Turkey and Tamales: Appreciating a Multicultural Thanksgiving through Stories and Food

Multicultural Ortega Thanksgiving

The Ortega family shares fond memories of a multicultural Thanksgiving.


We over-packed the car and drove to New York City to visit my husband’s family for Thanksgiving.

As with my packing, I’ve been known to over-dramatize the difficulty of traveling with small children. In spite of all that, our family is not alone: Thanksgiving weekend remains the most traveled time of year in the United States, as relatives separated by distance return home to take part in the yearly feast.

Growing up, one of my favorite Thanksgiving traditions was playing a chaotic game of Leaf Football with my brothers, cousins, and uncles, wreaking havoc on our yard and its organized piles of autumn leaves.

We enjoyed the traditional meal—my favorite side dish is sweet potato casserole—and I’d often make the family participate in some gratitude activity, like each person writing out a blessing on a paper turkey cutout and affixing it to a poster board.

My brother John hated watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade; I loved it.

Now my children have the opportunity to watch the legendary New York parade in person (but seeing the balloons inflated on the Upper West Side the day before may be even more fun). And while some years we’ve eaten turkey with my Mexican in-laws, this year we’ll forgo the traditional Thanksgiving meal in favor of tamales.

Ortega kids NYC ThanksgivingIt’s impressive, kind of mind-blowing, that most people across the country enjoy basically the same meal on Thanksgiving, with several elements in common with the first Thanksgiving feast shared by the Pilgrims and Wampanoag tribe: turkey, corn, pumpkin, cranberries.

As an aside: I’d argue that someone needs to make a national case for bringing back the venison.

Allowing for regional variations, of course (I don’t want to get into a stuffing debate), our traditional Thanksgiving menu represents a bountiful harvest—something to enjoy and be grateful for.

I’m certainly not disappointed, however, to dig into some authentic Mexican food instead this Hispanic Thanksgiving.

First of all: que rico. It’s delicious.

Secondly, the Thanksgiving story is one of immigrants. As we tell and retell our national legend of that first Thanksgiving feast, sometimes we’ll get details wrong, but we know with certainty that it was a multicultural meal.

This gives us a great opportunity to talk with our children about our country’s unique history. We’re not a homogeneous nation; our population doesn’t share a common race but shares common ideas about liberty and opportunity.

As my daughters and I checked out Thanksgiving books from our local library and learned about the holiday’s history, I was reminded about how much I’ve forgotten or didn’t learn in the first place.

In a journey slightly more arduous than our drive from DC to NYC, the Mayflower originally set sail for Virginia, but storms blew the ship off course to Massachusetts, where the pilgrims decided to remain since winter was coming quickly.

After that first terrible winter, when more than half the pilgrims died, Squanto taught them American hunting and fishing techniques, and how to plant corn, pumpkins, and beans together to enrich the soil.

Hispanics, Native Americans, Indian stew and NYC

It reminded me of the Indian Stew my elementary school prepared for our Thanksgiving feast: ground beef, V8 juice, potatoes, carrots, corn, lima beans. I made it for my family this year, and we called in Wampanoag Stew.

We learned there’s not a clear consensus about the proper term for those first indigenous Americans— Native American, American Indian, Indigenous, etc.—but when possible use the specific tribal name. This reminded me of what I’ve heard from many Hispanics or Latinos: they’d identify more readily as Mexican, Puerto Rican, or Chilean, rather than Hispanic or Latino!

Some American Indians don’t find Thanksgiving to be a celebration.

During our visit to New York’s American Museum of Natural History (before watching the parade balloon inflation!), we noted that in the hall of Eastern Woodland Indians, the right hand showed pre-European cultural artifacts, and the left displayed items post-European influence.

As with all history, our stories aren’t perfect, but these are things to keep learning about and to continue discussing.

Thanksgiving presents a natural time to talk about where our families came from, and why those family members uprooted themselves and traveled to begin a new life. Ask the oldest member of the family to tell their stories.

Encourage your children to learn about their country or countries of origin and the unique mix of cultures that composes your family.

This particularly American holiday, Thanksgiving, reminds us to be grateful for the gifts we enjoy, like family, food, shelter, freedom—and lately it reminds me of the good things that can happen when cultures combine and influence one another.

New York City offers a world of cultures in one city. With our family to visit, the parade, and vendors setting up their Christmas tree stands on the sidewalk, New York City is becoming my favorite spot for Thanksgiving. Turkey, tamales, or both.

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