Immigrant Song

Thanksgiving is a time of the year uniquely synonymous with America and family. We get together with loved ones, share food and stories, and give thanks for the events that transpired throughout the year. In particular, those that we see as blessings and try to forget those that were anything but.

My family’s version of this quintessentially American festivity is an outright aversion of what it means to the rest of the country. Our take of the fall festivity took on a more pedestrian approach, one that is envied by those that hear of it now and did not witness its onslaught firsthand.

Growing up in a stiflingly conservative immigrant family, I was churched and Sunday-schooled like any good boy descendant of grandparents who grew up Catholic and begrudgingly converted to staunch Southern Baptist Christianity. After church, my family along with all of my mom’s siblings and their children would gather at one of their houses and have a cook-out. The “Holy See” where this event took place would change every Sunday, rotating from one family’s home to another, with a few exceptions. One of the exceptions, skipped over like the angel of death would the houses marked with sheep’s blood in the Old Testament, was my family’s. However, unlike the homes of the chosen people of Israel, our house was skipped due to its unexceptionalism. Everyone knew the reason why and everyone knew that they weren’t supposed to talk about it. The reason for this real estate shunning had to do with the fact that we lived in a tiny two-bedroom duplex in a less than desirable part of town and that my dad was out of the picture serving time in prison. My mom was the youngest sister and her shortcomings became our family’s.

A big reason why people in my family had adopted this silent derision was due to my grandparents’ love and benevolence towards all of their children; legitimate or otherwise, dignified or ignoble. During the last years of my grandparents’ lives, my aunts and uncles got along fairly well; sort of like a Pax Romana. Those that didn’t like each other avoided confrontation by limiting interaction with one another and instead opted for the more sophisticated and poisonous alternative of veiling their disdain with passive-aggressiveness and gossip. As soon as my grandparents began to die, one by one, the gloves slowly began to come off, finger by finger. The family of nine began to form factions that overlapped with one another. My own mother was friendly with seven of her siblings, but not with the sister a few years her senior. One of my uncles, a preacher, would use the pastoral pulpit to air dirty laundry on different family members, including myself. The air was heavy. The family needed healing.

The family that had once called Tijuana, Mexico its home was slowly ripping itself apart. In addition to the sibling quarrel, the nephews were also fighting with each other and with their parents’ siblings. The small town of Tijuana–an astounding maze of impoverished improvised brick cliff dwellings, many of them multistory, all of them beyond the dull comprehension of building codes–symbolized a “temps de l’innocence” for my family; a time when we all got along. The wooden beams forming the skeletal structure, covered in layers of paper, wire sheet and concrete, represented the solidarity in the familial bonds siblings and their children had with each other. The tile-roofed house, built by my grandfather, was a haven over everyone’s head where we felt safe. Throughout the years we all lived there, we learned lessons, saw images and experienced moments that stayed with us forever. Those of family and humility.

Thanksgiving represented a reset button. A time to set aside our differences and indifference and pretend that we could tolerate one another still. The making of tamales and retelling of old stories with slight variations and full artistic liberties turned a fever pitch moment into a somber one. Family members would forget why they were fighting and remember why they didn’t hate each other so much.

One of the festive rituals was the forming of a trust circle in which all of the attending members of the family would spread around the room and one by one begin to express the things, people or events they were grateful for. Given that my family is comprised mostly of church goers or church goers are mostly comprised of my family, most people were thanking God so much so that my eyes started to glaze over and my brain slipped into what I perceived to be a food coma, but may have also possibly been induced by boredom.

By the time we got to one of my cousins I was past the point of caring, but once she opened her mouth, she brought me back from the dead. She started off by saying that everybody in our family was a hypocrite because we all hated each other and were pretending that it wasn’t so. I suppose that along with my family’s adoption of Protestantism also came the adoption of other waspy characteristics such as shunning, judging others from a perception of higher moral standing and the belief that every subsequent generation is worse off than the one that preceded it.

Inebriated with contempt and antipathy, one of the more seemingly passive of my cousins was wielding the hammer of judgment and nailing us to a cross. Like the 45 theses of Luther, she wanted to reform the family and make it a more honest cohesion instead of a hateful coercion. Her surliness was surely rooted in her prolonged period of silence since childhood, always being known as the quiet one compared to her twin sister. She was like a drunk stand-up comedian gone rogue, off script, riffing off of hecklers and innocent bystanders alike. In all honesty, some of the people in that room had it coming to them, but others didn’t, but she was in the heat of the moment and would have said anything about anyone, anywhere in the circle. She made blanket statements and accusations, not calling out anyone in particular; a controlled chaos of indignation. Probably the one thing I was truly thankful for that night.

After she had spoken her piece, nobody spoke. There was an awkward silence. Perhaps it was a reflective one. After she was done reprimanding us, the uncle wearing the hat of master of ceremonies–still facing downward toward the white floor tiles–broke the silence and the sequence of the circle given that my cousin had already broken its dragging momentum. He asked if anyone else had anything that they were thankful for and after we had suffered long enough, he ended the therapy session and put it out of its misery. We went on pretending that nothing had happened, as we usually do, and continued playing the charade we choose to call family.

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