NATALIA MOLINA, 51, Los Angeles, California, Writer/Historian, she/her, Latina
In 1922, Natalia Barraza immigrated to the United States alone. She had grown up in Tecuala, a small town in Nayarit, Mexico. Although she immigrated not being able to write, read, or speak English, Barraza opened up El Nayarit, a Mexican restaurant formerly located in the Echo Park community Los Angeles.
With time, the restaurant became a well-established community hub for immigrants, the LGBTQ+ community, and women. It was a safe place—a refuge for “outsiders” and people who had just immigrated to the U.S.
Seventy-one years after the restaurant opened, Barraza’s granddaughter, Natalia Molina, published A Place at the Nayarit, a book that follows the story of her grandmother and her restaurant and the way it turned into a cultural space for many different Latinos.
Although Molina did not meet her grandmother, who died two years before she was born, Molina was able to compile real-life stories and testimonies of the people that passed through or worked at her grandmother’s restaurant and the impact such a place had in building the LA we know today.
Molina is an immigration and race historian and a distinguished professor of American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California (USC). In addition, she is also a 2020 MacArthur “Genius” Fellow and author of other award-winning books, including How Race Is Made in America: Immigration, Citizenship, and the Historical Power of Racial Scripts and Fit to Be Citizens?: Public Health and Race in Los Angeles. Molina said that making of A Place at the Nayarit took deep research and vivid storytelling and constant research that centered on race, space, identity, and region.
She said there are similarities in all the books she has written, as she is particularly interested in researching and writing about the ways people move throughout the world. “This book specifically looks at how people can actively move throughout their communities on their own, and build the community that makes the U.S. feel like home,” Molina told CALÓ NEWS.
El Nayarit restaurant was once a local landmark visited by Hollywood stars for its traditional and deliciously prepared Mexican food, but Molina argues that the restaurant was more than that. The restaurant was a place where ethnic Mexicans and other Latinos in LA could freely embrace the fullness of their lives. “The book is a model of how we tell our stories; it is the stories of our culture and neighborhood and all the places that make us feel safe,” Molina said.
For Molina, it was important to tell the stories of Latinos that showed more than the constant struggles they face. She wanted to tell the stories of their triumphs and innovative spirits. “We often hear Latino’s history and that the main players are workers but we rarely see them portrayed as entrepreneurs, as people building their own path,” Molina added.
Gathering stories and archives of her family and the restaurant business, as well as those that in some shape or form were connected to her grandmother’s restaurant, took Molina approximately two decades.
During this time, she quickly realized that these stories illuminated the many facets and interconnections of the immigrant experience: family separation, community, pleasures of daily life, racism, and segregation – things that she knows are hard to open up about. “Our communities have been through painful experiences. I have students and people I talk to in my book launches who have shared that their parents or families were in the Bracero movement, and they do not want to talk about the violence they experience, the way they felt marginalized in the U.S.,” Molina said.
One of the biggest highlights and challenges when writing this book was the overcome the vulnerability of the people she spoke with, encouraging them to tell her their stories.
“For older Latinos that I talked to in places like East LA, they told me they were not allowed or ever given the space to tell their own stories. They were not even able to talk Spanish without being discriminated against,” Molina said. “I knew that it was going to be an uphill battle and that I would have to encourage and push my interviewees, in this case my family and community, to talk about things that maybe they were not 100% comfortable talking about.”
As a child, Molina would often spend afternoons at El Nayarit, a place where she was able to feel close to her grandmother. In the process of writing this book, she also learned many things about her own culture, heritage, and about her abuela. Barraza, or as people in the community would call her, “Dona Natalia,” would also sponsor dozens of immigrants—many of them single women and gay men—gave them jobs and places to stay, and encouraged them to venture out and take space in the city of LA.
One of the communities important to highlight in the book was the LGBTQ community, which her grandmother supported and was a lifelong ally of. “When my grandmother ran the restaurant, it was a time of extreme discrimination and violence toward the LGBTQ community,” Molina said. “Places in the community like my grandmother’s restaurant could be raided and closed if they knew it served as a safe space, refuge for the LGBTQ community. It was important for me to tell the stories of these gay men or women ” she added.
For Molina, the documentation of community spaces like El Nayarit is more important than ever, especially as gentrification has changed the landscape and resources of communities like Echo Park. Today, Sunset Boulevard, the same place that housed El Nayarit, is home to hip coffee shops, Pilates studios, clothing stores, and vegan brunch places. Molina argues that Echo Park has undergone remarkable levels of gentrification.
“The argument when it comes to gentrification is that it is bringing in diversity and culture to communities like Echo Park, but I knew people that had been living in these spaces that were unfortunately displaced [and] who already had culture and diversity,” Molina said. “That’s something that is threatened by gentrification. You can lose your whole sense of community if you can’t afford to live in your neighborhood.”
According to the Census Reporter website, Echo Park’s foreign-born population is estimated to be around 40%. “People move into these spaces because they love the diversity and when they move into these neighborhoods, the rent also increases, which makes spaces even less diverse,” Molina said.
Barraza died in 1969. After that, Molina’s mother ran the business until 1976, when she sold the lease to the new owners, who kept the original name of the restaurant. Today, the building is home to the Echo, a music venue and nightclub.
Molina hopes the book serves to bring attention to the ways communities can create social cohesion and unification and foster mutual support and together, challenge the idea and reality of things like gentrification and displacement. To learn more about Molina you can visit her website or order A Place at the Nayarit HERE.