Natalia Molina’s case study–cum–memoir, A Place at the Nayarit, reads less like a testimony than a what-if. What if her grandmother Doña Natalia Barraza had waited just a few more years to immigrate to the United States from Mexico—Tecuala, Nayarit, specifically—and find work in restaurants in Los Angeles? What if, after Doña Natalia’s first attempt at her own restaurant was shuttered when her landlord declined to renew her lease, she had decided to open her new one someplace other than Echo Park—not a panacea of equality by any means but more ethnically tolerant than surrounding areas and with an entrenched activist impulse harbored by a sizable portion of its residents? What if, in order to sustain her business in an insular environment dominated by colonialist imagery, she had decided to replace traditional items like pescado zarandeado, lengua, and birria with ground-beef tacos and something called El Coyote Pizza so as not to scare off unadventurous whites?
The answer, in the book’s parlance, is that the Latino community would have been denied a placemaking space in an era of exploitation and outright hostility. For, as Molina makes clear, the Nayarit contributed more than familiar and well-made dishes to the community. Aside from moving between the kitchen and the front of house to ensure quality control and proper service, Doña Natalia devoted most of her energies to fostering new communities. Overtly, this meant accommodating working-class Mexican laborers, but the restaurant also accommodated mothers who needed a break from cooking, couples on dates, and singles looking for a neutral place to meet, given the restaurant’s closeness to downtown Los Angeles.
Echo Park also had a large Cuban population, and the Nayarit served as a community axis owing to a common language. Given the vitriol directed at immigrants then and now, the Los Angeles Police Department seems an odd ingredient to be in the mix, but officers frequently patrolled by the restaurant, which was open late, as reciprocation for the comped meals they were served while stopping by in uniform.
What emerges in Molina’s book is a fascinating study of a single business’s impact on a community, though one could argue that the scale is tipped too much in this direction, such that the Nayarit’s owner sometimes feels less like a flesh-and-blood person than like a composited ideal. Transitions frequently begin with “We don’t know” before the reader moves to the next part of the story (or Molina’s expositions on urban theory), and many of the personality traits that the author uses to create an image of Doña Natalia on the page arrive via interviews and documents. What a towering figure nonetheless. Her position, as a business owner with a lawyer, allowed her to sponsor immigrant workers, sometimes putting them on the path to citizenship. She also hired several gay Latinx community members—a subcommunity so unacknowledged at the time that there is scant documentation, even though, according to some scholars, Echo Park and neighboring Silver Lake contained “perhaps the greatest concentration of gay population and gay businesses in the nation” by the late 1960s.
Lifting you up from where you were originally, Doña Natalia gave you ample time off work to go dancing, attend concerts, and participate in other cultural forays throughout the city, even going so far as to lend clothing, jewelry, and accessories to her female workers. Intentionally or not, these generous steps registered as political acts beyond the borders of Echo Park as the culinary community at-large caught wise, more Latinx people began appearing in predominantly white spaces, and the cachet afforded by the so-called vibrant community attracted an influx of residents that sent the Nayarit’s neighborhood whirling down the inevitable sinkhole of gentrification.
“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,’” Molina writes in her epilogue. María, Molina’s mother, was able to sell the business in 1976, and it kept the Nayarit name before being sold to a music promoter in 2001, but many businesses weren’t fortunate enough to control their own destinies.
Forget what-ifs. The real question, in terms of communities lost, is how many.•
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 your thoughts about the book. Register here for the event.