When in a new country, a place where you can have a meal of familiar food among people who speak encouraging words in your mother tongue can make you feel welcome and safe. That’s exactly the kind of place Doña Natalia Barraza created after she immigrated to Los Angeles from Mexico. Opened in Echo Park in 1951, the Nayarit was a local landmark, popular with Hollywood stars and restaurant workers from across the city and beloved for its fresh, traditionally prepared Mexican food. It was also a place where ethnic Mexicans and other Latinx residents could step into the fullness of their lives, nourishing themselves and one another—a place where they belonged.
In her most recent book, A Place at the Nayarit: How a Mexican Restaurant in Los Angeles Nourished a Community, Natalia Molina tells the stories of restaurant workers as they moved from the kitchen and the front of the house, across borders and through the decades. The Nayarit, owned by Molina’s grandmother, became an urban anchor and a gathering space where ethnic Mexican workers and customers connected with their patria chica (small country). While Molina was able to unearth much about immigrant life in the 1950s and 60s Los Angeles—how and why people migrated, where they worked, lived, and recreated—in government and community archives, immigrant workers tend to have little presence in their new homeland. They are what we might call the “underdocumented.”
Molina will share the strategies that she and other historians have used to tell their stories in her talk, “A Place in the Narrative: Telling Underdocumented Stories” on Tuesday, April 18 at 5:30 p.m. in the Ford Alumni Center Giustina Ballroom as the Oregon Humanities Center’s 2022–23 Cressman Lecturer. Where do we find immigrants’ traces outside official archives? How can we use an archive to tell stories it was not designed to tell? When we understand that oral histories, photographs, menus, family lore, and memories hold clues to marginalized peoples in the past, we can better imagine them as part of our future. “I conducted interviews with all the former workers from the Nayarit I could locate, as well as some former Nayarit customers and the residents of Echo Park,” writes Molina. “Oral histories helped fill in the details, the vibrancy, and the texture of my subjects’ lives.”
Natalia Molina is a Distinguished Professor of American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California’s Dornsife College of Letters, Arts, and Sciences. Her research explores the intertwined histories of race, place, gender, culture, and citizenship. She is the author of the award-winning books, How Race Is Made in America: Immigration, Citizenship, and the Historical Power of Racial Scripts (2014) and Fit to Be Citizens?: Public Health and Race in Los Angeles, 1879–1940 (2006). A Place at the Nayarit: How a Mexican Restaurant Nourished a Community was published in 2022. She co-edited Relational Formations of Race: Theory, Method, and Practice (2019), and is at work on a new book The Silent Hands that Shaped the Huntington: A History of Its Mexican Workers. In addition to publishing widely in scholarly journals, she has also written for the LA Times, Washington Post, and San Diego Union-Tribune among others. Molina serves on The Huntington’s Board of Governors and was a 2020 MacArthur Fellow.
Molina’s talk, part of the Oregon Humanities Center’s 2022–23 Belonging series, is free and open to the public. It will be livestreamed and ASL interpreted.