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Turkey and mole sauce? Across U.S., Latino families blend food traditions on Thanksgiving

For many families, "Thanksgiving is American, but the Latin influence is everywhere on the table," says one Washington-based chef.
With more than 57 million Hispanics calling the United States their home, traditions and customs from all over Latin America are bound to be soaked up at the Thanksgiving table.
With more than 57 million Hispanics calling the United States their home, traditions and customs from all over Latin America are bound to be soaked up at the Thanksgiving table.Tetra Images; franogueira / Getty Images

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Thanksgiving is one of Manuel Iguina’s favorite holidays. The Washington-based chef and restaurateur, who hails from Puerto Rico, likes to add his special touches to the quintessential American tradition.

“I do all kinds of different things, such as a five-chili rub on the turkey, or a pavochón, which is a turkey seasoned like a roast pork (the word is a combination of pavo, which is turkey, and lechón, which is roast pork) and stuffed with mofongo (a dish of mashed plantains, garlic, and pork rinds),"said the chef.

Sometimes he looks to Spain for inspiration and stuffs his turkey with paella, and his side dishes include arroz con pernil (rice with pork).

"Thanksgiving is American, but the Latin influence is everywhere on the table." said Iguina. "And just look at the new chefs and the new restaurants opening all around the country. So many of them have that Latino influence.”

There are now about 57 million Hispanics who call the United States their home. And whether families have been here for centuries or are more recent immigrants, culinary traditions from Latin America and the Caribbean are soaked up at the Thanksgiving table.

California-based Rosa Montes Vaca remembers the time when her uncle came to visit from Mexico during the Thanksgiving holiday. Her mother had cooked a turkey with all the trimmings and usual side dishes, such as mashed potatoes.

“He was seated with us and we said a blessing and began to eat, but he sat motionless with a disturbed look on his face. We're all like, 'Qué pasó Tío Abel? (What’s going on, Uncle Abel?) and he said to my mother, 'Dónde están las tortillas?' (Where are the tortillas?) And my mother said that doesn’t go with this kind of food. But he wouldn’t budge," she said.

Montes Vaca said she got up, heated some corn tortillas and gave them to her uncle. "He put his mashed potatoes with gravy in the tortilla and ate happily," she said, recalling his big smile.

Cynthia Orosco Wright, from Michigan, chuckles when she thinks about her Mexican-American family's Thanksgiving table.

“We made tacos out of everything, even mashed potatoes, and we had the tamales. Some kids would wonder what we were eating for Thanksgiving," she said. "But it was totally normal for us. It never felt out of place to have our own kind of food at Thanksgiving, because that's what you do."

That, and staying up late with her cousins, was her favorite part of the holiday.

Venezuela native Dubraska Vale loves the all-American holiday, which she has happily embraced.

“It’s an opportunity to give thanks; too many times we worry about the little things," said the Washington, D.C.-based public relations executive.

"For some of us, our family is not our relatives, because they are far away, so we have a family of people that we love and [they]care about us,” said Vale.

Vale said she is “going all out” with traditional Venezuelan holiday dishes for this Thanksgiving. She'll be having hallacas, which are similar to Mexican tamales, as well as pan de jamón (a rolled bread with olives and ham), and ensalada de gallina (chicken salad).

“These are usually Christmas dishes in Venezuela, but I’m making them now in Thanksgiving because Thanksgiving is not observed in Venezuela. But this is the celebration of living here in the United States and being grateful for what we have,” she told NBC News.

Mexico native Fabiola Rodríguez Ciampoli's first Thanksgiving in the U.S. was not the best, but that has changed over the years.

“My first Thanksgiving was as a grad student here in the United States celebrating with a bunch of strangers, so it wasn’t that great. I had gone to a bilingual immersion school in Mexico City so I knew about the holiday and the traditions, even though we didn’t celebrate it in Mexico," she recalled.

"But now (married and with a young son) my in-laws go all out and it’s great, and what I love about it is that it’s about family and food, and that’s so Latino," Rodriguez Campioli said.

Californian Claudia Meléndez Salinas adds a Mexican touch to her Thanksgiving; her signature side dish is homemade tamales with mole sauce (made of chocolate and spices) from her native Puebla, Mexico.

“Sometimes I have a hard time with this holiday, because I know what happened to the Native Americans and how they were displaced," she said. "But I can also relate to being thankful and grateful, and to gather together," she said.

Italy native and chef Christian Darcoli embraced Hispanic culture and food when he married a Latina.

“Thanksgiving is an American tradition but we add our own touches, and for me that includes a lot of rice dishes from Puerto Rico, such as arroz con gandules (rice and pigeon peas, with pork and spices).

Melisa Díaz, a media and political consultant in the nation’s capital, loves to cook and bring dishes from her native Puerto Rico to the Thanksgiving table. Since the island is part of the U.S., Puerto Ricans celebrate Thanksgiving.

"We embrace the tradition but also give it our own touch," said Diaz. "It’s a nice and delicious way to link both places and come together.”