By Miguel Pérez
For Latino immigrants, no other American holiday is more significant than Thanksgiving.
"El Día de Acción de Gracias," as we know it in Spanish, is a welcomed opportunity to reflect on the reasons we came to this country and to express our gratitude for the religious, political and economic freedoms we enjoy here — just like the Pilgrims of Plymouth Colony.
You may not know it — not from the way many Latinos often are seen protesting in defense of their civil rights — but you can be sure that on Thanksgiving Day, many more Latinos are giving thanks for being your fellow "Americanos."
Nevertheless, in the interest of historical correctness and self-esteem, it would be disingenuous for Latinos to pretend there were no other Thanksgivings, especially because we know they were celebrated by our Spanish ancestors.
Because history is written by the winners, and it was the British/Americans who took control of this country, American history ignores Spanish contributions to North America — for a whole century before the Mayflower arrived in 1620.
And that includes at least two Spanish-language Thanksgiving ceremonies held on U.S. soil many years before the Pilgrims' famous feast in 1621. In fact, Spanish explorers held religious Thanksgivings every time they stepped ashore on what is now U.S. territory, starting with the Juan Ponce de Leon expedition from Puerto Rico to Florida in 1513.
But contrary to popular wisdom, the first Thanksgiving with Native Americans is not the one we commemorate every November.
On Sept. 8, 1565, 56 years before the Plymouth Thanksgiving, Spanish explorers led by Pedro Menéndez de Avilés celebrated the first U.S. Mass and invited the Timucua natives to a Thanksgiving meal in what is now St. Augustine, Fla. Historians speculate they ate salted pork, garbanzo beans and biscuits.
On April 20, 1598, 23 years before Plymouth, 600 colonists led by Juan de Oñate celebrated the end of a long expedition across Mexico's Chihuahua Desert. Their Thanksgiving ceremony with Indians, near (what later became) El Paso, Texas, is still known as the Texas Thanksgiving and has been recognized in resolutions by the state legislature.
They came across the U.S.-Mexican border before there was a border and before the Anglo-Saxon ancestors of today's border vigilantes had even arrived in the New World.
I visited the site of the Texas Thanksgiving in 1994 and the site of the Florida Thanksgiving several times, including again this summer. Whenever I’m in St. Augustine, I make it a point to visit its Cathedral and take (even more) pictures of my favorite mural, depicting St. Augustine's first Catholic Mass and America's first Thanksgiving involving Europeans and Native Americans. The mural illustrates the Thanksgiving Mass celebrated by Father Francisco López de Mendoza Grajales, with Menéndez de Avilés kneeling before him, and with Spanish soldiers and Timucua natives also participating in the ceremony.
Father López, the chaplain for the Menéndez de Avilés expedition, “celebrated the first Catholic parish Mass, provided counsel to Menéndez, and is considered the ‘first pastor’ of the United States,” according to the plaque next to the impressive waterfront statue of Father López, near the spot where he celebrated the first Thanksgiving Mass.
That spot, on the grounds of the “Nombre de Dios” Spanish mission, also known as “America’s Most Sacred Acre,” is now marked by a “Rustic Altar,” representing the one first used by Father López, for worshipers and tourists to go back in history.
Near the statue and the altar, visitors are often awed by the sight of “The Great Cross” (208 feet high), erected in 1966 to mark a 400th anniversary at “the approximate site where in 1565 the cross of Christianity was first permanently planted in what is now the United States."
In San Elizario, Texas, where the Oñate expedition finally rested after crossing the barren Chihuahua Desert and the Rio Grande, a historical plaque in the town’s Memorial Plaza notes that “the expedition set about preparations for a great celebration," and that it was “a happy and joyous occasion and all were in a thankful mood.”
In fact, they ignore the 1565 St. Augustine Thanksgiving and claim their that 1598 “great celebration” was the first Thanksgiving in what is now the United States.” See my column on San Elizario: The First Thanksgiving in the (Southwest) United States.
So we have lots of Hispanic history to celebrate and discuss with our friends and relatives on Thanksgiving Day!
Of course, while expressing our gratitude on Thanksgiving Day, the hidden history of our other Thanksgivings becomes a sour note for many Hispanics — especially at a time when illegal immigration and the Mexican border have polarized this country and turned many Americans against the Hispanic population.
When Latinos recall their long history of contributions to this country — from those who built the first city to those who are still defending this nation — we have little choice but to feel offended by the tone of today's public debates over immigration, the Mexican border and the Spanish language.
It puts a damper on an otherwise wonderful holiday.
For living in the greatest country on earth, it's necessary to be thankful. This is a privilege not to be taken for granted! But when we are reminded that there are ignored Hispanic Thanksgivings and centuries of hidden Hispanic heritage, saying "gracias" becomes a little more difficult as we cut into our Latino-style turkeys every year.
Certainly, we cannot be thankful for the prejudice and discrimination displayed by a growing number of Americans who feel threatened by the growth of the U.S. Hispanic population.
In the spirit of reconciliation and Thanksgiving, all we can do is recognize that their attitude toward Latinos is based on their limited knowledge of Hispanic-American history. They don’t even realize that the first Thanksgiving was celebrated in Spanish!
Unfortunately, ignorance of Hispanic contributions to U.S. society feeds a vicious cycle of widespread prejudice and discrimination.
The time has come for us to discuss Hispanic American history. We need to fill some of the gaps in American history books and school curricula. We need to examine how ignoring America's Hispanic heritage has a negative effect on the image of the Hispanic community and the self-esteem of young Latinos today.
Every Thanksgiving, we should be able to recognize our pre-Mayflower Thanksgivings. We should be saying “gracias” as we teach young Latinos the many reasons why they should feel proud of their U.S. Hispanic heritage.
For more on the "Texas Thanksgiving," go to:
61. The First Thanksgiving in the (Southwest) United States
UPDATE FROM MY 2022 ROADTRIP