A Place at the Table in Echo Park

Author and artist Lisa Teasley looks at our October California Book Club selection, Natalia Molina’s A Place at the Nayarit, through her experience of Echo Park over the years.

natalia molina, a place at the nayarit, restaurant
Natalia Molina

New Year’s Day began in Echo Park. I’d come to spend the first week of 2022 at my oldest, closest friend’s place, enjoying his second-floor views of morning light pouring over the hills and the evening sky’s shows of blazing fuchsia. I’m a Los Angeles native, and Echo Park has long been a second-home neighborhood. People dear to me have lived there over the decades—even as my New Year’s host has since moved Downtown for a prized discount rental space. A 30-year walking confidante found her rent-controlled one-bedroom in Echo Park in 1988 for $525 and has held on to it ever since with the yearly 5 percent increase, while most from the neighborhood have not been as fortunate. Development brings displacement, and gentrification is just the outdated word for wealthification.

Through a vivid, touching portrait of her grandmother’s restaurant, historian Natalia Molina masters a vision of what Echo Park was before the tides of cultural erasure. A Place at the Nayarit reminds readers of the importance of community, particularly for those who throughout history have been colonized, ostracized, chased out, or made to jump through hoops by racist, anti-immigration, and homophobic legislation.

Molina’s grandmother Doña Natalia Barraza lived through the Mexican Revolution. She crossed the border alone in 1921, missing the Immigration Act of 1924. The federal 1952 Immigration Act ended racial exclusion but effectively extended the national origins quotas enacted by the previous legislation on land that had been stolen from the Chumash and Gabrielino/Tongva peoples. Though Mexican immigrants were considered white by law and eligible for naturalization, colorism factored in. Molina cites the 1946 school-segregation case Mendez v. Westminster School District, which was initiated when Soledad Vidaurri’s light-skinned children were admitted to a white school, while her brother Gonzalo Mendez’s darker-skinned kids were turned away.

When Doña Natalia relocated the second and final version of the Nayarit restaurant to Sunset Boulevard in Echo Park in 1951, no bricks were thrown or racial epithets graffitied, though white flight was occurring. Almost miraculously, Echo Park had no covenants of racial restrictions, as so many other Los Angeles neighborhoods did. Still, I’ve observed over decades that Black people have made up a low percentage of Echo Park’s residents, and I’ve assumed this was because of redlining. That number was 1.4 percent by 1990, perhaps related to what was reported then: Latino gang violence that included the firebombing of Black families’ homes in neighboring Highland Park, Cypress Park, and Boyle Heights, violence that continued and has occurred as late as 2014.

Molina doesn’t cover Echo Park’s history of gang violence, but she does mention that in the early 1990s, while attending our shared alma mater, UCLA, she regularly heard classmates call her neighborhood a “‘bad part of town.’ One wrong turn on the way to a Dodgers game, they would say, and you risked ending up in the barrio.” Rightfully, she pivots away from stereotypes, noting that her classmates’ views were shaped by a “lifetime of seeing barrios and ghettos depicted as dangerous places inhabited by dangerous people.” When looking at Los Angeles histories, I want to know how a neighborhood perceived as a cultural crossroads fails to include a significant people. But divide-and-conquer continues to exert psychological effects, so I am grateful for recent years of Black and Latinx collaborative activism through art and food sustainability.

Food builds a bridge between people. Molina’s book is subtitled How a Mexican Restaurant Nourished a Community, and as she points out, by 1930, L.A.’s Mexican population was second only to Mexico City’s; there is now hardly a neighborhood without a Mexican restaurant. In its first year at the Echo Park location, the Nayarit received front-page publicity when two famous Mexican boxers got into a 45-minute fistfight over a woman in the restaurant’s dining room before being busted by the police. Doña Natalia expanded into a space next door in 1957 as the restaurant’s reputation grew. Molina’s glamorous mother, Maria, working as Doña Natalia’s right-hand assistant, attracted many. Doña Natalia cared for her employees, sponsoring an estimated hundred and helping with immigration documentation. Out of the 10 to 15 employees working at any given time, 4 or 5 workers were queer. She treated them as family, while they were otherwise ostracized by the larger, conservative Latino community.

Before the 1920s, the Edendale district—now Echo Park, Silver Lake, and Los Feliz—was where most of the West Coast movie studios were located, attracting artists and communists. By the ’60s, it had become a mix of creative types, white liberals, and immigrant working-class families, predominantly Latino, with a queer presence second only to perhaps West Hollywood’s. Before Marsha P. Johnson threw the first brick at Stonewall in 1969 New York, the Black Cat bar in Silver Lake was raided by the police at midnight on New Year’s 1967. Fourteen men were arrested for kissing; five weeks later, some 500 or more marched down Sunset Boulevard in protest. Jumping ahead to the present, during this writing, people inspired by Berkeley’s People’s Park protesters toppled a large portion of the chain-link fencing that had surrounded Echo Park Lake since March 2021, when the unhoused were ousted.

Molina writes of the area’s history: “The relentless wealthification of Echo Park shows the ways in which specific policies (e.g., the granting of home and business loans and liquor and entertainment licenses) allow communities that have been denied investment for decades to be displaced by communities that are seen as more ‘worthy.’” Echo Park’s first wave of wealthification occurred in the early 2000s. Many of those businesses shuttered before or during the pandemic. The neighborhood’s next wave included bars and restaurants with egregious pricing for food and cocktails. Recently, while I was grabbing a drink after a friend’s reading at Stories Books and Café, a young bartender looked at me as though I had climbed out from under a rock as I tried handing him a $20 bill for a $15 shot of whiskey rather than order one of the menu’s pretentious cocktails. However, pointing fingers at any one of the newer establishments or developers as the primary wealthifying force feels useless.

Philosopher William MacAskill argues for longtermism to protect the future of humanity so that it might last for trillions of years. But the question remains, What is to be done right now when too many lack food and shelter? Taken to court, home flippers, developers, and real estate companies might pay legal damages in private or class action lawsuits (as happened with me as half of an interracial couple discriminated against for housing), only to continue throwing out the elderly, artists, and people of color to mow down properties and put up monstrosities.

Complaints of injustice remain tiring to make, or even to hear. Still, they may prompt compassion. Perhaps justice continues to appear in small but powerful acts like bringing one more person to the table.•

Join us on Zoom on October 20 at 5 p.m. Pacific time, when Molina will join CBC host John Freeman and special guest Alex Espinoza to discuss A Place at the Nayarit. Please stop by the Alta Clubhouse to let us and your fellow book club members know what you think of the book. Register here for the event.

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