Family First: Cuban America

The younger generations of the Diez family and their friends prepare for dinner and dancing.

For filmmaker Dan Diez, Thanksgiving is an opportunity to connect with family members across generations and cultures.

Filmmaker Dan Diez’s extended family is scattered across the Miami region, and busy lives mean that they don’t all get together as often as they would like. But each Thanksgiving, more than thirty family members gather at Dan’s Uncle Rogelio’s house for a Cuban-American feast, an all-day catch-up session, and some serious salsa dancing. Rogelio prides himself on bringing people together, and he has made his home the perfect party venue. For Dan, it’s a time to reconnect with members of the older generation—emigrées from Cuba—whom he might not have seen all year long.

Dan’s household includes members of four generations, as he lives under the same roof as his grandparents, his parents, as well as his sister Yuliet, her husband, and their two kids. (His brother, David, is currently serving in the Air Force in South Korea.) They all look forward to this annual holiday family reunion.

A visit to the pumpkin patch to carve some Jack-o’-lanterns is an annual tradition.

“Having everyone together and being surrounded by animated conversations in Spanish and English—or both at the same time—is a great feeling,” Dan says. “And trust me: we are loud.”

For those of the younger generations—such as Dan and his cousins—it’s a chance to hear stories of the Old Country, of the lives that older relatives lived before they came to the U.S. in the 1980s and 90s. According to Dan, these tales of the past are often accompanied by important life lessons that the storytellers would like to pass down. These sessions are also an opportunity to share reminiscences of those who have passed away, a way to keep their memories alive. But before you get a picture of a serious or somber occasion, Dan is quick to point out that a good portion of these stories are hilarious, and there’s plenty of laughter from both storytellers and their audience.

The Roast Pig

A roasted pig is the centerpiece of the family holiday meal.

The meal itself takes most of the day to prepare, and it involves a mélange of traditions. It wouldn’t be Thanksgiving without a turkey, of course, and Rogelio’s oldest son, Jonathan, offers a modern twist by cooking a big bird in the deep-fryer. While it’s important that the turkey comes out fully cooked and moist, Dan notes, it’s just as important that they don’t accidentally set the house on fire in the process.

For almost any Cuban family, however, the culinary centerpiece of a celebratory meal is roast pork. Each Thanksgiving, Rogelio slow-cooks an entire pig in La Caja China—literally translated, a Chinese box—which is a sealed wooden or metal roasting box. It takes many hours for the pig to cook, which allows even more time for hanging out and enjoying each other’s company. When it’s time to eat, Dan’s grandmother brings out another staple, congrí, or Cuban rice and beans.

Dan’s mother (left) and grandmother enjoying time outside before Thanksgiving dinner.

Before everyone digs in, it’s tradition for Rogelio to offer a Thanksgiving blessing that pays homage to his late wife, Sandra, who passed away a dozen years ago. It’s a reminder to everyone present just how precious these family gatherings are and how important it is to connect with your loved ones whenever you can.

After dinner, it’s time to dance! By then, most adults have enjoyed a bit of liquid courage, so few are shy about cutting a rug to the rhythms of Cuban salsa music. As many as four generations may be shaking their hips and stepping to the beat at the same time, and the party goes on into the wee hours.

This can make it difficult to get up the next morning for Dan’s traditional Black Friday fishing trip, as he and his buddies head into Everglades National Park to chase bass, tarpon, and snook on foot, but they never miss it. The chaos and laughter of the day before are replaced with the serenity and beauty of nature, where Dan does his best reflecting. Being on the water in one of nature’s miraculous ecosystems is the perfect place to think about what’s most important in life.

Recipe: Grandma’s Congri

Dan’s Grandma cooks a large pot of congrí for all family gatherings. She doesn’t measure anything, so here are her basic instructions:

  1. Cook black beans in a pressure cooker until they are soft. (Time will depend on amount of beans.)
  2. To make a sofrito, in a huge pot start a mixture of oil, garlic, onions, peppers, cumin, salt, “Adobo” (all-purpose seasoning), bay leaf, chorizo, and bacon.
  3. After a few minutes, add the black beans to the pot.
  4. Stir it all around a bit.
  5. Add the rice.
  6. Because this is for a big family gathering, instead of cooking it in a traditional rice cooker, Grandma finishes it in the oven—45 minutes at 350 degrees F.

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