Giving Thanks for a Caravan of Pilgrims

In the run up to the midterm elections this year, President Donald Trump brought the nation’s attention to a group of Honduran migrants who were traveling up through Central America. Their goal was to enter the U.S. and claim asylum, but the president, looking to drum up votes ahead of the elections, had a more sinister take on their motives:

“Many Gang Members and some very bad people are mixed into the Caravan heading to our Southern Border. Please go back, you will not be admitted into the United States unless you go through the legal process. This is an invasion of our Country and our Military is waiting for you!” - President Donald Trump, Oct. 29, 2018

He then promptly dispatched 5,200 active-duty troops to the border, a transparent campaign stunt which most border officials saw through immediately given the fact that federal law prevents the military from engaging in domestic law enforcement activities. Still, at the time, many Republicans saw Trump’s decision as a show of strength, and some read the President’s tweets as a broader call to arms. Several armed militia groups headed South to battle the invading hoard. Predictably, now that the election is over, President Trump has neither tweeted about the caravan nor brought attention to it via any other communication medium with the kind of zeal he originally displayed. The impact of this silencing of the alarm bells on the chest-thumping militias is hard to say, but the impact on the troops is certain: they will not be able to return home to their families in time for Thanksgiving.

In this atmosphere, as the troops at the U.S.-Mexico border settle into their MRE rations this Thursday, the rest of America will sit down to slow-cooked turkeys and fluffy mashed potatoes while surrounded by loved ones, some of whom are more loved than others. We will perform this annual ritual in honor of the story of a caravan of pilgrims that once journeyed thousands of miles to a new continent. They were destitute and starving, and came within weeks of freezing to death, only to be saved just in time by the native inhabitants of that strange land. 

Thanksgiving was not always the uniform harvest festival it is today. The Puritans who eventually settled in New England brought with them a tradition of Days of Thanks, which were celebrated when favorable events could be attributed to God’s will, as well as the complimentary tradition of Days of Fasting and Humiliation, which were implemented when unfortunate events transpired. This latter celebration has not made it into modern American life, but one might wonder whether it should be resurrected. After all, the story of Thanksgiving is partly about hospitality and charity, virtues that our president and, by extension, our nation have humiliatingly failed to manifest in our dealings with the caravan and the broader issue of immigration. Distressingly, our humiliation surrounding the caravan situation runs deeper than the conduct of our current president.

Thanksgiving is considered by some Native Americans to be a national day of mourning since it is stained by the genocidal conquest of native peoples. Additionally, this year, just like past years, Thanksgiving may also be a day of grief for many Latino families, for whom the arduous journey to America and subsequent mistreatment at the hands of the justice system share little resemblance to the nostalgic tail we tell of pilgrims and native people sharing food peacefully together. This would be all the more poignant given that Latinos and Native Americans are increasingly identifying with each other as kin. In the 2000 census, over 400,000 those surveyed identified as both Latino and Native American, and by the 2010 census, that number had grown to over 600,000. 

As the realization that Latinos and Native peoples share common ancestry has sunk in, so too has the realization of their shared past. While their stories of mistreatment have differed across times and places, Latino history and Native American history are two strands of the same history of indigenous peoples in the Americas. 

The marriage of these two identities deepens the quagmire at the border. Perhaps a few of the troops catch the incredible historical echos of their mission. After all, this is not the first time that military force has been used to direct the movements of indigenous peoples in North America. In 1830, President Andrew Jackson successfully pushed the Indian Removal Act through congress, which he used to justify the systematic ethnic cleansing and forced relocation of over 16,000 Native Americans from the Eastern states into mid-western reservations. Jackson, a businessman and outsider to the political establishment with a floppy hairdo, won the presidency by claiming that he would restore the country to a nostalgic version of its checkered past. He then used the United States military to prevent brown people from living among white people, which he apparently considered to be part of the fulfillment of his 1828 campaign promise to advocate for the “common man” against a “corrupt aristocracy.”

Andrew Jackson’s Trail Of Tears and the subsequent decades of ethnic cleansing of Native Americans in the West by the U.S. Military was just one chapter in the long history of systematic persecution that indigenous peoples have suffered in the Americas. That history began with the Spanish colonial occupation of South America in the 1500’s, when conquistadors, such as Columbus, Cortes and Pizzaro, committed acts genocide, biological warfare, and enslavement against the Taino, Aztec, and Incan nations.

President Donald Trump’s general antagonism toward Latin Americans has a relatively small but equally bitter place in this monstrous legacy. We cannot ignore the fact that, on this Thanksgiving, because of xenophobia and hatred, a caravan of pilgrims will be told they are not welcome in a land inaugurated by both pilgrims and indigenous peoples. Millions of Americans have ancestry on both sides of these conflicts, and many Americans see in our president’s call to arms a lack of understanding of the nuances of American identity. There is a deep tension at the heart of Thanksgiving every year, but the cognitive dissonance is undeniably stronger this year.

Of course, the recognition of this irony will not prevent many of us from gathering together to eat turkey, corn and pumpkin pie (all of these foods come from the New World, by the way, just like the caravan). There will still be the annual rush for mashed potatoes before they are all gone (potatoes come from Latin America, too). The drunk uncle of the family will still talk over the NFL commentators (football and basketball find their roots in ancient Latin American ball games, by the way) and kids will still run around with toy guns playing ‘cowboys and Indians’ as they always have. The distant pattering of migrant feet will follow us like ghosts through these moments of Americana.

This is a true crisis of conscience for our entire nation. In his 2002 article in CounterPunch on problem of Thanksgiving titled “Celebrating Genocide”, Dr. Dan Brook, a sociology professor at the University of California at Berkeley, concluded that “we do not have to feel guilty, but we do need to feel something. At the very least, we need to reflect on how and what we feel.” The aspiration to acknowledge the darkness in our traditions is noble, and the question then follows: how do we do that properly?

Knowing what we know about the extermination of Latin peoples and the subsequent assimilation of the remnants of their cultures (food and games included) into our own, how can we do justice to the positive and negative versions of Thanksgiving? How do we celebrate our history in a way that makes room for all Americans to join together as one nation, even as that history of oppression and assimilation continues to break lives apart at this very moment along the Southern border? 

Some daring Leftist voices around the dinner table this year might offer silver linings: perhaps we can be thankful to and take “inspiration from the collective bravery of the caravanistas [sic]...” And it is true, yes, we can be a little bit thankful in this way. But would it not be disingenuous to collectively offer this thanks as a nation while denying citizenship to those who exhibit the very qualities that we ascribe to our citizenry in our national anthem (“...home of the brave.”)?

Some other voices around the table, more pragmatic this time, might try another angle: perhaps we can be thankful for the fact that the caravaners have each other to provide safety in numbers. And again, yes, we can be a bit thankful in this way. But, is it not disingenuous as a nation to send well wishes to the caravaners while denying them the very thing that would bring them wellness?

A last voice might try one more time, now just a whisper from behind a cornucopia: given that migration along the Southwestern border is decreasing, perhaps at least we can be thankful that there are still people who want to become Americans so badly that they would set their lives against the most powerful military in the world to do so. Finally, yes, we can savor this crumb of thankfulness, pure and true, unblemished by hypocrisy. We can be thankful that all pilgrims, past and present, have shared in the dreams that led us all to our own patriotism.

Taken together, these morsels of gratitude pale in comparison to the culinary feasts that sit before us this Thanksgiving. Whereas our bodies find nourishment in excess, our souls must make due with scraps. Such meager portions have always defined the subject of American immigration, but in a different form: 

"Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"
Emma Lazarus, The New Colossus (1883)

There is one virtue that we can all celebrate together this year, which is embodied by both the caravan at the border and also the story of Thanksgiving: humility. 

The story of Thanksgiving is the story of a group of migrants who were humbled by nature, and who had the humility to ask for help. The story is also about the tribe of Native Americans who showed them mercy. Perhaps the time has come to reintroduce to American life just a touch of that other Puritan tradition, the long lost compliment to Thanksgiving, the Day of Fasting and Humiliation. Though our president is ostentatious and our history is littered with hubris, we can begin this year’s meal with our morsels of thankfulness, and then fill our spirits the rest of the way up with humility, taking note of the pangs of hunger in our souls that no food can satisfy.

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