Posted on November 23, 2004

A Mexican Turkey Day

Alison Stanton, Arizona Republic (Phoenix), Nov. 20

Teresa Garcia is looking forward to celebrating her first Thanksgiving in the United States.

“I’m very grateful to be here and to have made it here,” the mother of four said through an interpreter. “We came over because we wanted a better life and better food for our children. It was a hard passing, but I’m glad I’m here.”

Although Garcia, 47, likes the idea of eating a big meal with her family and giving thanks, she is not sure how to properly prepare a turkey to serve whole.

“I would boil it and do it with a molé sauce or put it into tamales or stews,” the Phoenix resident said.

Garcia, who came from Mexico, is not alone. According to Jerry Sandvig, executive director of the Phoenix Rescue Mission, the majority of the Hispanic clients the mission serves are not familiar with either Thanksgiving or how to prepare a traditional feast of turkey and the trimmings.

“We always had a traditional sit-down Thanksgiving dinner for the homeless, and we still do,” he said. “But we found out from the families that we distribute our food boxes to that the food was not appropriate to their needs.”

Two years ago, in an effort to better serve their rapidly expanding Hispanic clientele, Sandvig and other employees of the mission decided to add an event that was more in line with the Hispanic culture. As a result, the Great Thanksgiving Fiesta was born.

This year’s fiesta is on Wednesday. Los Sombreros will cater the event and will serve a variety of traditional Mexican foods, such as tacos, enchiladas, beans and rice. La Purisima bakery will provide the desserts.

In addition, the Mariachi Betania band and dancers from Folklórico y Cultura Mexicana will entertain the crowd with lively music and dancing. In between songs, Sandvig said, a pastor will give inspirational talks in both English and Spanish.

Sandvig said the fiesta is just part of a busy week at the mission. On Monday, members of the Arizona Cardinals will help serve a ham dinner. On Tuesday, staff members will hand out at least 500 food boxes.

On Thanksgiving Day, the mission will serve a traditional holiday feast, just as it has every year since opening 52 years ago.

“On Friday, we all collapse,” Sandvig said, laughing.

Florinda Obie, a mission volunteer and special events coordinator, said she likes the way the mission has tailored its schedule to meet the needs of its clients.

“We realized the community we largely serve is Hispanic,” she said. “If they are new to the country, Thanksgiving is unfamiliar to them. It’s a United States celebration and no one else’s.”

Obie said the Thanksgiving food boxes will now include recipe cards written in both English and Spanish.

Garcia, who plans on going to the fiesta and receiving a food box, said because of the bilingual instructions, she will try to prepare her turkey in a more traditional way.

Danny Medina, 48, lives at the mission and is looking forward to the fiesta.

“It’s a lot of fun,” he said. “It’s good — the food and the fun and meeting people.”

Rosa Castillejos Ochoa, 26, who came from Mexico, said she is planning on celebrating her second Thanksgiving in America by attending the fiesta with her husband and three children.

“It’s a chance to get my kids out to learn more about the culture and for them to get out and experience more and enjoy the day,” the Phoenix resident said through an interpreter. “I like the idea about the fiesta because Thanksgiving seems serious and a time of giving thanks, but the fiesta is more fun and it’s not just about going to church.”

Sandvig said he hopes this year’s fiesta will be as successful as the first, which drew about 900 guests.

Although organizing the fiesta is a lot of work, Obie and Sandvig agree that hearing and seeing the guests’ reactions make it all worthwhile.

“They were very grateful to have this evening of celebration,” Sandvig said. “They said they enjoyed it because it was more than a meal. They watched the celebration, there was folk dancing — one thing after another.”