Monday, November 21, 2011

Thankful to be an onion this Thanksgiving

Fresh fruit and produce on my kitchen counter, waiting to be turned into side dishes for Thanksgiving dinner.

I'm really looking forward to Thanksgiving this year. It is my favorite holiday and I always look forward to it, but this year I'm in an even greater state of anticipation than usual. Now that I'm down to just one job and finally I have the time and energy to really enjoy it, I plan to savor every moment.

Back in the first grade I vividly remember all the kids dressing up in paper hats to reenact the first Thanksgiving day feast in the school cafeteria. Half of us were Pilgrims, the other half Indians. Somehow it was never lost on me, young as I was, that the Indians, who should have been the stars of the holiday story, somehow got stuck playing a supporting role to the Pilgrims. I could never quite figure it out; If the Indians were here first, and they kept the Pilgrims from starving during their first American winter, why wasn't the day more about them?

Now that I'm grown up, I still kind of wonder the same thing. Why don't we celebrate Indigenous people on this day? Heck, why don't we celebrate Indigenous people in this country, period?

About four years ago I had the great good fortune to travel to Mexico to visit a friend and his family in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca. Their village is tiny and remote, wedged into a crevice between two mountains. Most of the people who live there are indigenous Mixtecs. I remember one particular evening my friend's father was telling us a Mixtec legend about little magical people. It you caught them, he said, they would have to grant you a wish. Sitting there at their kitchen table next to the cooking fire, in a tiny adobe house high in the mountains of Mexico, I couldn't possibly have been farther from my own Celtic roots. Yet the story was familiar to me. It was virtually the same legend as that of the Irish Leprechauns I'd grown up with.

My friend's village in Oaxaca, Mexico

I learned something important that day. No matter where we come from, all of us are connected by the same ancient roots. This is why we see so many of the same legends across cultures and on different continents. We think we know who we are, but over time humanity is constantly morphing, integrating and assimilating one culture or society or race with another. Civilizations and cultures rise and fall. Some legends and traditions are carried on, others die out or are blended together into something new.

The world we live in today is a giant kaleidoscope of humanity, with its patterns, colors and cultures shifting and melding together more rapidly than ever before. It isn't always a happy mixing, either. Sometimes it is bloody, violent and tragic. The modern-day Americas were born, in fact, out of the cataclysmic clash of two vastly different worlds.

My own family around the table on Thursday will bridge the gap between old world and new as only a modern-day American family can. At one end of the table we have my Irish immigrant mother, across from my Brooklyn born father, who, we recently learned, can trace his ancestors here back to before the American revolution. Then we have my siblings and I, who are all first generation Americans on my mother's side of the family. My own son is, as am I, the child of an immigrant. His beautiful dark eyes remind us of his Colombian patrimony. My brother's children bear their mother's Italian American heritage, while my sister's son is typically American in that his ethnic background includes multiple nationalities, including native American.

My son, whose heritage spans three continents, expresses himself by wearing a Guinness t-shirt to a salsa concert.

As an adult I have come to realize that Thanksgiving, perhaps more than any other holiday, is like an onion. It has multiple layers of meaning and lessons to reveal to us, and most of those layers are contained within ourselves. It is a day for enjoying family and counting our blessings, but also a time for peeling back the layers of history that make us who we are and remembering that underneath, we are all just children of Mother Earth.

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