Volunteers arrived at the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center in the wee hours of the morning on Thursday to prep for the Raul Jimenez Thanksgiving Dinner, the largest in San Antonio. Longinos Soto showed up with his friends at 6 a.m., later than some, to fire up dozens of chafers containing turkey, green beans, and all the classic fixings of Thanksgiving for guests that started streaming in at 9 a.m. More than 25,000 dinners will be served throughout the day until 4:30 p.m.
Soto and company are members of the U.S. Air Force but wore plain clothes as they plated thousands of slices of pumpkin pies.
“We’re just here as human beings,” he said. “We just wanted it to be about that.”
What has kept the Jimenez dinner strong for 36 years is no secret – it’s the Jimenez family and its army of volunteers. Local restaurateur Raul Jimenez, who died in 1998, started the dinner in 1979 with hopes to feed 100 elderly and less fortunate people. For 18 years, his daughter Patricia has chaired the event.
More than 4,000 well-coordinated volunteers, many wearing matching T-shirts to signify their corporate affiliation, played their roles in making the meal run smoothly. Some ladled out gravy, some carried batches of plates to tables, some raised up cards to signify where food was needed, and some passed out drinks. Among them were City and state officials including Mayor Ivy Taylor, state Sen. José Menéndez (D-26), state Rep. Diego Bernal (D-123), Bexar County District Attorney Nico LaHood, and council members Robert Treviño (D1), Rey Saldaña (D4) and Shirley Gonzales (D5).
But the man that received the most applause when he quickly stepped forward to thank the crowd was San Antonio Police Chief William McManus. Later, he and fellow officials joined in to fill and pass out plates.
“I’ve been doing this for 10 years,” he said as his tray was loaded up with plates. “It’s incredible.”
Families, co-workers, and friends have made volunteering at the dinner a tradition practiced by many generations hailing from diverse backgrounds – as have the dinner guests. While many of those that sat at the tables live in poverty and would not otherwise celebrate Thanksgiving with such a feast, some also come for the music, company, and human connections.
Edward Morales, unemployed due to a physical disability, said he was homeless for 20 years.
“It’s a miracle I survived,” he said, who now lives in an apartment and receives of Social Security Disability Insurance. “It’s places and people like this that saved me. … I come here for Thanksgiving because these are people I can relate to.”