O.C. Celebrates a Thanksgiving of Generosity

TIMES STAFF WRITER

More than 300 years after Native Americans and immigrant Pilgrims sat down together for the first Thanksgiving, thousands of latter-day immigrants or their offspring gathered in an Orange County parking lot for free turkey dinners and to hear a call for the renewal of the original Thanksgiving spirit.

"I'm here to support these kinds of gestures of generosity that cut across the suspicion and hatred that seems to be so apparent these days," Msgr. Jaime Soto, vicar for the Latino community in the Diocese of Orange, told the crowd gathered outside the Casa Garcia Mexican Restaurant, where an army of volunteers expected to serve 10,000 dinners before day's end.

"This is an opportunity for all of us to put that aside for at least one day, to be generous with one another and thankful, not only for the gifts we have to share, but for having neighbors to share them with."

Rekindling the spirit of Thanksgiving is especially important this year, he said in an interview, in light of the recent passage of Proposition 187, which he said seems contrary to the holiday's meaning.

"People have lost hope in our ability to rebuild a strong California," Soto said. "This is a chance to be hopeful. Thanksgiving began as an openness to the stranger, the immigrant. It was forged in the spirit of generosity and hospitality that has always characterized this day."

Similar scenes were repeated beneath bright cloudless skies all over Orange County, as thousands of hungry celebrants showed up at area shelters, restaurants and churches to enjoy bountiful holiday meals prepared in the traditional way.

At the food court of Westminster Mall, hundreds ate courtesy of the nearby Shelter for Homeless.

Newport Beach's Hard Rock Cafe opened its doors to the needy beginning about 11 a.m.

And in Costa Mesa, volunteers at the Someone Cares Soup Kitchen served more than 1,000 Thanksgiving meals to people who were homeless, short of money, elderly or, in some cases, just in need of company. "This makes us feel good, and we have a lot of fun doing it," explained Bill Hamilton, owner of Newport Beach's Cannery Restaurant, which provided the food. "Plus, it's needed."

Alex Walder, an immigrant from Belgium who now owns an employee benefits company in Irvine and has volunteered to cook Someone Cares' Thanksgiving meals for the past five years, said he does it to show his own appreciation for the treatment he's received.

"I came to this country years ago with $56 in my pocket and made my fortune," Walder said. "I feel very grateful to the community. This is my way of giving something back."

And Robert Tierno, who has spent the past 1 1/2 years unemployed and living in a motor home with his wife and four children, said that the free food helped make his day. "Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays," Tierno said. "This is great. It's hard to cook such a big meal."

Nowhere was the spirit of giving and sharing more evident, though, than at the Casa Garcia Mexican Restaurant, where volunteers said they began cooking Monday night to feed the throngs of hungry celebrants who at 10 a.m. Thursday began forming a line to the serving tent that eventually reached a block in length.

In order to offer the traditionally prepared Thanksgiving meal, restaurant owner Frank Garcia--who has sponsored the event for seven years--said he used 500 turkeys, 250 gallons of gravy and 8,000 pounds of potatoes, vegetables and stuffing.

In addition to the usual fare--including pumpkin pie, corn on the cob and mashed potatoes--Garcia added a few ethnic twists: slices of raw pineapple and his own special recipe for a turkey stuffing made out of rice, bread and Mexican tortilla chips.

"Everybody loves it," the restaurateur declared. "Thank God I got a turkey for people who don't have one. If everybody in the world gave a plate to their neighbors, there wouldn't be any hunger in the world. You have to give back to the community. Today, I'm eating with everybody and it makes me happy."

His wasn't the only happy face as volunteers circulated among the ethnically diverse crowd offering lemonade and punch while a Mexican band played its heart out.

Seated at one of the dozens of long folding tables covered with purple linen tablecloths, James Gatens, a 43-year-old immigrant from England who said that he lives in his car and sometimes works as a salesman, explained why he came.

"I saw the ad in the paper. It said they'd have music and food, so I thought I'd check it out," he said. "The food is excellent. They asked me if I wanted a drumstick, and the turkey looked like it came from Jurassic Park."

Vincente Palacios, a factory worker from Mexico, said he especially appreciated the holiday's message of ethnic harmony and tolerance. "I like the human warmth," said Palacios, 34. "You can see a lot of people from a lot of different places enjoying the same food. I think it's beautiful."

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