Moving to a new country can feel exciting, like running a finger across the edges of something that can’t yet be grasped. However, it can also be horrifyingly lonely and frightening, depending on whom you initially meet. It doesn’t have to be, of course—it can involve good dinners flooded with spontaneous conversations about home and buoyant hopes for new lives that do not require the abandonment of sense memories.
Quiet but bighearted gestures from other immigrants already stably positioned can dramatically transform the trajectory of one’s life in California and elsewhere in the country. However, the conversations about identity in the course of encountering the immigration system sometimes fail to adequately account for group members’ inevitably varied responses to the seemingly shared encounter.
Within any group are those who guard the boundaries of what it means to be an insider. I followed the rules of the system. Why can’t you? Others, Groucho Marx–like, refuse any group that would have them. However, sometimes a stalwart, compassionate insider risks their own ease and comfort closer to the center to steady a precarious person floating on the periphery.
As Natalia Molina, author of A Place at the Nayarit, the California Book Club’s October selection, describes it, her grandmother Doña Natalia Barraza was that outsider turned insider. She made sure that queer Chicanos felt at home in her Los Angeles restaurant, the Nayarit. Molina identified 68 people Doña Natalia sponsored and helped through the onerous immigration and settlement process and the subsequent climbing of the economic ladder. She forged a community among her workers through staff meals, a meal before they clocked in that doubled as a way to understand the dishes on offer. She invited them into her middle-class home to stay when they first arrived in the country, and she called upon her own relationships with lawyers to get their paperwork through.
In turn, receiving documentation relieved those she helped from the “burden of illegality” and generated a ripple effect in Echo Park—former Nayarit employees she helped in this way went on to start nearby restaurants themselves, often developing them into “havens for gay clientele.”
In one passage in the book, Molina discusses a customer with her mother, who worked at the Nayarit. Molina expresses surprise that the customer was in a straight marriage with kids, and her mother states simply, “We all knew that he was gay but that he was also married with a family and that he was different when he was with his family.”
Marvelously, Molina does some heavy lifting when it comes to reconstructing the taboos of the past, trying to interpret scarce evidence about how people must have experienced those taboos. Lived but inexplicable contradictions, some falling outside the language and theories later developed, contribute to what Molina calls “silences in the archives.”
Speaking of silences: in conversation with Molina’s questions of belonging is author Alex Espinoza’s nonfiction excavation Cruising: An Intimate History of a Radical Pastime. Espinoza considers the deep, ancient layers of a radical underground history: gay men hooking up with strangers in public places as an intimate reclamation of public spaces.
As Espinoza explains, “cruising flourishes the more it is policed.… Secrecy and fear also begin to cement a kind of identity.” Perhaps being able to write that history publicly alleviates the burden of silence around the practice.
Espinoza was born in Tijuana, Mexico, to parents from Michoacán. His first novel, Still Water Saints, was published by Random House in 2007. His second novel, The Five Acts of Diego León, was published by Random House in 2013. His work has appeared in several anthologies and journals, including VQR; in the New York Times Magazine and the Los Angeles Times; and on NPR.
Espinoza has received awards and honors such as a 2009 Margaret Bridgeman Fellowship in Fiction at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, a 2014 fellowship in prose from the National Endowment for the Arts, and a 2014 American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation for The Five Acts of Diego León. He teaches at UC Riverside and serves as the Tomás Rivera Endowed Chair of Creative Writing there. Of Cruising, the James Beard Award–winning food writer John Birdsall wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “Espinoza makes us feel the power of carving out queer spaces in the wider city.” We are delighted to welcome Espinoza to the California Book Club to discuss A Place at the Nayarit, and we encourage you to read one of his original, absorbing books after you finish Molina’s.
On Thursday, grab a beverage and a snack and tune in to hear a conversation filled with heartfelt commentary and astute insights into the elusive silences within the archives of Los Angeles.•
Join us on Zoom on October 20 at 5 p.m. Pacific time, when Molina will join Espinoza and CBC host John Freeman to talk about 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.
INSIDE A CREW
1980S PUNK MENTALITY
The beloved classic graphic novel series Love and Rockets, by Jaime Hernandez, Gilbert Hernandez, and Mario Hernandez, turns 40 this year and is featured on Artbound. —KCET
Kemper Donovan and Catherine Brobeck set out to read Agatha Christie’s 66 mystery novels for their podcast, All About Agatha. In 2021, Brobeck died from an undetected genetic disorder, and the last Los Angeles–based podcast episode, featuring Curtain: Poirot’s Last Case, aired in September. —Los Angeles Times
Angela Lansbury, star of film and television and perhaps best known for her role as mystery novelist Jessica Fletcher on the television series Murder, She Wrote, has died at age 96. —New York Times
Bay Area writer and critic Chelsea Leu writes a charming essay about her connection to the music of Steely Dan, asking, “What was with these harmonies, so strange and so addictive? What on earth did ‘Love your mama, love your brother / Love ’em till they run for cover’ mean?” —New Yorker
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