Thanksgiving in Spanish? English? At Latino Family Gatherings, Language is a Conundrum

Jazmín de la Cruz, 25, had a great time celebrating Thanksgiving with her Dominican-American family in New York City last year, eating turkey, rice and beans and pastelón de maduros (sweet plantain lasagna) and spending plenty of time catching up—until she noticed her mother was missing from her own table.

“My sisters, cousins and I were so wrapped up in telling stories that we didn’t realize she wasn’t there,” she says.

When they found de la Cruz’s mother, she was downstairs chatting with a neighbor—and unapologetic. “So now you notice?” she said. “I’ve been here for two hours. At least I have someone to talk to.”

The younger generation’s offense? They forgot to speak Spanish.

“We try to translate for her, but it just kills the jokes or doesn’t work,” says de la Cruz. “Or we get excited and just forget to try.”

And this Thanksgiving, with de la Cruz’s family planning to gather at her sister’s house in Long Island, her mother is adamant. “She doesn’t want to go,” says de la Cruz. “She says she’s not traveling just to be excluded.”

Now that at least 10 percent of American homes are bilingual, more and more relatives or visiting friends are going to face cultural stress on Thanksgiving, whether it be the husband relegated to the kid’s table because he can’t speak Spanish or the grandmother that sits by herself because she can’t understand a word anyone is saying.

Here, Ana Nogales, psychologist and president of the Association for Latino Mental Health Awareness in Orange County, California offers her advice for avoiding culture wars on Turkey Day.

Force people to get to know each other. “There are many non-verbal ways to communicate,” says Nogales. Know you’re going to be bringing a new Spanish-challenged friend to the table this year? Team her up with grandma to set the table or sit him at the dominos table with Tío Juan. “When you play a game together, it gives you a chance to interact and to feel connected, even if you aren’t speaking the same language.” Bonus: Extend a Pilgrim-worthy olive branch and offer to play a game that reminds your relatives of growing up in their native country. Remember, the fewer words involved, the lower the chance for misunderstanding.

Clear up misunderstandings immediately. Even if you do stick to Spanish only, remember that one culture’s curse word is another’s catch phrase (as in the case of a friend whose Colombian mother who accidentally burned herself and dropped a word that rhymes with abajo--horrifying a Honduran guest. Her defense: “In my country, we say that word all of the time.”) “If someone tells an off-color joke or uses a word that seems offensive or even racist, ask what the person means by it before you react,” advises Nogales. “They could be saying something they don’t mean, especially if they are attempting to speak a new language.”

Talk about the holiday beforehand. “Thanksgiving is a great chance to learn about other cultures,” Nogales says. If your mother refuses to attempt English with a non Spanish-fluent guest, then maybe it’s time to have a serious powwow over the meaning of the holiday. “There’s always room to compromise and to try to speak in each other’s language, no matter how long it lasts. The whole point of this day is to open our hearts and share with each other, for whatever time we have.”

A point that is all too clear to Nora Díaz, 43, a television programmer and co-founder of the website "When we were kids, I can remember my Cuban grandmother yelling, ‘Hablen en español!’" Díaz said. "We'd try, but it would only last for about two minutes. Now that my grandparents and my mother are gone, it brings tears to my eyes to remember it. We barely speak Spanish at all now."

Michelle Herrera Mulligan is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn. She co-edited "Border-Line Personalities: A New Generation of Latinas Dish on Sex, Sass and Cultural Shifting" and blogs at