Although Americans associate Thanksgiving with the Pilgrim Fathers, the first Thanksgiving in the United States was actually celebrated in Spanish half a century before the arrival of the Mayflower.
The event, that took place on September 8, 1565, was organized by the Spanish admiral Pedro Menéndez de Avilés to offer thanks for the founding of the city of St. Augustine, Florida. Soldiers, colonists and priests attended the ceremony that started with a mass and ended with a feast. This was 42 years before the founding of Jamestown, and 56 years before the arrival of the Mayflower.
The second Thanksgiving took place on April 30, 1598, when Franciscan monks accompanying the last Spanish conquistador, Juan de Oñate, celebrated a high mass in honor of Oñate claiming the lands north of Rio Grande for Spain. Born in Zacatecas in 1550, Oñate became the first American to celebrate Thanksgiving.
The story of Thanksgiving underlines – once again – how deep the U.S.’ Hispanic roots really are. The United States is not “becoming” Hispanic: it always has been, even if American history books are strangely myopic about the topic.
This myopia dates back centuries. Take the case of General Bernardo de Gálvez. Governor of Louisiana from 1777 to 1785, Gálvez supported the American Revolution by blocking British reinforcements from the south. He took Pensacola in 1781, which stripped the British of their last base on the Gulf of Mexico and essentially, weakened their position. Yet despite his contributions, Gálvez has never received anything near the recognition of French General Lafayette, who is considered a Revolutionary hero. The best Gálvez got was a port city in Texas named after him: Galveston.
The Thanksgiving story is just one small episode in the long story of how Spanish speakers shaped U.S. history. Whether Hispanics account for 15% or 16% of the population today is inconsequential. Hispanic culture has been part of “America” longer than the United States has existed.
More stories on Spanish in the United States can be found in our new book,The Story of Spanish, to be released in April 2013 (St. Martin’s Press).