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Young immigrants with a full plate

For young immigrants to the United States, the first Thanksgiving is both difficult and poignant. DeNeen L. Brown of The Washington Post reports.
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She is 19, has long, jet-black hair and wears a golden cross dangling from her neck over a pink T-shirt. She twists her hair. She understands a little English but prefers to speak in Spanish. She has been here eight months, and this is her first Thanksgiving, of which she has a vague idea involving stuffed turkey and Pilgrims and stuffed people giving thanks, maybe for the food and the blessings in their lives.

There is no Thanksgiving Day in her country. But she understands the idea of gratitude because for so long she was alone and now she is with her family. They left her four years ago in the Dominican Republic. After her mother came to this country to work, things were not the same. She stayed behind with her grandmother and cried. "I felt alone because I didn't have my parents or my brothers and sisters," says Dahianna Soto. They called and sent letters. Her mother sent for the children, one by one.

"I was the last to come."

Since she arrived here, things have been different from what she expected. "I saw American movies. Some things are the same, but a lot are not," Dahianna says. "It's all fantasy in the movies. You see in the movies everybody thinks life here is easy, but I got here and found life is hard. There is so much paperwork and you have to follow the law and there is a lot of bureaucracy."

Her mother works every night and Dahianna doesn't see her often. Still, it is better than not seeing her at all.

For this she is thankful.

At the Latin American Youth Center in Adams Morgan on Tuesday night, they served turkey and dressing and mashed potatoes, macaroni and cheese, Spanish rice and beans, sweet potatoes and salsa. Some of the 300 teenagers and young adults who filed in piled their plates, then sat at tables covered in purple cloth and told of the things they are thankful for. The center each year helps about 5,000 Latino, Vietnamese, Caribbean and African youths navigate the city and all the worries moving to a new world brings: crowded housing, isolation, abandonment, new schools, new language, violence and sometimes resentment of their parents, all wrapped up inside with nowhere to go but to explode.

"We see that a lot," says Gabriel Albornoz, director of public policy and advocacy for the Latin American Youth Center. "Often times, resentment because of separation and the huge distance between family and youths coming over who don't know their parents. Mom and Dad are like strangers. Then you throw in the new culture and that leads to a variety of negative outcomes. Kids try to find feelings of family somewhere. It's a huge issue for youth."

The dinner at the center helps them feel included in the holiday, gives them a chance to tell classmates that they, too, are having turkey for Thanksgiving, even if their parents have to work and nobody is cooking at home. Some of the kids say they look forward to the holiday because their parents, who work two and three jobs, may have the day off.

Some say the idea of Thanksgiving is not that foreign, for in their home countries giving thanks is something that is done each day, each week. "Thanksgiving is similar to everyday practices in Latin America," says Albornoz. "It's a natural holiday for our youth. It is not that difficult for them to comprehend the idea of family and giving thanks because the family plays such an important role in the kids' lives."

For this, center counselor Evelyn Iraheta is thankful: She is able to give back, to speak the new immigrants' language, literally and otherwise. She was 7 when her mother, who was 24, left El Salvador during a civil war. Evelyn and her siblings stayed behind with their grandparents.

When her mom left, Evelyn had a vague memory that it was a happy moment in her life. "She said she was going somewhere. She said she would give me stuff. She said things to make me happy. She sent money, clothes and money for school," Evelyn recalls. "But my brother, who followed me, he got upset. When he came here, he asked my mom, why you left us behind? According to him, his childhood wasn't good because he missed my mom. He didn't understand that she left because she wanted a better life for us."

When Evelyn finally reunited with her mother in the mid-'90s, she was 14. Evelyn is now 23 with no kids of her own, but she remembers how it was her responsibility to raise her siblings in an apartment in Adams Morgan while her mother and stepfather worked. "It was tough but I became more responsible," Evelyn says. "I didn't have a choice. Sometimes, I was upset. I told my mom I won't have any kids and I'll never get married."

Now she is married, and she has graduated from college. She has returned to the center as an academic counselor for Upward Bound. As for Thanksgiving, she is perturbed about its origin. "I don't believe in it because of the history and I don't celebrate it. Latinos, we don't have the history. It's nothing that Hispanics will celebrate. Only it's a holiday because we don't work; we can be at home. I don't like they are celebrating because the Europeans got materials from the Indians. 'We are giving you this, but then we are killing you for your land.' "

At a nearby table, Luiz Carlos Dasilva, 18, has finished his dinner. He has big brown eyes and he wears his hair in a ponytail. All the kids at Bell Multicultural High School think he is a native Spanish speaker, but he is from Brazil and speaks Portuguese. He came to the States last year after his stepfather, who moved here two years ago, sent for Luiz's mother and her children. Within a year, Luiz could speak two new languages: English and the one he needs most, Spanish.

His family celebrates its own version of Thanksgiving. "Because living here, you see everybody celebrating it. In Brazil, we don't have a day for Thanksgiving. My mother doesn't make a turkey."

In America, he says, "sometimes we go to a friend's house and mix Spanish music with Brazilian music and we celebrate . . . It's our own Thanksgiving."

For this, Luiz is thankful.