning, olive oil and garlic, that was taught to an El Salvador native by expatriate Iranians.

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But perhaps more than anything, Thanksgiving is the satisfaction at seeing four of five children home for the holiday. “God has blessed me and my family in ways I couldn’t have imagined,” said Abraham Lima, 58.

Lima and his wife, Maria, had never celebrated Thanksgiving before they moved to the Washington area from Santa Ana in their native El Salvador. Now it is one of their most treasured holidays.

Stories like this are common, yet each one unique, in the immigrant-rich Washington area. Nearly one in four area residents is foreign-born, according to the U.S. Census, and Salvadorans are the largest Hispanic group in the region. About 240,000 Salvadorans live in the area, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.

Immigrant families such as the Limas contribute to high rates of income and education among Hispanics in the Washington area. Also driven by the wealth of international organizations such as the World Bank, Organization of American States and Pan-American Health Organization, D.C. area Hispanic families are among the nation’s wealthiest and most educated.

The Washington region’s 700,000 Hispanics have a median household income of nearly $61,000, the highest rate in the country among Latinos. And one in four Hispanic adults in the area has at least a four-year college degree, almost double the national rate.

Thursday in Rockville, the day started about 8 a.m. as Abraham and Maria chopped vegetables and herbs for the turkey he prepares using tips he learned while cooking and cleaning at a Middle Eastern restaurant in the early 1990s.

Friends stopped to play games; boys watched sports on television; the parents kept an eye on the kitchen. The house was a mutilingual din: The children spoke to each other in English; the parents to each other in Spanish. The children spoke to their parents in English; they responded in Spanish. A visiting friend speaks no Spanish; a grandchild, 3-year-old Bella, speaks both.

As dinner time approached, Abraham and Maria could not contain smiles.

They thanked God.

All five children, now grown, have careers. Two have families of their own. There are three grandchildren and another on the way. “How can I not be thankful?” Abraham Lima said.

“We have made our part,” Maria said. “But God did the biggest part.”

The family came to the United States from an impoverished part of Santa Ana in the western region of El Salvador. Abraham Lima came first in 1985, seeking economic opportunity. Those days without his wife and children, he said, were painful — but he had a better future in mind for them.

In the mid-1990s, the rest of the family came. The Limas bought a house in the District, raised the children — the youngest was born in the United States, and all of the Limas are American citizens, including the parents — and then moved to the suburbs.

The Rockville home, a three-level house with a big back yard on a quiet, tree-lined street, sports reminders of their Salvadoran heritage: A key holder by the main entrance bears that country’s flag. But it is also in many ways quintessentially American, with Bible verses and framed photographs of cap-and-gown-wearing children sprinkled throughout. In the game room, posters of American, English and Brazilian soccer stars adorn the walls.

“My children have enriched me. They have honored us,” said Abraham Lima, who cleans federal offices downtown. “And this country has made it possible. It has given them opportunity.”

Wilfredo Lima, 30, is an HVAC engineer who works for Metro. He and his wife, Flor, are expecting their first child. Abraham Jr., 28, graduated from Virginia Commonwealth University and is a mechanical engineer working toward a master’s degree at the University of Maryland. The youngest child, 20-year-old Deborah, is studying nursing at Montgomery College and caring for Bella, her daughter.

The only child absent from the table Thursday was Merary Lima-Rosales, 26, a medical assistant with two children. She was with her husband’s family in Virginia.

Nehemias Lima, 32, who came to the United States when he was 16 and graduated from American University, is a software engineer and is active in his Germantown church. He said he has relished the opportunity that living in Washington has afforded him to visit other places and learn about other people.

“You have so many cultures here,” he said. “You learn about everyone. That’s the nice thing about the D.C. area.”

At a table set with turkey, mashed potatoes with gravy, rice, guacamole and a roasted rooster, Abraham Lima said grace.

“Thank you, Lord, for the special moment we have together,” he said. “Thanks for my family sitting around the table, and for this turkey you have provided. I am so thankful to you for blessing us in a very special way.”

 
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