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For Some, Feast Is a First

Immigrants are treated to traditional Thanksgiving dinners in Santa Ana.

November 28, 2002|Claire Luna and Jennifer Mena | Times Staff Writers

It's been a while since the first Thanksgiving, but Cecilia Michua still sees the parallels between her family and the group of English immigrants who celebrated a good harvest 381 years ago.

Michua's family came to Santa Ana eight years ago from Colima, Mexico, in search of greater opportunities but never had enough set aside to celebrate the holiday.

But Wednesday night, Michua, along with her sister, mother and three children, devoured plates of turkey, stuffing and mashed potatoes in their first-ever Thanksgiving, courtesy of the Santa Ana Boys & Girls Club.

Many said the club's event, which served about 800 low-income families, gave them their first opportunity to celebrate the holiday.

"We don't have the money to follow this tradition on our own," said Michua, 31, alternately eating, then tending to her toddler sons. "But it means a lot to be able to participate in something that is such a big part of American history. It's like we're the Pilgrims and the people at the club are the Indians."

Earlier Wednesday, another group of immigrants learned the meaning of Thanksgiving at an event sponsored by Cambodian Family, a nonprofit organization in Santa Ana that serves refugees from many countries. About 200 ate a traditional turkey dinner before watching a dance by a woman in a Cambodian dragon costume and a play in which adult students learning English played the parts of Pilgrims and Indians.

In Santa Ana, where more than 22% of the city's roughly 340,000 residents came to this country just in the last decade, volunteers said the charity events are more about introducing immigrants to strong U.S. traditions than about serving a token meal to the poor.

"With a lot of the laws and policies passed in regard to immigrants, I could easily see them wondering if they're really wanted here," said Bob Coyle, a Boys & Girls Club board member, using his hands to tear apart one of the 60 turkeys bought for the event. "This is a way to show them that we do."

Families heard about the Boys & Girls Club event through invitations issued by teachers in the Santa Ana Unified School District. They came in half-hour waves throughout the evening, consuming 60 pumpkin pies and 120 pounds of mashed potatoes along with the turkeys.

At the Cambodia Family-sponsored event, it was only the first or second Thanksgiving celebration for some of the guests, who came from Mexico, Cambodia, Vietnam and Russia. Many live in the nearby Minnie Street apartments, once the most troubled in Santa Ana.

"This holiday is about an American story. It's one that I am a part of now," said Serey Ky, who emigrated from Cambodia last month with his wife and daughter.

Ky will join his sister's family today for turkey, but the family will also eat a traditional curry dish of potatoes and vegetables.

Children were a vital part of both events. Preschoolers sang Thanksgiving songs after the Cambodia Family dinner, and each adult at the club was accompanied by children.

Juana Ortega, 32, a mother of two, came to the United States 11 years ago.

The Cambodia Family event allowed her to introduce her children to an American tradition.

"It does not have a big meaning for me, but I want them to know they are from here and that Thanksgiving can be theirs too," Ortega said.

Today, she will prepare turkey Mexican style, with chiles and served with tortillas, rice and beans.

Like the Michua family, Francesca Frieoros had never celebrated Thanksgiving before Wednesday night's event at the Boys & Girls Club. Sitting around a table festooned with balloons in the club's gym, the 25-year-old ate with her aunt and two sons.

"It's nice to finally have a chance to get into the American spirit," she said.

"We were never fortunate enough to do our own Thanksgiving before, but now we have the chance to share the tradition with the whole family."

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