HYATTSVILLE, Maryland — At a typical Thanksgiving feast you would find a table lined with turkey, mashed potatoes and pumpkin pie, and a family gathered around it, enjoying a meal together.
At this particular dinner, there was only the table, stretched underneath a canopy in the parking lot of a strip mall. The family gathered last Thursday was less bound by blood than by common needs. And while this Thanksgiving meal may not have included the traditional fare that much of America is accustomed to –with chicken and rice instead of turkey and mashed potatoes– the sentiments behind the outdoor get-together in Hyattsville were common enough: gratitude for the blessings of the past year and a hope for better days to come.
Casa de Maryland, an organization that offers services to immigrants, has been organizing its Immigrant Thanksgiving for the past several years. This year’s event was moved from the organization’s offices in part because the organizers expected a much larger turnout than in years past. The economic crisis is the main reason, said Andre Vainqueur, the senior manager of the Silver Spring and Prince George’s County centers of Casa de Maryland.
Many people are out of work and for some, this was a rare opportunity to have a warm meal. Some have come to the United States without their families, while the economic crisis has forced others to send their families back to their countries, leaving them alone on this holiday.
“A year and a half ago, when I first started working with Casa de Maryland, we didn’t have this,” Vainqueur said. “But people are getting discouraged.”
Most of those who came to the lunch were day laborers, some of whom had gone weeks without work. Maria Paige, director of centers at Casa de Maryland, said that the organization has seen a significant increase in people looking for help.
“We had business owners losing their business and then coming to the center looking for work as day laborers,” she said. The number of people coming daily to the Silver Spring office in search of work has swelled from 70 to 140 in the last few months.
Yolanda Navarrete, a restaurant owner and an immigrant from El Salvador, donated the food that was handed out by volunteers on this chilly morning. The crisis has affected Navarrete’s business. Many of her regular customers had cut their visits from three times a week to just once every two weeks, she said. Still, she wanted to give something to those in need.
But it was not only the need that brought people out here on this rainy day, Vainqueur said.
“[Many of these immigrants] also have a goal — to have the American dream,” Vainqueur said. “To buy a house, to send their kids to school. Hopefully their kids will grow up American –Asian-American, Latin American– and then one day be successful here.
“Therefore they have to get accustomed to the culture of America to have that dream, while at the same time, they don’t want to forget their culture.”
Celebrating Thanksgiving –even without the turkey– is a way to do that.