Home » Art & Culture, Featured » Turkey and Tamales: Thanksgiving with a Twist

Thanksgiving provides us with a chance to celebrate new arrivals and warm welcomes. In a neighborhood as rich in immigrant culture as Boyle Heights, members of our news team share details of how their families celebrate the day — describing it as a chance to be thankful, but also a time to celebrate and debate identity and belonging.

As co-editor and publisher of Boyle Heights Beat, I find the Thanksgiving memories of the Boyle Heights news team to be a great testament to the resilience and beauty of this unique neighborhood in Los Angeles.

Andrew Roman, 17, Senior, Roosevelt High and Boyle Heights Beat Reporter

When asked about Thanksgiving, I ask: “Which one?” Ever since I was a five year old, I have had two families with two separate Thanksgiving cultures. On one side—my African American side—I eat rice, greens, homemade stuffing, homemade pies, homemade gravy. My grandma makes the best mac and cheese ever. This isn’t some yellow dinosaur mumbo jumbo; it’s the real deal Southern mac and cheese that you’d only find in Mississippi. And ALL of my family comes to grandmas and granddads. And the spirits fly… sometimes literally.

Photo courtesy of stumptownpanda on flickr

But on my Latino side of Thanksgiving, we gather together OUTSIDE and eat tamales. The turkey is always dry, the mash potatoes are always from a box, and the gravy is well, powdered gravy. But even though Thanksgiving on my Latino side isn’t the best for the “Thanksgiving food” and the American culture of the holiday, it has one thing I love: the tamales. Everyone comes for the tamales. It doesn’t matter whose mad at who or what you did last time or what is going on at the Joneses (or Lopezes haha)…all that matters is that we are together.

Stephanie Baylon, 17, Roosevelt High School Senior & Boyle Heights Beat Reporter

We are a family of four. The way we celebrate thanksgiving is our very own personal way; my mother cooks some of her Mexican delights, my father makes some spicy salsas, and my brother and I make tuna with chipotle dip for chips. We all help each other make the dinner, because that’s how we give thanks to each other for being in this small lovable family.

When we eat, our table is always full of random dishes, like posole, tamales, and little chile rellenos on the side. My mom loves seeing the table full; she says “Tenemos mas comida que ofrecer.” She loves sharing food with the neighbors and people who she sees struggling with life, the homeless. After we eat we gather around in a circle, we get cups, get the drinks, and say our thanks. My mother usually cries in this part because she can never give enough thanks for having us as a family.

Erick Lujan, Senior, Mendez Learning Center and Boyle Heights Beat Reporter

My Thanksgivings have always been the only time when our uncles, aunts and cousins come over and spend time together. This has always been our tradition, and I hope to continue it when I have a family of my own. It is the basic American family tradition: mashed potatoes, peas and carrots and, of course, turkey. But due to the economic downturn, this year will be the first time we won’t have Thanksgiving at my house because my mom and dad have to use the food money on bills.

I saw this coming, but not to the point where I knew it would happen. It was just a 1 in 100 chance prediction, which to me seemed unlikely. On Sunday when my mom told us that she had to pay bills, I saw the disappointment in her eyes and the helplessness of my dad to prevent that. This just proved to me that nothing good lasts forever and reminded me of how important tradition is to my parents, especially my mom. It will be a day where expectations meet reality.

Lesly Juarez, Sophomore, Roosevelt High School and Boyle Heights Beat Reporter

For Thanksgiving night, the entire family meets at my uncle’s sister’s house. From tamales to yams, cranberry sauce, and the turkey, everyone brings a dish to the table. I personally like to volunteer to help with any preparations in the kitchen. I am mesmerized and thankful, that my uncle’s sister is still there for me, and able of continuing the Thanksgiving tradition with us. I do not live with my parents, so seeing the entire family gather around is such an amazing moment.
Last year, my uncle’s niece said that she would bring the turkey. She came into the house with the turkey. But as she puts her foot on the step, she fell and dropped the turkey. Everyone said: “Ahhhh, Rosemary dropped the turkey.” Then, she was laughing, because the turkey she dropped was fake. The real turkey was in the oven. After all, everyone was laughing because we all got fooled. That was the moment that I realized that Thanksgiving is for laughing and spending time with family.

Emmanuel Bravo, 17, Senior, Mendez Learning Center and Boyle Heights Beat Reporter

Every November, my family cannot wait to spend Thanksgiving together. The smell of the big juicy turkey, baked fresh potatoes, sweet apple and pumpkin pie, and last, but not least, the apple cider. Each one of our families is responsible for cooking part of the meal: my mom makes the turkey and ham; my aunt bakes the bread and makes mashed potatoes; my uncle is in charge of buying the drinks, and teens are in charge of the desserts.

While my family arrives at my aunt’s house, we all greet each other with warm hugs and kisses, dressed elegantly with big coats and sweaters for the night. We all sit around, talking about jobs, school, life. Then, when it hits 8 o’clock, it’s time to eat. We teens and children always eat first, but before we start, the adults record us on video saying what we’re thankful for. The majority of the smaller children get camera shy and say the same thing, “I’m thankful for the food and my family,” with big smiles on their faces. Us older teens are more appreciative and say we are thankful to have such an understanding and supporting family, whom we can always go to for anything. We also say things such as being thankful for having love everywhere and being able to be successful because of our parents. Before everyone leaves, we all have a cup of apple cider, the adults make a toast and say that next year shall be the same, in hopes of extending our family and keeping our traditions.

Kevin Martinez, Senior, Roosevelt High, and Boyle Heights Beat Reporter

My definition of Thanksgiving Day is to unite with your family, sit at the kitchen table, and feast on roasted chicken from El Pollo Loco. I come from a Mexican family and to be blunt, I’ve never really had the complete Thanksgiving experience until last year. I remember when I was a child I would ask my mom why we couldn’t cook a turkey. And she would respond with “Prefierio comer un pollo, que un turkey.” I recall hearing my friends talk about how they would visit their family members and how much they look forward to the homemade turkey. I would get jealous and try to convince my mom to cook one of those turkeys for once. Fortunately, she did cook one. Although it took ten years for her to do so, it was still the most delectable dinner I’ve had during Thanksgiving. Now that the holiday is just around the corner, I hope she feels the same way I do about eating turkey. I can’t wait to devour it once again.

Antonio Mejias, Contributing Editor, Boyle Heights Beat
Thanksgiving is a U.S. holiday that has been officially celebrated in Puerto Rico since the 1950′s. As in most Puerto Rican families of the latter part of the 20th century, my family adopted many of the traditional dishes served in the U.S. for the holiday, most notably the turkey, but combined them with more typical, local fare. At my home that meant serving the turkey with arroz con gandules, an ubiquitous rice dish. It also meant that some years one of my grandmothers would fix turkey fricassee, because my father did not particularly like the stuffed roasted bird.

Another staple at my family was a variation of the typical pumpkin dessert: my mother began making a pumpkin flan (or custard) since she cut out a recipe from a newspaper story in the late ’50s. My mother still has the original clipping, but we have adapted the recipe somewhat and I am known to make a pretty good pumpkin flan.

Pedro Rojas, Co-Editor and Publisher, Boyle Heights Beat

Since we moved to Pasadena in 2003, our Thanksgiviving day starts with delivering food to Union Station (a homeless shelter in Old Town Pasadena) and then, in the afternoon, a family reunion at home. Our two daughters and their families are included, the same with a few of their college friends. We have adapted the traditional turkey to a ‘pavochon’. It is a turkey seasoned with Puertorican spices. By the way, ‘pavochon’ comes from the words pavo (turkey in Spanish) and chon (lechon, pig).

As for my family of Russian Jewish immigrants, which first settled in Los Angeles on Berendo Street in the late 1930s, Thanksgiving provides an opportunity to squabble and make up and squabble and eat and make up again. The perfect Jewish holiday, you might say. It’s also a day to revel in the funny chemistry that binds us all together so tightly. At the center of the action is my 80-year-old mother who has taught us all a lesson or two about unstinting love and generosity.

Have a great holiday — your way!

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One Response to “Turkey and Tamales: Thanksgiving with a Twist”

  1. Claudia Delgado November 23, 2011

    This story has made me reflect and appreciate ALL the blessings that I share with my family .

    I have a special message for Erick: Today’s economy has taught me about humility and how to be grateful for the things that I do have.

    You, for example have your wonderful youth and an obvious talent that I know will give you lots of rewards in the future.

    Thanksgiving is just one day, remember that you are worth more than money, that you have a family and that you are loved and not alone, that’s priceless.
    You and your family will be in my prayers.

    Good luck.

    Reply