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Assimilating an American Tradition : The immigrants: Thanksgiving takes some getting used to for people from other countries, many of whom identify with its meaning but find that pumpkin pie just can't replace favorites such as 'seaweed Jell-O.'

November 22, 1990|AURORA MACKEY ARMSTRONG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It's part of our heritage, part of our tradition, that we Americans all came from somewhere else. For most of us, the immigrant was a parent, or a grandparent or a long-ago forebear.

American traditions were adopted without too much thought. If our parents served up turkey and pumpkin pie for Thanksgiving--the holiday in remembrance of an earlier generation of new, grateful immigrants--that is what we now give our own children.

At what point, though, do the traditions of a new country become one's own? Is it a process that takes generations, or can it occur much more quickly? And what is it that would make American customs meaningful--or not?

To find out, we talked with recent and longtime immigrants to Ventura County about their Thanksgiving experiences.

Still Homesick

German Ibarra may not be able to express himself as eloquently as he would like, but he's willing to field any question you throw at him.

Well, almost any question.

"Please, only not to talk about chilorio ," he said in broken English, referring to a spicy chopped steak mixture that his mother makes back home. "It makes me miss it so much to talk of it. It is really too difficult."

Ibarra's occasional bouts of homesickness aren't hard to understand. The 22-year-old from Mexico City arrived in Simi Valley barely four months ago. Getting used to all the changes, he said, is not always easy.

It helps that he knows why he is here. It is not to escape a life of poverty, he said, or because there was nothing left for him at home. Nothing like that.

"I want to study communications. I want to be--how do you say it?--a movie director here," he said. "The better schools are here, so I come."

But he has no illusions about the ease of accomplishing his dream. First, he said, there is plenty to learn about "this very big country where there is so much happening always and everyone is talking so fast."

To learn English as quickly as possible so he can enroll in college courses, Ibarra studies English eight hours a day with about 70 other immigrants in a packed Simi Valley Adult School classroom. The students work at different levels, with newcomers such as Ibarra often seated next to veterans who are trying to smooth their delivery, increase their vocabulary or polish their skills.

"We have a veritable United Nations. There are more than 20 countries represented here," said Millie Hallack, who teaches the class. "They come from Eastern Europe, Latin America, the Middle East, Asia, Armenia, Afghanistan, you name it."

English isn't the only thing that stands between Ibarra and the culture of the new country he has chosen as his home. There also are traditions--such as the Thanksgiving holiday Hallack recently discussed with the class--that he wants to know more about.

"I need to know this, too," he said. "I look and hear them, and I want to have them also as mine."

Ibarra, who lives with an uncle who came from Mexico several years ago, has learned a little bit about the Thanksgiving holiday, "but I don't know what you eat. My uncle tells me there is a special dinner and a little party. I am looking forward to this."

From its name, he said he thinks the purpose of the day concerns gratitude "for some things God gives us--for life, for happy family and freedom."

And already, he said, there are things for which he is grateful.

"I miss my family very much, but in Mexico there is very much people everywhere you are, in the market and the stores, everywhere. But in Simi Valley, you go to the street and you see. . . . "

His voice trails off and his hands wave excitedly in the air. "You see no people here!" he said, his voice rising. "It is wonderful. I like this country already."

In the Land of Plenty

Each year for 15 years, Yelena Rynsky's parents had asked to be allowed to leave the Soviet Union and emigrate to America. And each year for 15 years, they had been told no.

Then, in June of last year, the Soviet door finally opened.

"Members of the Beth Torah temple here in Ventura helped us very much," said Yelena, 28. "They still help us, but it also is very hard. We are starting over again."

Yelena, her 5-year-old son, Peter, and her parents, Edward and Natalie Rynsky, knew virtually no English when they first arrived. But they still remember the warm reception they received from temple members and the way friends stood by while the Rynskys soaked up the incredible differences they were seeing for the first time.

"You really cannot imagine what life is like in the Soviet Union," Natalie said while sitting at the small kitchen table of the sparsely decorated, two-bedroom apartment the family shares in Ventura. "You wait in long lines all day for everything--for bread, for milk, for meat--and when you reach the front of the line, you are told there is nothing.

"I will never forget the first time I went into Vons," she said. "I stood there for a long time and just smelled all the food."

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