Thanksgiving Pilgrim Style: Surviving My Racially Blended Family Dinners
By Jada Gomez-Lacayo
At its core, Thanksgiving is meant to be a holiday devoted to the convergence of traditions, but we all know the actual occasion was a lot more tumultuous than history’s popular flowery retelling of events. The truth is Native Americans shared maize while dinner guests (New England colonists) brutally conquered and destroyed their lands. But rest assured your Thanksgiving feast, no matter the racial breakdown, can only go up from there. In fact, it’s probably safe to say things won’t get much rowdier than a drunk uncle – eventually.
Holidays can get tense when families come together period (peep the issues we talked about yesterday) and thanks to my racially unorthodox family, the holidays at my house couldn’t be any more different. My family unknowingly provided me with lifelong lessons that would not only shape my opinions on race, but also taught me how to make everyone comfortable with one basic thing, laughing at themselves. Honestly, the best way to enjoy the holidays without ruffling any ethnically sensitive feathers (pun intended) is to simply have fun with it.
Obviously, my family and I weren’t joining hands and singing “We Are The World” from the start. Even when I was very young, I sensed the uncomfortable vibes at early family gatherings. I noticed that the elders in my family had to make the most adjustments, and were subsequently the ones who transformed the most. My Abuela barely spoke English when I was a child, and she was just getting accustomed to the fact that all of her sons would not marry Puerto Rican women, as she had hoped, when I arrived. Her husband was a Puerto Rican Nationalist, and their children would be slapped for speaking English in the home. Talk about an adjustment when her youngest granddaughter at the time turned out to be a curly haired, bronze-toned girl who didn’t like pernil.
My other grandma, an African American woman who grew up in Harlem, was just as weary of her new relatives, often remarking, “That woman doesn’t like me. She’s always speaking Spanish when I come around!” Of course she’d never mention this until non-African American family members pulled out of the parking lot, and she could confide in the safe confines of her side of the family. Regardless, I was keenly aware of the awkwardness and innately became a mediator because I desperately wanted these two women whom I loved deeply to love each other just the same. But while there may have been a huge language barrier, one thing was universal: they both loved good food. Abuelita cooks a pot of rice that’s yet to be duplicated, while my granduncle on the other side who was an army chef during World War II has a Mississippi-bred ribs recipe that is still uncontested. Quickly, I caught on to that and became a non-driving valet of sorts at the front door. I would run as quickly as my 3-year-old legs would allow to the kitchen to tell my granduncle that Abuela had arrived with her castor iron pots, signaling a delicious pot of rice was on the way, and I’d let Abuela know as soon as there were ribs on the premises. Eventually nobody’s language, skin color, or nationality mattered.
Two decades later, as new nationalities and cousins made it to the dinner table, like my Italian aunt who makes us a newer version of My Big Fat Greek Wedding, our family racial dynamic has become far less relevant. Laughter and loud chatter now fill those tense moments of the past, and instead we embrace the stereotypes we used to whisper, like:
“She’s the lightest thing in the house.”
“Let me return this baby to her mother so the cops don’t think I kidnapped her.”
“You know Puerto Ricans sleep with everyone.”
What we learned is the best way to dispel the differences was to just confront them head on, and honesty — and liquor — made our family gatherings unique and memorable instead of uncomfortable and unforgettable for the wrong reasons. Most importantly, the diversity at the dinner table affected each of our interactions outside of our home, making us more accepting of all nationalities.
If there will be new family members at your dinner table this holiday season, it’s probably not the greatest idea to start with the upfront, “you know all ____ do ____” talk right away, but if there’s ever an opportunity to have a light laugh about an unfamiliar tradition from a member of the family that’s different from yourself, now would be the time.
How do Thanksgiving dinners with your racially blended families usually turn out?
*Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.