I write for many of the same reasons people feel compelled to take a photo and post it on social media: to present or engage with people, events, and places that feel unique yet speak to a universal human experience. Such moments illuminate the resilience of people, their bravery and ability to triumph under difficult conditions. These impulses compelled me to write about my grandmother and her restaurant in my most recent book, A Place at the Nayarit: How a Mexican Restaurant Nourished a Community. There I tell the story of immigrant workers—including my grandmother, Doña Natalia—as placemakers, who nurtured and fed the community through the restaurants they established, which served as urban anchors. I never met my grandmother, but I grew up surrounded by people who had worked at the Nayarit or had been regular customers, and I listened, fascinated, to their stories.
And yet, when it came time to write my version of the story, I encountered many difficulties because the Nayarit is a prime piece of what I call underdocumented Los Angeles. These overlooked places, people, and events nonetheless make the city what it is. The lives of Doña Natalia and her fellow placemakers in Echo Park were also comparatively underdocumented, meaning that their individual stories are not well served by printed records, which usually inform the historian’s efforts to paint a picture of a community. Understanding their daily lives means studying them alongside, not exclusively within, official archives.
This article appears in the Fall 2022 issue of Alta Journal.
While I was able to re-create a lot about my grandmother’s life through research—using oral interviews as well as business permits, census records, genealogical searches, photographs, and restaurant reviews—getting at her interior life was more difficult. One approach that helped was to look at her possessions. While she didn’t leave a diary or letters, I do have her dishes, given to me by my mother. They’re from the Franciscan Ceramics plant in Atwater, hand-painted with apples and leaves around the edges. In the book, I write, “Those dishes say a lot about my reserved grandmother. She wanted elegant tableware, and she got it for herself, piece by piece. I like to imagine her setting her place and enjoying the sheen and the color of those dishes, not just as a sign of aspiration, but also as a way of embracing the place where she lived and asserting her belonging.”
I read this section over the summer when I did a book event at Boyle Heights Bar. The audience was composed of community members who don’t usually attend readings but were curious about this history. Many were in their 60s and 70s, Latinx, retired teachers, water and power employees, restaurant workers. Before we got started, they shared with me that they didn’t know a lot about Latinx history. And why should they have? They certainly were not taught it in their textbooks. So I read to encourage them to tell their stories. You don’t have to write a book to do that. I asked them, Do your partners, children, grandchildren, neighbors, coworkers, and fellow churchgoers know your story? Hands started to shoot up around the room. One woman remembered learning to sew at the age of seven on her grandmother’s Singer sewing machine with the push pedal. She made a dress for her mother that she has now inherited and still wears. Another woman recalled that both her mother and her husband’s mother collected Blue Chip Stamps, and each could buy one piece of dishware every week, which they viewed as a sign of their fortitude, a way of making a place in their new homeland. A third woman, Shirley, from Burma (Myanmar), sat proudly with her chin in the air as Dan, her husband of 50 years, described the dishes from her homeland, such as curries, that she still made for her extended family and friends. That was yet another way to keep place, memory, and history alive.
I know it’s important to record these histories, but it’s even more essential that people see themselves in the larger history of the United States and that, if they don’t, they stand up and tell their story. This is why I write.•