A smaller Thanksgiving dinner this year. Usually, we get together with the cousins, or fly to eat with Granma in West Palm Beach or with Abuelo -- that's Grandpa -- a few miles farther south in Miami. This time, though, just us parents and the two kids in suburban New Jersey. It just worked out that no one traveled, and I did not at all push it.
I can't imagine Christmas dinner (actually, Christmas Eve dinner, Nochebuena, which is when the traditional meal takes place in the Hispanic world) without sharing it with as many family members and friends as can fit at our table. But for me, Thanksgiving is not in the same league.
It comes from being a first-generation immigrant. Thanksgiving is purely an American holiday, so my family never celebrated it -- I had never heard of it -- until we came to the United States in December 1965, three weeks before my 12th birthday. We've had Thanksgiving meals every year since, but something inside me simply does not click with the holiday.
It's not that I don't enjoy it. I have pleasant memories of Thanksgiving. My mother would cook a turkey, of course, but Cuban-style. She would marinate the bird overnight in bitter orange juice, garlic, cumin and oregano (it's the same traditional recipe she used for the roast leg of pork at Nochebuena) and stuff it with black beans. Sure, it was nice to eat together, nice to smell the aroma that wafted through the house. Still, it never seemed a mandatory holiday, like Christmas.
My wife, who is not Hispanic, likes me to cook the turkey Cuban-style, the way my mother did when she was alive. I follow her orders. But if instead we had a Norman Rockwellish meal straight off the exotic prairies of Nebraska, I would not object. I wouldn't feel I was breaking a family tradition, even though I guess I could call a Cuban-style Thanksgiving turkey a Hernandez family tradition now entering its 33rd year. To me, it has never become truly heartfelt.
I know I will get letters from readers saying my lack of Thanksgiving spirit shows how immigrants refuse to become real Americans, that we are tearing America apart by our refusal to let go of our ethnic identities. I can answer those letters by referring to a different holiday. Corny though it may sound, I get chills up my spine when I hear "America the Beautiful" while fireworks go off above on warm Fourth of July nights. Never do I feel more American than on Independence Day. It reminds me that my parents found refuge from oppression in this country, and that despite the ethnic tensions and stereotypes about Hispanics, I have done pretty well here. On the Fourth of July, I feel American. On Thanksgiving, I feel like a foreigner.
Maybe that's just the way it is has to be with most first-generation immigrants. One part of us is American because we have lived most of our lives in this country and, at least in my case, have come to appreciate its blessings and love it as much as anyone born here. But one part of us is not American, because, like all human beings, we are shaped by childhood memories -- in our case, memories of childhoods lived somewhere else. Other immigrants feel this duality in different ways. I feel it most at Thanksgiving. It distances me from the holiday in a way impossible for native Americans to understand.
My children will feel none of this. Their own memories of Thanksgiving will be as thoroughly American as their mother's. They will not feel like foreigners. And I think that is for the best. I just hope they don't forget to serve Cuban-style turkey to their own families when they grow up.
(C) 1999, King Features Syndicate Inc.