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Ties That Bind a Family : Reunions are a time for rekindling shared interests and values. Each type fills a psychological need, according to an expert.

August 13, 1993|JEFF PRUGH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Heads bowed, eyes shut, they solemnly clasp hands while the family patriarch, 75-year-old Antonio Hernandez, says grace in Spanish.

He thanks God for reuniting these three dozen or so Hernandezes around five picnic tables, beneath sprawling pepper trees that spell relief from the midday heat.

He prays for others who cannot join the crowd that will, by day's end, swell to 127--spanning three generations--at this third annual Hernandez family reunion on a recent Saturday at Veterans Memorial County Park in Sylmar.

Then, Antonio Hernandez of San Fernando--who long ago migrated here from near Guadalajara in his native Mexico, scratching out a 25-cents-an-hour living by picking strawberries, dates, tomatoes, corn and other crops--expresses gratitude for this country ( "Gracias a los Estados Unidos" ).

And he and his wife, Victoria, 71, bless the homemade Mexican food: ceviche (fish, tomatoes, pure lemon, onions), nopales (cactus salad), jaiba (crab, tomatoes, carrots, onions), pollo asado (barbecue chicken) and carne asada (barbecue beef).

Finally, when all prayers end, Antonio and Victoria Hernandez's eldest of eight children, Tony, 42, shouts--in English--the day's battle cry:

"Let's party!"

*

Long before "family values" became cool, reunions--large and small--enabled families to discover and rediscover themselves, to rekindle shared interests and values, to connect dots that lay scattered across borders, continents and oceans.

This Hernandez family now stretches mainly from Tijuana, just south of the Mexican border, northward to San Jose, but most have settled in the Los Angeles area.

All day long, they come to this reunion--from San Fernando and North Hollywood, from Canoga Park and Compton, from Pacoima and Fillmore--an interminable parade of hugs and holas (hellos), of children spilling out of cars, of strangers introducing themselves.

They're among more than 7 million, according to one estimate, who are expected to reunite this summer across America to toast birthdays or wedding anniversaries, swap reminiscences or simply share each other's company, their reunions serving as catalysts to family bonding.

A Northern California reunion expert, Tom Ninkovich (co-author of "Family Reunion Handbook"), estimates that 200,000 family reunions occur each year nationwide--from barbecues at Grandma's house to parties at resort hotels or aboard cruise ships. And that's not counting 150,000 school reunions or 6,000 military reunions, whose popularity grows as the 50th anniversary of World War II's end approaches in 1995.

Each type of reunion, he says, fills a psychological need, the family reunion weaving threads of continuity.

"For centuries, people stayed in one location--from birth to death--because everything they needed was in their own small community," says Ninkovich, who resides near Sequoia National Park. "Now, with families so spread out, we all need to learn where we came from."

Fittingly, his book is dedicated to the late Alex Haley, author of the best-selling book "Roots," with an inscription: "who showed us why."

It's unclear, Ninkovich says, if reunions are proliferating or simply more visible. President Clinton put reunions on center stage in May when he invited his Georgetown University class of 1968 to the White House. And countless small businesses specialize in organizing school reunions and helping classmates find each other.

There's also a national quarterly magazine, Reunions, published in Milwaukee; a Riverside firm, Reunion Specialties Co., that markets 100 items tailored to reunions (T-shirts, hats, tote bags, pennants, banners, steins, table decorations and bumper stickers: "Honk If You're a Cantwell"), and a Family Reunion Institute at Temple University in Philadelphia, which conducts seminars on reunion planning.

The Hernandez family reunion originated after one of Antonio and Victoria Hernandez's sons, Gabriel 30, a San Fernando church youth coordinator, sat down with a cousin, Leticia, and talked "about how we really didn't know our family," Gabriel says. "We agreed that we needed some kind of family support system--to help us know who we are as a family."

Together, six reunion planners--one each from the families of Antonio Hernandez and his five siblings--met six months in advance, once a month at first, then every other week.

For some Hernandezes, Gabriel concedes, a reunion was a tough sell. "They said, 'Why do we need a reunion? We always get together anyway,' " he recalls.

The committee agreed that the food would be potluck and that individual families would divvy up costs--one providing soft drinks, another the T-shirts, another the children's entertainment by a clown, and so on.

"Someone wanted to hire a mariachi band," Gabriel recalls, "but that was ruled out. We had to decide: Do we want to be entertained, or shouldn't we really be entertaining ourselves?"

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