TAMPA — On Thursday, the family will be up early, roasting a plump turkey, deep-frying another. One of the aunts will create her special sweet potato casserole. Someone will bring bread and Cuban coffee.
By late morning, the cooking will be done, leaving bellies growling in anticipation and homes infused with the warmth and aromas that only come from Thanksgiving meals under construction. Sometime in the late morning, the food will be wrapped and toted to waiting cars. Some 100 extended family members — from Tampa and the suburbs, but also from Miami and California and Washington, D.C., and New York — will herd the children into vehicles and they all will head to the same place: Lowry Park.
Along the way, they’ll tell the kids how the park tradition started. How the family, a few at a time, left Cuba and the rule of Fidel Castro and came to the United States. How they didn’t know the language and didn’t have much money and didn’t understand their new country’s customs, like Thanksgiving.
But also how, even though they didn’t have much — or room for a large family gathering — they were thankful for America and their new life. And so they started their own tradition, almost by accident: Thanksgiving at a small, shady park off Sligh Avenue, along the banks of the Hillsborough River.
That was 1963. Thursday will mark 50 years.
“At first the kids were horrified,” said Martha Servia, now 82 and one of the original participants. “They’d go to school and tell the people that they had Thanksgiving at the park. They would say, ‘At the park? Nobody goes to the park at Thanksgiving.’ ”
The tradition began on a whim, and no one expected it to last.
Mario Quevedo was 19 in 1963 and had been in the U.S. for two years when his extended Cuban family decided to host a Thanksgiving celebration. Space was an issue, though. The extended family totaled about 19, all recent arrivals from Cuba. There was no way to fit that many people into anyone’s modest home.
“At that time we were living like four in a shoebox,” said Quevedo, now 69, of Tampa.
But they had come to know and enjoy Lowry Park on North Boulevard. They decided to give the outdoors a try.
The first gathering was a modest one.
They had a picnic table with no shelter, recalled Quevedo’s sister, Nancy Prieto of Tampa. They served turkey and cold mashed potatoes.
“I remember the cold mashed potatoes,” said Prieto, 66 now, a teenager at the first Thanksgiving.
No one was thinking about creating a tradition. Like most Cubans who came to this country in the 1960s, they always thought the following year they would return to a Cuba that had rooted out Castro.
“I’m sure that when they planned to go they thought ‘next year we’ll celebrate in Cuba,’ ” said Prieto. “Like everything else: Next year in Cuba.”
Next year came, and the family was still here. They decided to go back to Lowry Park.
“Going to Lowry Park became useful,” Quevedo said. “It became convenient. Then it became a tradition.”
In the early years, it also brought together a Cuban family needing comfort, companionship and stability when their country had been lost. Each Thanksgiving saw a few more faces — some born here, many recent arrivals from Cuba.
“That’s why to me Thanksgiving is kind of special,” Quevedo said. “It was a time in which we could get all together, all the family. And at the same time, just about every year we saw new faces of people that had been able to get out of Cuba. It was not a question of us here growing the group. Every year we had somebody else who came here from Cuba.”
The park at first seemed a strange setting for Thanksgiving but turned out to have lots of advantages, said Servia, who will celebrate the event this year with great grandchildren.
The park has a playground and huge area for the children to run around or play ball, Servia said. Often, families would head home with children who had wet clothes from playing in the water.
Today, the teenagers and young adults look forward to playing an annual football game. The older adults smoke cigars. The men and women chat and gossip, giving them a chance to catch up with family they haven’t seen in a year.
Servia loves how the younger generation has embraced the celebration at the park that the older generation so informally began.
“It’s just wonderful,” Servia said. “The younger generation likes to come and insist that we should have it this way.”
One member of that younger generation is Mario Quevedo IV, the grandson of Mario Quevedo. At 23, he has been going to Thanksgiving celebrations at the park his entire life.
He says it isn’t the same as going to someone’s home, where people can escape to a back room.
“At the park it’s wide open and everybody is looking at everybody and you have to interact,” he said.
That’s not to suggest there weren’t moments when one family member or another contemplated a more traditional Thanksgiving, one celebrated in a cozy home with holiday decorations and air conditioning and a kitchen conveniently close by.
Quevedo’s wife, Carrie, still remembers a Thanksgiving in the 1960s where she spent the day in a car with the heater on as she tried to stay warm with her bundled up, 1-year-old son. And when her sister in Brandon decided to celebrate Thanksgiving at home instead of at the park, she wondered if she should be having a Thanksgiving meal at home “like every normal family.”
Then the doubts would pass.
“It’s a lot of fun,” Carrie Quevedo said. “First of all to see all the kids running around. Second of all, it’s very important gossiping. Everybody talks about everything.”
Evelio Prieto, who is married to Nancy Prieto, at one time wanted a traditional Thanksgiving meal at home. “When it got a little larger, it really was a hassle to take all this food over there,” said Evelio Prieto, 70.
He presented the idea of hosting Thanksgiving at his house. No worries about the weather. No bugs. No wrapping up all the food and driving it to the park.
The children said no.
“I gave up; I enjoy it,” Evelio Prieto said.
The meal itself has evolved over the last half-century. One small turkey and cold mashed potatoes will no longer do.
Nowadays, the gathering features four turkeys. One family member provides a Cuban style turkey marinated in mojo, garlic and onions. Another relative provides a fried turkey. Two others bring traditional turkeys.
They also serve the traditional Cuban roasted pork, beans and rice, Cuban bread and Cuban coffee. Side dishes are numerous and varied: corn casserole, sweet potato casserole, asparagus casserole and green bean casserole. The deserts are all homemade: pumpkin pie, pecan pie, flan, tres leches and more.
There is so much food they began bringing small microwaves and chafing dishes to keep everything warm. Everyone brings extras; there’s no telling how many people will show up.
“It’s family,” Mario Quevedo said. “It’s also very loose. You come as you are. You eat what you want. If you want to bring a friend or relative or somebody that is walking by the street, bring them on. The more the merrier.”
“It is the way we are,” he said. “Isn’t that what family is all about?”
On Thursday, the families will meet at the same spot they’ve been going to for five decades. They’ll laugh and swap old stories and see how everyone else is doing and remember the ones who are no longer with them.
At the end, they’ll plan on coming back in 2014, for year No. 51.
“This will stay with us forever,” Mario Quevedo IV said. “That is the tradition right there, seeing everyone. Plus, the food is fantastic.’’