In 1965, Natalia Barraza placed a full-page advertisement in her hometown paper, El Eco de Nayarit. She wanted to spread the word about her two restaurants, the Nayarit and the Nayarit II, where customers could count on excellent service and delicious, freshly prepared food. They would just need to travel some thirteen hundred miles, to Los Angeles, where the restaurants were located.
I saw the ad decades later, when I paged through leather-bound volumes of El Eco at the Hemoroteca Nacional de México, National Newspaper Library of Mexico. As a historian of race and immigration, I wasn’t surprised to see ads for businesses like the Nayarit run by los de afuera, particularly in Los Angeles. A large number of immigrants from Nayarit had settled there, and many stayed tethered to their homeland. But the ad for the Nayarit restaurants still took me aback. It was so much bigger than the others, and—beginning “Cuando Viste Usted Los Ángeles, Calif.” (When You Visit Los Angeles, Calif.)—it seemed to promote the city itself, suggesting that the restaurants were on par with other, not-to-be-missed attractions. That took some chutzpah. So did the inclusion of Natalia Barraza’s name, in large, confident letters at the bottom of the page.
Yet the column of stock photographs running down the right-hand side of the ad would give most Angelenos pause. The top photo shows Los Angeles City Hall and the bottom one, Wilshire Boulevard along MacArthur Park—lovely municipal sites but not exactly tourist attractions. The middle photo does show the famous intersection of Hollywood and Vine, including the iconic Capitol Records Building, designed to resemble a stack of records on an autochanger, with a tower whose light blinks out the word Hollywood in Morse code. The caption, however, reveals an unfamiliarity with the area, and with the English language. “La famosa South on Vine Street de Hollywood, Calif.,” it reads, neglecting to mention Hollywood Boulevard. It is not clear what “South” refers to, perhaps the direction from which the photograph was taken. Neither of the Nayarit restaurants was particularly near to or had any identification with the landmarks pictured. The larger restaurant, the Nayarit, was located between downtown and Hollywood, in Echo Park. The Nayarit II was located two miles east, on the northeast edge of downtown Los Angeles. The ad suggested that these restaurants catered to insiders but revealed that their owner was an outsider, navigating multiple cultures.
She was poised to help others do the same. “NAYARIT PRIMERO Y NAYARIT SEGUNDO,” the text proclaims, are “bellos rinconcitos de nuestra patria que le brindan comidas y cenas de lo mejor atendidos por personal netamente Mexicano” (beautiful little corners of our homeland that provide the best lunches and dinners served by a clearly Mexican staff). The ad goes on to read, “visite usted estos restaurantes y estará como en su propia casa, en un ambiente elegante y distinguido” (visit these restaurants, and it will be like you are in your own home in an elegant and distinguished environment). Clearly, the ad plays on the concept of patria chica (literally, “small country”), which refers to the highly localized loyalty an immigrant has to their hometown, village, or region. By evoking the visitor’s connections to a particular home state, the restaurant would satisfy that feeling of patria chica. Mexican visitors could feel safe at the Nayarit, a space where they could speak their native tongue, be served only by fellow nationals, and escape whatever prejudice they might fear having to face in the city as a whole. Analyzing the operation and extent of those prejudices and dangers—from daily slights to large-scale terror campaigns like mass deportation—has been at the heart of my work as a historian over the past twenty years. That work has shown how thoroughly being Mexican shaped people’s access to space, including where they could live, work, worship, play, go to school, and even be buried.
I have a unique connection to the Nayarit. Natalia Barraza is my grandmother. I never met her, but I was named after her, and my mother, María, was her right-hand assistant in the business. I grew up surrounded by people who worked at the Nayarit or had been regular customers, listening, fascinated, to their stories about the restaurant and about Doña Natalia. They all spoke of her with admiration for her strength, her talent, and her generosity with relatives in Los Angeles and the Nayarit. She had come to the United States on her own, on the heels of the Mexican Revolution, and worked through the Great Depression. She could not write, read, or speak English, but she ran a successful business, sponsored 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 explore L.A.•
Excerpted from A Place at the Nayarit: How a Mexican Restaurant Nourished a Community, by Natalia Molina, with the permission of University of California Press. Copyright © 2022 by Natalia Molina. All rights reserved.