Interview With an Author: Natalia Molina

Daryl M., Librarian, West Valley Regional Branch Library,
Author Natalia Molina and her latest book, A Place at the Nayarit
Photo of author: John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

Natalia Molina is a Distinguished Professor in the Department of American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California. A 2020 MacArthur "Genius" Grant recipient, she is the author of the award-winning books 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, 1879-1940. Her latest book is A Place at the Nayarit and she recently talked about it with Daryl Maxwell for the LAPL Blog.

What was your inspiration for A Place at the Nayarit?

Echo Park and neighborhoods like it are often perceived as lacking a rich history, as though nothing much happened before the arrival of wealthier newcomers. People who have built their lives in such places know otherwise. So as the neighborhood has become less and less familiar to me, I kept circling back to this place, and these people, because I recognized that they get at something important, something that history books, popular media, and landmark timelines rarely capture: how marginalized people can create their own places in ways that reclaim dignity, create social cohesion, and foster mutual care. This book is meant to call attention to such creative actions, to the ways communities can define places on their own terms, sometimes as a direct challenge to the existing environment and sometimes as an alternative.

Your grandmother, Natalia Barraza, founded the Nayarit restaurants, and your mother worked in them. You describe growing up among the people who worked or patronized them. I'm sure this gave you a bit of a "head start" on your research! How long did it take you to do the necessary research and then write A Place at the Nayarit?

For my first two books, I worked in archives, gathering evidence of worlds I did not personally know; the challenge was crafting those shards into a story that told us something about what it meant to be Mexican in the United States and why we think about race the way that we do. But this is a book about a place and a people that have no archives—what I call the "underdocumented." And so the challenge was the complete opposite: I had the story or at least a piece of it. I had grown up in this place (Echo Park) with many of these people, and I knew that being raised by placemakers in a cultural crossroads had shaped my own experience and my identity. But the shards were much harder to find. Over the course of three years, I consulted archives kept by the City and the County of Los Angeles, combed through local and national newspapers, pored over Federal Housing Administration maps and reports, and examined census records in order to understand Echo Park's demographics and how they changed over time. At the Hemeroteca Nacional de México, I studied a twenty-year run of El Eco, the hometown paper of Nayarit. Remarkably, it told me more about the lives of Mexicans in the United States than any US papers, including La Opinión, Los Angeles’s Spanish-language newspaper.

What was the most interesting or surprising thing that you learned during your research?

Oral histories helped fill in the details, the vibrancy, and the texture of my subjects' lives: how they met their spouse; what their first apartment was like; tales of nights out on the town; how they hid things from their sponsor (Doña Natalia); how much their feet hurt after a long shift; the waitstaff's territorial claims to tables and regulars; the best tables for tips; how much they laughed and joked at work.

Yet, some questions went unanswered because people were unwilling or unable, to discuss painful events in their lives openly. When an otherwise bold and outspoken interlocutor told me, in response to one of my questions, that she did not know why her parents had divorced, I persisted: "You don't know because your mother wouldn't tell you?" "No," she replied matter-of-factly, "you knew not to ask about those things."

Do you have a favorite story or anecdote told to you about the Nayarit?

Marlon Brando was a regular customer at the Nayarit. Brando also occasionally asked out women he met at the Nayarit, including the restaurant's eighteen-year-old cashier, Evelia Díaz Barraza, who sometimes joined him at his table while he ate. Before she could accept the invitation, Evelia had to ask permission of Doña Natalia, who was not only her boss but also her aunt and guardian. According to an often-repeated family story, when Doña Natalia asked her niece what Brando wanted, Evelia replied that he said that "he wanted to make love," not understanding what the phrase meant. Doña Natalia made sure Brando went home alone that night. He remained a loyal customer.

After researching and writing A Place at the Nayarit, is there something you wish you could ask your grandmother about the restaurant(s)? Is there something you would tell her if you had the chance?

In a city where Mexican immigrants often lacked unfettered access to public space, the Nayarit offered a sense of safety and community. For many immigrants, Mexican and others, daily life—whether taking public transportation to work, buying a cup of coffee, or going shopping—was often a process of making themselves invisible, of trying to take up as little space as possible, in the hope of avoiding discrimination or confrontation. In places like the Nayarit, the opposite was true: customers could become visible, speak out, and claim space; they could unfold to their true dimensions. They could belong. I would ask my grandmother, how did she have the chutzpah to open a restaurant that was a safe and familiar space for working-class Mexicans at this critical time?

What's currently on your nightstand?

I love books that take a story that we think of as on the margins of US history and instead show us how these narratives sit squarely at the heart of US history. As such, Kelly Lytle Hernández's Bad Mexicans: Race, Empire, and Revolution in the Borderlands and Ada Ferrer's Pulitzer Prize-winning Cuba: An American History (New York: Scribner, 2021) are currently on my nightstand.

Can you name your top five favorite or most influential authors?

I've long been fascinated by placemaking, who gets to define a place, and how they do so. Vicki Ruiz's From Out of the Shadows: Mexican Women in Twentieth-Century America and George Sanchez's Becoming Mexican American: Ethnicity, Culture, and Identity in Chicano Los Angeles, 1900–1945, examined the experiences of Mexican Americans in new and nuanced ways and inspired me to become a professor. The generation of scholars they have trained have taken up the mantle and produced great works like Genevieve Carpio's Collisions at the Crossroads: How Place and Mobility Make Race and Mark Padoongpatt's Flavors of Empire: Food and the Making of Thai America.

What was your favorite book when you were a child?

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle. I hadn't thought about it until you asked this question, but my grandmother has a lot in common with the protagonist of the book, Meg. While one is a restaurant owner and the other someone who travels through time to battle evil, both are brave and driven by family bonds.

Was there a book you felt you needed to hide from your parents?

My mom was just happy that I was reading. I don't know what I would have done as a kid without my local library (shout out to the library's Echo Park branch!). There, librarians helped me track down what felt like an endless supply of books that served as my gateway to all the things I was curious about.

Can you name a book you've bought for the cover?

Josh Kun’s To Live and Dine in L.A.: Menus And The Making of the Modern City. While I didn't buy it just for the cover, I did make sure I bought the hard copy vs the e-book because the illustrations of the menus are little stories in themselves.

Can you name a book for which you are an evangelist (and you think everyone should read)?

Cathy Park Hong's Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning. It's a must-read for anyone who wants to understand race in the US.

What is the last piece of art (music, movies, tv, more traditional art forms) that you've experienced or that has impacted you?

For its hundredth anniversary, the Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens commissioned Kehinde Wiley, the African American artist who painted President Obama's official portrait, to respond to Thomas Gainsborough's 18th-century painting Blue Boy. The result, Portrait of a Young Gentleman, is not just fascinating in its own right, but also in how it tells the story of race in the US through its dialogue with Gainsborough's Blue Boy in terms of style and placement in the gallery, where the portraits hang across from one another.

What is your idea of THE perfect day (where you could go anywhere/meet with anyone)?

My husband and I recently returned from Scotland, where we hiked the 96-mile West Highland Way. While parts were challenging, the trip overall encompassed my idea of a perfect day. Wake up, have tea and read, walk in a beautiful setting, chat with interesting people, have dinner at a neighborhood spot (what I call an urban anchor in my book), turn in, and read some more.

What are you working on now?

I’m working on a new book tentatively titled, The Silent Hands that Shaped the Huntington: A History of Its Mexican Gardeners. The story of Los Angeles' rise from a sleepy pueblo to a burgeoning metropolis has long been told as the tale of men like Mulholland and Chandler, whose names are emblazoned on streets and landmarks to celebrate their role in creating the California Dream. This work tells the story of another such man—Henry E. Huntington (1850–1927), founder of the Huntington Library and Gardens—but from the vantage point of his Mexican workers. It is their story, too. I show how Huntington's vision helped shape Southern California's racial landscape, past and present, as well as how immigrant Mexican labor fueled the racially stratified political economy. This book explores how much of the California Dream was achieved through immigrant labor, which employers relied on even as they obfuscated it.

Book cover for A Place at the Nayarit: How a Mexican Restaurant Nourished a Community
A Place at the Nayarit: How a Mexican Restaurant Nourished a Community
Molina, Natalia