Thanksgiving, 2019: Bronx, N.Y.

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food pantry

Kelsie Sandoval

Yolanda Guerrero, with a colleague, shows how the bread is baked at Lucero Bakery on Arthur Avenue.

One will cook a turkey with Mexican flair. Others are ditching their usual travel plans and staying in the Bronx. Another waited for four hours at a food pantry to get the makings of Thursday’s traditional feast.

Many people in the Bronx blend their ethnic or traditional family homeland culture with American Thanksgiving traditions. Some others who have followed American traditions are now trying new things. And for some in the Bronx, Thanksgiving – starting a few days before the holiday – are a rewarding time for giving back to those less fortunate.

Fatu Ka, 18, a Bronx Community College student, will celebrate with her Afro-Jamaican family and other friends and strangers who just show up at her family dinner. “Where I live, it’s mostly like people that’s from our culture and people from our culture, if you see somebody having fun and you want to have fun too, it’s no problem to join. You just knock on the door and come right in,” she said.

Strangers find out about the party through noise. “We sing and we dance with no rhythm or nothing. We’re just clapping and singing,” she said. “It could last forever.”

For the most part, Ka looks forward to socializing with friends and family, but dreads being asked personal questions. “Two things: they ask about school, then boyfriends,” she said. Ka has already formed an escape plan for when the intimate questions arise. “I’m excited that we got a new house and now, I can hide from everybody,” she said.

Yolanda Guerrero emigrated from Pueblo, Mexico, 21 years ago and now works at a bakery on Arthur Avenue. Guerrero credits her ethnicity for her food preferences. “Well one being Hispanic, you look for spicy flavor in the food,” she said.

Yolanda Guerrero will be mixing American traditions with the flavors of her Mexican hometown. Guerrero cooks mole, a Mexican sauce, pours it on top of the turkey, and lets it bake for two hours. “In Mexico, mole is reserved for a special occasion, like for a wedding. For this occasion, mole is made for the turkey,” she said. Guerrero includes American dishes well, representing both nations in the meal. “Our table is a little American and a little Mexican,” she said.

Camille Klutsey and her husband, who typically travel to Maryland for Thanksgiving, are among those who are changing their versions of the traditional Thanksgiving this year. They will be staying in the city and plan on going to the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Klutsey is excited to take her New York City native husband to the parade. “My husband’s never been to the Macy’s Day Parade because it’s very touristy,” she said.

Klutsey and her husband also have no plans to cook. “We’ll probably go out to eat,” she said.

Ken Brown, the Community District 5 manager, usually travels to spend Thanksgiving with his wife’s family. But the combination of his wife’s dog allergy and his brother-in-law’s newly acquired dog changed his plans. “This year is atypical,” he said.

But Brown is very much looking forward to quality time with his wife since they both have demanding work schedules. “Frankly, spending time with my wife alone in the apartment is such a delightful prospect. I’m thrilled to the point of shivering,” he said. “It’s perfectly fine being with family, but it’s more finer.”

Brown has some minor concerns about his Thanksgiving meal. “Are the stores going to be open? Will it be possible for us to go out if we want to or get something to take in?” he wondered.

For others, the days before Thanksgiving can have a special meaning – both to give thanks and to give back.

In the Higbridge-Concourse community, Diane Williams, 72, waited for four hours at a food pantry. She was 45th in line to collect whatever food she will receive for Thanksgiving week.

“I only get $16 a month in food stamps. I’m happy and thankful for what I’ll receive today,” Williams said. “I love all the other food surprises in their Thanksgiving package. I know I have a choice in what I am given but I also want to be surprised when I get home.”

For Williams, and for the others waiting in line, Friday was a day to be full of thanks and to be grateful for what they were receiving. For some other people, workers and volunteers who help pass along food donations, it’s the act of giving. Volunteering, they say, helps them to understand the real meaning of Thanksgiving. They see the direct impact of their volunteer service. They offer not only food but a helping hand, a shared laugh and a touch of compassionate human contact.

Mario Perez, the manager of the food pantry, was the first person Williams saw as she entered. He was laughing. The volunteers working him were also smiling and laughing. “Hey, how are you doing? Good to see you, happy holidays,” Perez greeted Williams.

Five years ago, Perez was on probation and starting his court-mandated 300 hours of community service at the Bronx Neon Food Pantry. Perez stayed on as a volunteer, and eventually got a job as the manager.

The pantry opens its doors every other Friday, but the Friday before Thanksgiving is particularly special, Perez said.

“It’s like an extended family. It’s our Thanksgiving day. A week before the holiday, we know what we are in for and it’s a great feeling,” Perez said. “There is nothing else like it in the world. The feeling is fantastic. You can’t place a dollar amount, it’s priceless.”

Also in the pantry line was 82-year-old Gloria Zayas, who has been coming to the pantry for years. Zayas said she receives no food stamps, and depends on the food pantry to survive.

Despite needing the food donation desperately for herself, she said she would share the food she was given for Thanksgiving with her grand-daughter, her next-door neighbor and a friend downstairs. Zayas laughed when another person in line asked for food for both a pet dog and a pet cat, too, or else they would be envious. The pantry worker promised to dig up both dog food and cat food.

“It’s very social here and the volunteers are very friendly. This is the real Thanksgiving, a day for giving thanks,” said Zayas.

A volunteer, Silvia Sanchez, 58, said, “I live only two blocks away and it’s wonderful to see so many people in my community receiving their Thanksgiving food. I know they will have their Thanksgiving and that I played a part in making that happen. When I came in this morning I said, “Oh my gosh. So many people. Of course, I realized, today, at least for us, is Thanksgiving.”

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