STORY BY ELISABETH ALTAMIRANO-SMITH
Thanksgiving is traditionally remembered by many as the day that European immigrants were saved by Natives with an introduction to native foods such as corn, which kept them from starving during the winter. For that reason, millions of Americans mark the occasion with baking a feast and filling the air with the aroma of pumpkin pie.
Last year, a record number of 55 million people traveled home to celebrate “Turkey Day” with their families. However, sometimes the distance is too great to travel and not feasible. Clanton resident Rev. German Gomez, originally from Cuitlahuac, Mexico, came to the United States as an immigrant in 1985 and became a citizen. Gomez, unfamiliar at the time with the traditions of Thanksgiving, quickly realized that it was a day to celebrate with family. Because Gomez and many of the congregants of his church did not have local family to celebrate Thanksgiving with, he decided to celebrate with his “church family.”
Gomez invited everyone at San Juan Methodist to come to his house to enjoy the day together as one large family. Since then, the church family celebration has become tradition, making this year, the 18th year congregants have come together to share food, games and memories.
Even though this Thanksgiving family fiesta is marked with an abundance of food, it is not as traditional as one might think. Favorite Mexican foods replace signature Thanksgiving dishes.
Instead of turkey, there are ribs in Chile Ancho sauce. Instead of green bean casserole, there is rice and frijoles (beans). Gomez and his wife, Ana, built a special in-ground oven to roast meat. Days before Thanksgiving, Gomez and his family will purchase a goat or sheep from local farmers, clean it, rub it with a blend of traditional ancient Mexican spices and vinegar and wrap it in maguey leaves. The maguey plant has a long history with Mexico. It has a long thick aloe vera-like shape. The fiber of the plant was used by native Aztec people to make hammocks, paper and even has medicinal properties that helps treat wounds and is wrapped like a bandage over the skin. The inner sap of the plant is commonly known for its use in making tequila. The plant’s thick leaf helps hold moisture in while the meat is cooking.
Once the meat is wrapped and buried, a fire is built on top which allows the meat to be slowly cooked for hours until the meat is tender enough to fall off of the bone. All of the families that attend bring various dishes to share. Tamales (sweet and savory), sopes and posole soup are a few favorites.
A warm spiced punch is served with stalks of sugar cane, and families gather around fires for warmth.
Make-shift fires and gas grills are brought and set up across the yard to help keep the food, punch and tortillas warm.
“To celebrate Thanksgiving, you really need to be around family,” said Rev. Gomez. “One of the common things families do here on Thanksgiving is play games, so we play games too!”
Each year, congregational members have a sack race, kick-ball tournament and piñatas. Men, women and children all compete and the back yard becomes a field day. A week before Thanksgiving, various congregational members begin making human-sized piñatas to take to the gathering. Families discuss what type of character or image they should make their piñata, look for a cardboard box in that size and cut and tape the box until it is the correct shape. Afterward, tissue paper may be taped and glued onto the box to give it decoration. Once the box is filled with candy, children of all ages take turns beating the piñata box with a stick. As parts of the piñata are beaten off, children pick up parts that will make a nice container to hold their candy, which many times are a cone or leg. Once the piñata breaks apart, dozens of children stampede inward to fill their cone with as much candy as they can grab.
“My favorite thing about spending Thanksgiving at the pastor’s house are the games we play, and us spending time with each other like a big family,” said Mia Olivos, age 13.
“My favorite thing is the delicious food and the games,” said Carlos Olivos Jr., age 11. “I love the Spaghetti Verde (a spaghetti dish served in a green Poblano cream sauce). I eat two plates of it!”
Men and women sit in various locations throughout the yard and “catch-up” on the latest events and happenings.
The Gomez family stand by the specialized oven used on Thanksgiving.
Races and games are an annual tradition at the Gomez Thanksgiving feast.
This year, Rev. German plans to add a hay-ride to the list of activities.
“We love that on this day it is a day for families to come together,” said Rev. Gomez. “It is a special time that we gather. We are grateful to the Lord and to this nation. It is a tradition that unites us all.”
The event begins at 1 p.m. on Thanksgiving Day and usually ends about 8 p.m. or until dark.
“It is going to be fun,” he said. “There will be things to do, and plenty to eat, but without the turkey.”