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Don't Celebrate Thanksgiving? Yeah, My Family Doesn't Either

An old color photograph of five people standing outdoors. On the left is a man with brown skin with glasses, a beard, and a mustache. He's wearing a red shirt and white shorts. Next to him is an older woman with brown skin and glasses wearing a pink hat. A younger woman with brown skin holds a white-skinned child in overalls. There is a younger girl on the right with brown hair pulled back.
Gab Chabrán's family in 1983. L-R: Rafael Chabrán (father), Angie Chabrán (grandmother), Gab Chabrán, Yolanda Butler (aunt), Marissa Butler (cousin)
(Courtesy Gab Chabrán)
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My family has never participated in a traditional Thanksgiving while we were growing up and still don’t. But, recently, when I spoke to my father about why we don't celebrate, he was pretty blunt about why he feels so strongly about the holiday.

I hate Thanksgiving.
— Rafael Chabrán

A bit of background: my father, Rafael Chabrán, is a professor emeritus who taught for over 30 years and still contributes to his scholarly work. He was born in Monterey, California, to a Mexican mother and a Puerto Rican father. Spanish was the only language spoken at home.

They moved around some but eventually settled in La Puente, roughly 30 miles from Los Angeles. As a member of the baby boomer generation, he came of age in the 1960s, during the civil rights and anti-war movements largely led by student in places like UC Berkeley where earned his bachelor's degree.

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It was during that time that my parents met. My mother, who is from the Bay Area, was also attending college. The concept of the “counterculture” dominated the social narrative, and my parents considered themselves very much a part of it at the time. They were participating in a separate culture defined by differing values and behavior norms that strayed from mainstream sensibilities at the time.

My Father's Difficult Memories

Thanksgiving carries painful memories for my father from when he was growing up. His father left their family when he was young, and they had to fend for themselves.

“We were poor and on welfare,” he says. It was a painful and uncertain time for my father, grandmother, and his three younger siblings, whom my father helped look after. He recalls receiving food from Thanksgiving canned food drives where large baskets of discarded or damaged food had been dented or were missing labels would show up at their house.

He recalled when they were given a can of whale meat, and my grandmother didn’t know what it was.

“I explained it was ‘carne de ballena,’" he told me, "and she responded with, 'Que es ballena?' I told her it was a big animal that lives in the sea.”

They opened the can, and the contents were black and smelled very bad. They ended up throwing it away.

The canned dinners during the holidays weren’t all bad, however. He does recall an instance where they received cans of roast beef from Argentina. “We made tacos from them, and they were good.”

A Political Awakening

As time went on, my father’s feelings towards the holiday took on more of a political meaning as he began to ask himself why we, as a culture, celebrate the Thanksgiving story. To him, the idea of a holiday celebrating pilgrims and Native Americans sitting down for a traditional meal felt like a fantasy.

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“I wasn’t buying it and still don’t,” he says. “When I was young, we were told by our teachers about what I will refer to as the Thanksgiving myth. There was no discussion about the origins of indigenous food."

He’s referring to the fact that turkey is indigenous to the Americas and was not a contribution from Europeans during the time of colonization.

However, it doesn’t simply boil down to politics. It’s also the dish itself, American roast turkey — the traditional recipe tends to be bland for his tastes. When I think back, the idea of eating a roasted bird with mashed potatoes and stuffing didn’t fit into our family's culinary framework or flavor profile. We grew up on rice and beans almost always on the table, different kinds of pasta with sauces that my father would make up on the spot, and yellow curries with raisins served over small bowls of white rice and dollops of plain yogurt. It was the '90s, so my mom would experiment with popular recipes, like cornflake chicken.

When going out to eat, we’d go and have dim sum, or what I referred to as the “little carts,” or even the occasional Indian restaurant where I tried masalas and naan bread for the first time.

A blonde white child wearing a knitted blue sweater standing on a wooden deck holding the hand of a brown-skinned man with black hair, a beard, and glasses. He's wearing a tan sports coat and blue jeans and sunglasses.
Gab and his dad Rafael
(Courtesy Chabrán family)

My father loves to cook and oversaw many of our meals growing up. However, the idea of preparing a traditional Thanksgiving meal felt out of place for our family.

When we did participate, it was usually with my father’s side of the family — my grandmother, who, at that point, lived in the city of Chino with my aunt and uncle. My uncle was a police officer and fought in the Vietnam War, so there was more of a focus on the traditional holiday. Yet there was always the sound of Spanish and English being spoken and mixed interchangeably — just like our family, a mixture of lots of different things.

No matter what, we would always have a good time.

Despite my father’s feelings towards the holiday, he tells me that he enjoys sharing a meal with his family and friends. Listening to my father speak about our lack of a traditional Thanksgiving meal, I’m reminded of food humorist Calvin Trillin’s New Yorker essay, an appeal for making pasta carbonara for Thanksgiving instead of turkey.

In the piece, Trillin, who isn’t a turkey fan, mentions that there’s never been any solid proof that the roast bird was part of the early Thanksgiving meals. Although come to think of it, my father does have a knack for marking great carbonara. The trick is not to use cream. (If you get the eggs to the right consistency and stir it while it's hot it coats the noodles).

Seeking Non-Thanksgiving in LA Restaurants

Sometime in my 20s, our family started to find creative ways to spend the day. After my brother and I moved out, there was a time when we would meet up with our parents, drive to Koreatown, and head to Oaxacan restaurant Guelaguetza. It was always a great experience; they’d offer a full service and sometimes have live music performances. Other times we would venture into the San Gabriel Valley for Szechuan, where we’d have boiled fish with rattan pepper soup and toothpick cumin lamb.

This past year, we visited South L.A. for a great meal at Casita Mexicana to have chiles en nogada, stuffed poblano chiles with picadillo, covered with a white walnut-based sauce and sprinkled with pomegranate seeds. Other times, we would take in a movie after our meal.

A group of people stand in front of a wall that's painted in bright colors with a Mexican theme. They are holding a blue Dodgers bandana which says Chavez Ravine
Gab's family today: Rafael Chabrán (father), Gail Chabrán (mother), Gab Chabrán, Katie Chabrán (Gab's wife) and Francisco "Paco" Chabrán (brother)
( Courtesy Gab Chabrán )

When I asked my father about that tradition of going out to eat, he couldn’t remember how or why we started doing it. “I don’t know, maybe it’s a long shot, but perhaps it is our version of Jewish people having Chinese Food on Christmas,” he said.

“I like to go to a restaurant where it’s just like any other day, and the food doesn't have anything to do with Thanksgiving and is good.”

When I tell people that my family doesn’t celebrate the holiday, I get a series of reactions from surprise and confusion to people wanting to invite me to theirs. But, more often, when I speak with people whose own families come from immigrant backgrounds, I’ve noticed that, in some cases, the holiday isn’t celebrated in their houses either.

Forming New Traditions

Now that my brother and I have children, we must decide if we want to establish similar traditions. For example, my wife and I just moved to a new house with our four-year-old daughter. My wife suggested we cook for my parents.

When I ask my father about what he thinks of the current generation who have young families who may be considering taking the non-traditional route, he replies:

“I would hope that in the future you and people your age would formalize these non-traditional meals that make up a variety of multicultural and multiethnic foods, using the basic framework, incorporating plant-based foods, and make incredible meals.”

It’s an exciting idea to consider in terms of what I will do moving forward. I have no strong connections to the holiday itself. Instead, I look for the same amount of fellowship and conviviality when seeing friends and family around the holidays, which seems to be the crux of the celebration.

We will have roast chicken this year.

Do you have a question about food in LA — or something you want to tell us about?
Gab Chabrán reports and edits stories about food and its place in LA's diverse cultures and communities. Curious about a specific regional cuisine or have a recommendation for a hole-in-the-wall you love? Are you looking for the best place to take your kid for lunch? We’d love to hear from you. Drop us a line.