Lupe Aguilar, an 82-year-old Texas native, gathered along with about 20 other senior citizens in the multi-purpose community room at Alcantara Court Apartments in the heart of hipster Valencia Street this week to celebrate Thanksgiving.  

“They usually ask us what we want to eat for the parties,” said Altagracia, one of the residents at Alcantara Court. This year it had a Mission spin — tacos instead of turkey, along with the center’s regular vibe of Spanglish and diversity. Lots of it.

Residents include Chinese, Russian, Filipino, Nicaraguan, Salvadoran, Mexican, Honduran and Peruvians seniors. Oh, and Aguilar — the only American-born person in the room.

Photo by Marian Carrasquero

“Do you know why Americans celebrate Thanksgiving?” Juan Cahua, a Peruvian resident who has been living at Alcantara Court for six years, asked the woman beside him.

She shrugged her shoulders while putting a rolled tortilla in her mouth.

“When the pilgrims saw the turkeys, they said, ‘We have to eat those,’” he said, speaking in Spanish and laughing.

They sat side by side and waited for their hot chocolate, apple cider and tacos. Plastic pumpkin tablecloths were taped to the three long tables, which bore ornamental autumn centerpieces. 

“Gracias a todos por venir, Thank you all for coming,” said Olivia, the building manager, as she greeted all the attendees in both English and Spanish.

“I am going to speak in English and Spanish, but I am sorry I don’t know any other language,” she said to the monolingual Russian and Chinese residents in the room.

They smiled.

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“I used to teach English here for the residents, but some of them don’t know how to read or write in their own language, so it is very hard for them to learn a new one,” Aguilar said later.

Nevertheless, the center, which is run by the Mission Housing Development Corporation, a nonprofit, celebrates the holidays and encourages the seniors living at Alcantara to come out of their units and participate in the social life of the building.

As the lunch celebration went on, the background music switched between the familiar “Jingle Bells” and “Feliz Navidad” melodies.

“They always play the same songs; I am tired of hearing them,” said Altagracia as she finished her food.

Cahua, who was sitting next to her, picked up her plate once she was done, took it to the trash and returned with napkins.

“I have to take care of the ladies, especially this one,” he said.

“What he wants is something else,” she said in Spanish as she turned her back slightly towards him and smiled coquettishly.

The flirtatious couple laughed as the rest of the attendees in the room finished their food and were served coffee by the volunteers, some of which were related to the residents.  

“Cafe, no — vodka,” yelled Cahua across the table to his Russian neighbors as he accepted a cup of coffee from one of them.

His Russian friend smiled and held up his cup of coffee as if to toast the day.

“He usually brings vodka when we have a gathering,” he said to the table.

The lunch ended with a raffle in which the residents participated to win toiletries, laundry soaps and other household goodies. The suspense of who would win with each draw was one of the more exciting moments of the celebration. Over laughter and some whispering of “not-fair,” the winners collected their prizes.

As in any community, the diverse residents of Alcantara Court have developed relationships and have learned to coexist, no matter the language differences. Holidays and Friday bingo are some of the ways in which they interact and mingle.

But not all of them participate. There are 50 mailboxes with 50 names in the lobby, and a bit less than half of them were present at the Thanksgiving event.

“The next event will be the end-of-the-year celebration in mid-December,” said Karla, the service coordinator. There, she said, “Every resident will get a prize.”

But the day wasn’t quite over. There was still dessert — and if the meal started with a Mexican flair, it ended with the quintessential American standard for Thanksgiving: pumpkin pie.