A Place at the Nayarit: How a Mexican Restaurant Nourished a Community

When is a restaurant more than a place to eat? How and why does this happen?  Why is this significant? In the “Introduction: Placemaking in a New Homeland,” Natalia Molina, researcher and scholar, says it is because people recognize,  “ …  their home is about a feeling rooted to a particular place: a neighborhood, a park, a newsstand, a restaurant. The subjects of this story, most of them working-class immigrants who did not arrive in the United States speaking English, endeavored to make places of their own. They went to work, worshipped in church, attended school, ate out, and, in Doña Natalia’s case, opened a restaurant where people could come together for labor, leisure, and access to a ready-made social network. I call them placemakers.”

They were also people who Natalia Molina calls “underdocumented," because like Nayarit, there are no archives about the place and the people.There was insufficient information written about them, other than what could be gleaned from conversations and memories from those who worked at Nayarit, and those who lived in Echo Park at the time. According to Molina, "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, my identity. But the shards were much harder to find."

It is also about Molina's unwavering research into her family’s history, specifically that of her grandmother, Doña Natalia, the matriarch who created Nayarit, and two other restaurants. Molina never met her grandmother but knew the woman was hardworking and determined; set goals; was never deterred by obstacles; a mastermind at PR; a perfectionist in all aspects of running a restaurant, especially the cooking and food preparation; and was exceedingly generous in helping people find jobs. "As she provided housing to dozens of family and fictive kin, she assumed the status usually reserved for a family's patriarch," despite the fact that she was a single woman and divorced.  Doña Natalia’s personal story is phenomenal. She was a woman who had a great deal of moxie and chutzpah, which propelled her forward. She was married at 17; divorced and alone at 21, she crossed the border into the United States in 1922; and soon found work in a restaurant in Los Angeles. For the following eight years, there is no history about her life. “There are no oral interviews, family lore, newspaper clippings, or photos to turn to. But we do know that she was a Mexican in the United States; her skin was dark, she spoke only Spanish, and thus she faced the same discrimination as millions of her country people … had Doña Natalia settled in a predominantly Mexican ethnic enclave, her life would have been very different. Echo Park, however, was diverse and progressive, a welcoming place for Doña Natalia to live and to run her business."

A vital part of this book is the documentation and analysis of a community, its ethnic, racial and gender/sexual components, and later gentrification, which created far-reaching economic issues. It is about where Doña Natalia came from, a small town in the Mexican western coastal state of Nayarit; about Los Angeles and the heritage of its very early cross-cultural history that encompassed “race-making practices” going back to the time when Europeans took over land that had been home to the Chumash Gabrielino-Tongva peoples for over twelve thousand years; the incursion of the Spanish and the mission system to convert indigenous peoples to Catholicism; and "Mexico's geographic reach encompassed all of present-day California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas, along with parts of Colorado, Kansas, and Wyoming." There is more history that Molina skillfully incorporates into this story of a place, the Nayarit, one woman whose work had consequential effects on many people, and what it meant to those immigrants who lived and worked in the Los Angeles area. 

Food, objects, scents can short-circuit our memories about a place in the past.  When Natalia Molina eats from the hand-painted dishes, from the long-gone Franciscan Ceramics plant in Atwater, she thinks about her grandmother, who did not show much emotion. However, this was dinnerware that Doña Natalia probably bought piece by piece because she wanted a place of her own, and it was, “ …a way of embracing the place where she lived and asserting her belonging.”  In turn, her granddaughter has created an evocative and riveting history that brings that story full circle.   

Interview with author Natalia Molina