Ben Fant

Thanksgiving is one of the most intrinsic of American traditions, and it's also an opportunity for Chantel Barcenas' family to honor both of their cultures.

Andy Meek
November 03, 2017

Chantel Barcenas has the afternoon off from work. She’s finished with school for the day, too, which is why this 18-year-old college freshman who studies business administration is able to be here now, joining her parents Jesus and Guillermina around the kitchen table for a home-cooked meal. Chantel, who has longish dark hair, works part-time in retail and got a new car a few months ago—a 2009 Nissan Sentra, which she loves—so you’d almost expect her to be someplace else other than here, loading up her plate with chicken, rice and mashed potatoes for a late lunch alongside her father and mother. But she is here, and she’s happy.

She has almost everything she wants.

The family sits down to eat beside a large kitchen window that lets in the warmth of the sun. They each bow their heads. Jesus leads a prayer in Spanish.

Ben Fant

The clink of silverware is the only sound that intrudes, other than the polite conversation. No one is checking their phones. The TV in the living room is also switched off, which is good. It would be a distraction, especially if it was the news that someone had left on. For an undocumented family, the news can be an uncomfortably personal thing today, and it’s something Chantel tries to avoid. It makes her feel so negative, she admits, and she can't stand that.

And so she and her parents enjoy a meal together, uninterrupted, in their home at the end of a quiet street in a Memphis suburb. It's one of her favorite things. And when she celebrates Thanksgiving with her family this year, she’ll be thinking about this— that she has two parents who love her, that she has an education, and opportunity; that she’s lucky.

Away from the table, Chantel explains how her feelings have changed over the years about her heritage—being born in Monterrey, Mexico, then being brought to the U.S. with her parents when she was about a year old. Her voice is strong, rising with emphasis even when she's not sure what she wants to say and she has to stop and start. “Maybe around my junior year of high school,” she explains, “I was very confused as to, like, who I was. I didn’t really—when I was younger, I felt like everybody else. But as I got older, I was confused. Okay, I’m not American, but am I really Mexican?

“Now, I feel both. I feel American but also very Mexican. I’m proud of both. I learned to understand who I am, and my situation. I’m Mexican. I forever will be Mexican. I’m proud of who I am. But at the same time, I feel very American. I grew up here. I speak better English than I do Spanish. I definitely feel both cultures in my life.”

She could also look at her situation another way. Chantel went to college with help from The Dream.Us, a group co-founded by former Washington Post publisher Donald Graham which provides scholarships to undocumented students. Chantel is also one of the nearly 800,000 people covered by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which the Trump administration said in September it would end after a six-month delay.

But there's no use in dwelling on any of that too much. Certainly, none of it will be on her mind when she and her family celebrate with some family friends this Thanksgiving, a tradition that’s also a good encapsulation of the duality Chantel feels.

Carving a turkey, getting together with relatives, watching football, the heaps of gravy-covered dressing—it's part and parcel of a holiday that's right up there with apple pie and all the rest. Which is another way of saying Thanksgiving is one of the most intrinsic of American traditions, but it's also another opportunity for Chantel’s family to honor both of their cultures.

Ben Fant

“We’ll have, like any other American family, a turkey,” Chantel explains. “But with that we’ll have other Mexican dishes. We meet at a family friend’s house. We’ll have, let’s say, tamales with our turkey or pozole (a soup or stew) and a couple other Mexican dishes. Sometimes we’ll have menudo, which is like another type of soup.”

Translating an interjection from her father, she adds on his behalf: “We’ll always try to celebrate this American culture—or tradition, as you would say—as well as put our little hint of Mexican culture with it.”

Before the Thanksgiving dinner, Chantel continues, the family will talk around the table. Enjoy each other’s company. They’ll pray and thank God for what they’re grateful for this year.

Ask Chantel what she’s thankful for, and mom and dad get top billing. “I think what keeps me grounded and focused and especially helps me keep my positivity up is never forgetting who I am,” she says. Her parents, who work in marketing on an independent basis for a local radio station, left Mexico for what they believed would be a better life in the United States. They didn’t really know the language at the time, something Chantel still marvels at. “They always remind me where I come from.”

She’s a young woman for whom forgetting who you are is a cardinal sin, an insult, even, to a mother and father who expect you to work hard always, to be more kind than not and to give more than you take. A young woman for whom the relatives who crowd around a table piled with turkey and other foodstuffs are not to be tolerated and then ignored until the next holiday, but honored.

If you’re the kind of person who sees your job as contenting yourself with playing the cards you’ve been dealt, you can get on well enough. And a holiday like Thanksgiving can be genuine and free of irony, because you tell yourself you’re happy about what you have, and you mean it. “I’m always talking to my parents, and we’ll have a good time,” Chantel says. “I go out with my friends. I have a boyfriend, so I’ll go out with him. I’m not like—dang, I don’t have papers, so I can’t do this.”

Chantel Barcenas is a young woman whose phone sticking out of her back pocket is an extension of her identity. She loves sci-fi movies and TV shows, like The CW’s “The 100,” volunteering for Latino Memphis—a nonprofit that supports the city’s Hispanic community—and eating meals with her parents. Certain things would make her life easier. The trick, as she sees it, is to resist the impulse to look at yourself as incomplete because of things you don’t have, and instead to appreciate life for the caper that it is. Which is why Chantel counts herself lucky.

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