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Historian Natalia Molina is the author of 'A Place in the Nayarit'. Photo courtesy of the author
Historian Natalia Molina is the author of 'A Place in the Nayarit.' Photo courtesy of the author

More than just waiting tables

In 'A Place in the Nayarit,' Natalia Molina narrates how the restaurant founded by her grandmother became an urban anchor for Mexican immigrants in Los Angeles.

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As a child, Natalia Molina spent her evenings at the Nayarit, a Mexican restaurant that her grandmother, doña Natalia Barraza, opened in 1951 in the Echo Park neighborhood of Los Angeles.

Soon, the Nayarit became a landmark establishment for Latino immigrants in the area, a gathering place where workers and customers of Mexican origin connected with their longed-for homeland. 

After a long period of research, Molina recovered in a book (A Place in the Nayarit, University of California Press, 2022) the history of the restaurant and addresses the many facets of the immigrant experience.

“The line that links my work as historian is thinking about how race is formed in the U.S., and how people push back on the categories put upon them, the structures in which they're meant to operate,” Molina said in an interview with AL DÍA.  

University of California Press
University of California Press, 2022

Distinguished Professor of American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California and a 2020 MacArthur “Genius” Fellow, Molina decided to write about her grandmother’s restaurant because she was one of those people who pushed back on the system. 

I wanted to write about how restaurants like the one my grandmother started are places where people can come together and form a community

“My grandmother immigrated to the U.S. on the heels of the Mexican Revolution. When she arrived in LA, she said: ‘Well, I have about five job options, and they all involve working for someone, either cleaning their house, taking care of their children, sewing their clothing, picking their food, or cooking and serving their food. I think I want more. I’m going to push back’. So, she started cooking food to begin her own business and form a space in which people could experience joy and connection, eating food that tasted like home, speaking in Spanish, and singing along with live music,” Molina recalled.

A unique place

The Nayarit was in Echo Park, the same neighborhood where the author grew up.

“I think I always knew that Echo Park was a unique place. The neighborhood wasn’t dominated by a single ethnic group: it was cross-racial, cross-cultural, and people really felt bonds across the color line, gender, sexuality, class. But there are no written, book-length histories of Echo Park, and I wanted to change that,” Molina said.

“I started writing about how restaurants are places where people can come together and form a community,” she added.

One of the anecdotes she likes to recall is the one of the night when her family was celebrating the anniversary of his uncle’s death.

“As I looked around, I saw that those who showed up for my uncle weren’t necessarily my blood relatives, but the fictive kin that had come out of the restaurant. These were bonds shaped not just because we’re from the same state of Mexico, but we were from Echo Park, we were from the restaurant. That sense of place-based kinship has been essential to how I understand family and community,” Molina recalled.

My grandmother never learned to read and write in English or Spanish, but she knew how to defend herself

Molina’s grandmother died before she was born, but the author is convinced she would have loved the of telling her story in a book.

 “My grandmother immigrated to the U.S. without speaking English. She never learned to read and write in English or Spanish, but she knew how to defend herself,” she added.

Besides, she said that “as well as many people in my family, she wouldn’t understand my work as a professor and an author. But she would tell me what I say to my students: ‘Tell your story’. And now that I’ve told hers, she’d probably also say: Tell my story louder!” 

Molina discovered that her grandmother used the restaurant as a means to immigrate friends and family from her hometown legally. After they came to work at the restaurant, they could leave it to go work somewhere else. She also wanted them to enjoy Los Angeles.

Poncho, one of the waiters interviewed for the book, said that one night she went out with two brothers newly immigrated from Zacatecas, Mexico, to celebrate the birthday of one of them. They got all glammed up and went to the West Side, to Casa Escobar, they danced and they dined.

The writer observed that: “Those were the kind of things that my grandmother encouraged, not only emigrating to LA to earn money, but also to have fun and to see LA as a place they deserved to be in, that they didn’t have to stay in a segregated neighborhood.”

“When we think about places that are significant to us, we often think about places where we are seen, where we feel that we can be our full selves, and where we connect with people.” In this sense, “restaurants are central to that community building: public spaces where the goal is to come together,” Molina concluded, convinced that restaurants like the Nayarit are needed now more than ever. 

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