It’s become a foodie maxim, I think, that you can tell whether an ethnic eatery is authentic by looking at whether the cultural background of its customers matches the cuisine. This belief isn’t followed by everyone, of course. Skim Yelp, even in California, a state with a population that is 27 percent immigrants and home to around a quarter of the country’s immigrants, and you’ll find self-anointed critics bashing a tiny mom-and-pop Indian or Korean or Mexican restaurant for not catering to the palates of those unfamiliar with the cuisine and customs.
I went to a restaurant recently and felt reassured, as a guest in the space, to find good food different from my own, enjoyed by people of a different background from mine, who claimed the space as their own because their presence had shaped the feeling of being there over a period of years. A similar reassurance floods me when I’m given the opportunity to read a book that feels authentic to the author’s social and cultural perspective on the world. Many critics of various stripes pooh-pooh this intangible quality of cultural authenticity—anyone should be able to read anything, make any food they like, the defensive claim goes. Of course they should. But there’s also a distinct benefit for everyone, a euphoria even, in entering a space where you don’t necessarily fit in right away, whether the food is not what you’re used to or the sensory detail, the style of speech or dress there, is unfamiliar. As the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas explored in the context of ethics, alterity can be a source of transcendence.
Contemporary wars over cultural appropriation and banned books intimate how much is at stake when a person with an authentic vision of private spaces seeks to make, in the public sphere, a place that has not previously existed there. While our October California Book Club selection, Natalia Molina’s A Place at the Nayarit, quilts together the specific social pasts of people at the Echo Park restaurant of the author’s grandmother, it also has broader ambitions. Placemaking can involve physical space, but it also includes developing an internal space, a recognition of your own life as being worthy of storytelling, as well as a determination to listen, really listen, to other people’s stories and how they see and relate to the space you’re in.
“The lives of Doña Natalia and her fellow placemakers in Echo Park were comparatively underdocumented, meaning that their own individual stories are not well served by printed records,” Molina writes. Not so long ago, the printed record was the exclusive province of the materially wealthy and socially powerful—today, access to printed records continues to be hindered by the expenses of distributing small-press and academic books where so much intellectual mountaineering occurs. As Molina argues, “to see how racialized people are placemakers, we need to turn to such semipublic spaces, beauty salons and barbershops, bars and coffee shops, bookstores and bowling alleys, places where community members congregate on a regular, sometimes daily basis and sometimes for hours at a time.”
While reading about a lawsuit mentioned in A Place at the Nayarit, I was reminded of an illustrated children’s book I used to read my daughter when she was at the end of kindergarten to teach her about segregation. Duncan Tonatiuh’s Separate Is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez and Her Family’s Fight for Desegregation recounts a crucial lawsuit in California history, a lawsuit brought by the Mexican American Mendez family. Nine-year-old Sylvia Mendez and her brothers, U.S. citizens, were turned away from a “whites-only” school and made to go to a “Mexican school” in a shack by a cow pasture by the school board in Westminster. Thurgood Marshall filed an amicus curiae brief in the Ninth Circuit in support of the family’s case. That 1946 fight, Mendez v. Westminster, is considered the nation’s first successful case against segregated schooling, occurring eight years prior to the Supreme Court’s 1954 ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, in which Marshall made some of the same arguments.
Still, as you can see from Molina’s account, you may win a particular victory in the courts, but there remain other methods of exclusion from public spaces, and in private ones as well. If you design curricula and canons so that some people never have their lives recognized, it sets the terms of social interactions. The subtlety of this tactic, its ability to be called something other than racism specifically because the information is missing from the official documentation or spaces like schools or libraries, is insidious, making people feel there is no space for them in the public sphere. It weakens democracy, which depends on informed voting citizens—including those curious to engage equally with those who they assume are the same but also those they don’t understand yet, and might never fully—for its materialization.
As people try to ban books and censor perspectives using legal process, whether out of mistrust or a disciplining cruelty, it is clear how much a formal, narrative recognition of what happened—like Molina’s A Place at the Nayarit—and how it felt, matters to constituting our present-day communion with one another.•
Join us on Zoom on October 20 at 5 p.m. Pacific time, when Molina will join CBC host John Freeman and a special guest 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 this book. Register here for the event.
Alta Journal contributing editor Gustavo Arellano profiles Molina and meets her family. —Alta
WHY I WRITE
Molina explains that it is “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.” —Alta
WHY READ THIS
Alta books editor David L. Ulin calls Molina’s A Place at the Nayarit “a groundbreaking work, a book that blurs the line between vernacular history and scholarship—and in the process creates a territory all its own.” —Alta
Ulin reviews Ander Monson’s Predator: A Memoir, a Movie, an Obsession. He describes it as “social criticism that seeks to connect the dots between autobiography and…the way an artifact or a piece of art can get inside us.” —Alta
Read or listen to CBC host John Freeman’s poem “Among the Trees” from his forthcoming collection, Wind, Trees. —New Yorker
ROCK AND ROLL
Jann Wenner, who founded Rolling Stone in San Francisco, dishes about his new memoir, Like a Rolling Stone, noting, “I’d rather have fun than money.” —San Francisco Chronicle
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