Immigrants Flock To Neighborhood Slaughterhouse, Relive Rituals From Back Home

11/24/2011 11:58 am ET | Updated Nov 24, 2011

NEW YORK-- On Thanksgiving Eve, people from South America, the Caribbean and Africa poured in from the rain to the damp smell of offal at La Granja, a live poultry market in West Harlem.

Instead of buying organic turkeys at Whole Foods or Fairway nearby, these last-minute shoppers relived a simple ritual started in their home countries.

They were taking a moment to pick out what would become Thanksgiving dinner. Some arrived at La Granja, which means the farm in Spanish, with family members to help chose the right chicken, turkey or guinea fowl for the special occasion.

"Who wants a frozen bird?" asked Luis Jara, a native of Ecuador. "Back home I would step out of my house, grab a turkey or a chicken, and slaughter it right there on the spot."

La Granja market, also known as a vivero in Spanish, started the day with more than 200 turkeys. "I thought it was going to be slow, but people came out," said one slaughterhouse worker.

"You got turkeys?" asked a native of West Africa, rushing after leaving his Yellow Cab parked illegally outside. "I need one."

"Take your pick," said the worker, pointing at the remaining birds. "Only three left." The turkeys retreated behind a wall of hen-filled metal cages as if aware of the fate that awaited them.

Julio Chabla, 30, a building superintendent in Harlem, spent $33 on a 15-pound turkey. He planned a small holiday gathering with his wife Maritza Landy, their three-year-old son and Landy's father.

"We used to invite family and friends as well as my father," Chabla said. "But we don't have the money now for more."

But Chabla, a native of Ecuador who has lived in New York for a dozen years, said the couple had much to be thankful for.

"We have each other," he said. "We're healthy. We're thankful to this country for giving us work and the chance to earn a living."

Landy said she too was grateful despite not having a job for nearly a year. She had worked for four years at a beauty salon on Manhattan's Upper West Side, sweeping and mopping the floors, washing and folding towels. It was one of the first places where she felt discrimination in her adopted country.

"They wouldn't let me shampoo the hair of the clients," she said. "They didn't want me touching people. Sometimes they needed help and I would offer myself, but they preferred to keep the people waiting. They'd say, 'Don't touch the clients, please.' "

This Thanksgiving, Landy said, she was "grateful to God for keeping me here. I may not be well off economically, but I'm with my son and my husband. I have friends."

The boy, Bradley, slept in a stroller, with a sheet of plastic draped over it to keep the rain out.

"We saw a movie with a mischievous child named Bradley," she said. "We liked the name. American people always ask, 'Why Bradley? That's an American, not a Hispanic, name. I say, 'Yes, it's an American name.' "

By nightfall, Luis Jara and his family had nabbed the last turkey at La Granja, a feisty 14-pound bird that set him back $32.

After weighing the turkey, a vivero worker in a black apron carried the bird to a back room, where it was killed, plucked and trimmed.

A woman nearby pulled out her cell phone, dialed and spoke in Haitian Creole.

"Forget it," she lamented, stepping outside into the cold, rainy night. "They're out of turkeys. I'm going to the supermarket."

Jara said he wasn't surprised that the turkeys were gone, even in hard economic times.

"For the holidays, people find the money," he said. "Now Christmas is coming. You put together money from here and there. You have a little dinner. You always do something."

Asked what he did for a living, Jara, in his 50s, said he drove a delivery truck.

"I deliver The New York Times," he added proudly. A vivero worker handed Jara a dark-blue plastic bag with his freshly slaughtered turkey, a small ritual that for the moment, at least, seemed to ease the hardness of life in America.

"You make sacrifices and you celebrate," he said. "Thanksgiving comes once a year. The rest of the year you work."