On Thanksgiving, many Latinos will reunite with their loved ones over heaping plates of delicious food and conversation. The federal holiday is largely considered a time to give thanks for one’s blessings, and the kinds of dishes served will depend on which country your family hails from. If you’re Puerto Rican, for example, there may be pernil and pasteles on deck; pupusas if you’re Salvadoran; and the pink-tinged ensalada rusa if you’re Dominican.
“Much like Columbus Day, Thanksgiving is also controversial.”
Thanksgiving originated as a harvest festival that recognizes an event people in the U.S. commonly call the “first Thanksgiving,” during which English settlers, referred to as pilgrims, celebrated their initial harvest in the “New World” in October 1621. According to attendee Edward Winslow, there were Native Americans present at the feast.
But much like Columbus Day, Thanksgiving is also controversial and considered by some to be a “national day of mourning” or a celebration of the genocide of Native Americans by colonizers. For decades, Native American groups and their allies have protested the holiday.
Similarly, for many Latinos and their immigrant families, the fact that Thanksgiving is widely celebrated stokes anger given the horrendous treatment of the Americas’ Indigenous peoples, which have included massacres, terror and removal from their ancestral lands. But for others, Thanksgiving is simply a time to be grateful for the people in your life and hard-to-find opportunities like employment. That message is amplified heavily in TV ads and advertisements that often depict relatives and friends in moments of gratitude.
With Thanksgiving just days away, we asked a few Latinos to share their candid thoughts on the holiday.
We have edited and condensed responses for clarity.
Imani Celeste Fuentes, 20, Student
I love Thanksgiving. To be honest, it’s one of my favorite holidays, mostly because of the food. Usually, I have both my abuelas with me, so someone will bring moro and there will also be white rice, beans, pernil, pastelitos, potato salad and maybe even maduros. There’s just so much food and a variety of options that you can keep going for seconds and thirds. That’s why I get really hype.
“It’s one of my favorite holidays, mostly because of the food.”
I love the family aspect because we all come together. A lot of the time, we’re all pretty busy with work and school. [During Thanksgiving], we have time to relax and just sit with one another and enjoy each other’s company. Both my grandmothers are best friends, so they’ll be sitting there playing dominoes for hours. Sometimes, I will just sit down and watch an intense game. My uncle will play music and we’ll have a dance battle. I feel like the family aspect is very important since we’re always so busy. Dominicans are always partying, so it’s always a good time.
Thanksgiving was one of those holidays where I didn’t mind staying home. I’ve always felt this way. My immediate family, we’re so close. There’s no drama, which is rare. We can just sit and enjoy each other’s time. They don’t pressure me about ‘Y tu novio?’ It’s great. I don’t have to be pressured and asked this question every single time.
Xemiyulu Manibusan Tapepechul, 29, Founding Artistic Director of Nelwat Ishkamewe and Director of Art/Culture at Trans-Latinx DMV
It’s rooted in a lot of ignorance and erasure. Because assimilation is seen as something that’s necessary to survive, it’s easy for migrant communities to see it as positive. Día de Acción de Gracias sounds like something that’s really positive, but it’s the miseducation around the topic that has caused people to just not really get it. We see migrant communities, Central Americans, dressing up as pilgrims and dressing up as U.S. native folk and it’s super offensive and also sad.
“Thanksgiving is assimilation.”
I come from Salvadoran communities where Indigenous identities have been erased through military acts and genocide. Of course, Latin American people are not celebrating Thanksgiving to celebrate genocide; they’re celebrating to be with their families and having a day off. There’s a way to have our day off. I live in Washington, D.C., and [on Thanksgiving] I used to go to the National Museum of the American Indian and spend the day there with some friends. I also used to go to different people’s houses and spend time with them – none of it in celebration of Thanksgiving but rather taking the opportunity to be together just because of the time the federal government has taken off. We’re all forced, one way or another, to celebrate Thanksgiving.
Unfortunately, where we’re at today is that, because Latin American people are still considered immigrants and having to assimilate into this idea of what it means to be estadounidense or American, it’s a step away from our own culture and a step away from our understanding of the world. Thanksgiving is assimilation.
Moraima Capellan Pichardo, 27, Writer & Yoga Instructor
I was born in the Dominican Republic and moved to Brooklyn with my family when I was about 8 years old. We moved in with my grandma and some uncles who had already been living here for years. They picked up Thanksgiving as part of becoming American. We celebrated it for the first few years, I think, because we were trying to assimilate. But then we learned more about the real history of it and just, in general, became disgusted with it. It’s more about consumption and gluttony than it is about actually giving thanks.
“I don’t think it actually honors what the real history is on both sides.”
We stopped, and, since then, there has been no interest in having a family meal on that day. I’ve worked a lot in the food industry, from being a waitress, to a caterer, to working in food warehouses. I’ve seen a lot of waste, especially around the holidays – things that don’t need to be discarded or that didn’t need to be prepared. That turns me off around the whole thing, especially considering the way that agriculture is managed in this country and the way that the workers are treated.
Even if you look at Thanksgiving in a traditional way, in the next few hours people rush to the stores at midnight to consume even more things they don’t even need [on Black Friday]. It seems kind of hypocritical.
I remember when I first heard of Thanksgiving, I was told it was this great feast between the pilgrims and Native Americans, and we know that’s incorrect. There might have been one or two days of peace here and there, where meals were shared, but you’re talking about mass genocide and wars. I think it’s disrespectful to the surviving Native Americans because it has just turned into something that’s about capitalism and consumption. I don’t think it actually honors what the real history is on both sides.
Sebastian Chavez, 18, Student
We’re covering Thanksgiving in a class right now, so I have a couple different perspectives on it. Thanksgiving is something we celebrate every year. We get the entire family, the majority of my mom’s side, and we’ll all go to my tía’s house or my vovó’s (my grandmother is Portuguese) house. We’ll have a big meal and, instead of all the very typical U.S. side dishes, we’ll have some more Latino side dishes. I feel it’s something we look forward to.
“Thanksgiving is more about the idea of spending time with those you really care about and who you’re actually grateful for.”
We definitely get to see each other a lot because we have Sunday lunches at my grandmother’s house, but getting this [Thanksgiving] meal is something I look forward to because there’s so much more food and it’s a much bigger event.
One of the questions in my Public History, Public Memory course is basically talking about society’s perception on events that happened in the past versus what actually happened. A very prominent example would be Thanksgiving. Everybody thinks of it as this holiday where you’re grateful for everyone and where kids learn about the pilgrims and the Native Americans and how that brought about the first Thanksgiving. In reality, a lot of Native American groups are protesting the holiday because they say it’s kind of covering up the true history of what happened in the past, including the mass genocide and colonization that occurred. One of the really cool questions is whether or not we should change the way we celebrate Thanksgiving.
I think society and culture have shifted so much that Thanksgiving is more about the idea of spending time with those you really care about and who you’re actually grateful for. I know a lot of other families in the U.S. that just don’t really have that bond [like my family does]. Thanksgiving pushes for that to happen. I think it’s become a much more significant holiday and it has drifted so much away from its previous meaning.