The Woman at the Heart of the Nayarit

Author Natalia Molina spotlights her grandmother in A Place at the Nayarit: How a Mexican Restaurant Nourished a Community, the October California Book Club selection.

dona natalia and some of her fictive kin, back row, left to right, eloisa wongpec, salvador “chavo” barrajas, natalia barraza, irene wongpec, carlos porras, front row, lilia wongpec holding maría’s son david on her lap
Natalia Molina

Tenderly, thoughtfully, A Place at the Nayarit reaches into the recent past and resurrects a restaurant. To the author, Natalia Molina, historian of race and ethnic studies, this is not simply an act of research; it is also a personal errand. The Nayarit, the Mexican restaurant in Echo Park, hangout of well-known stars and too-tired-to-cook construction workers, was founded and run by her grandmother and namesake, Doña Natalia Barraza. This book chronicles Doña Natalia’s life’s work, a masterpiece of engagement and care: a restaurant that didn’t just feed people and feed them well, but also built structures of protection, joy, and financial security for a whole community.

At the heart of the book is Doña Natalia, who moves through its pages like a busy patron, flashing in and out of view. Part of this movement is to do with how archives work, Molina points out. Drawn on official records, census questionnaires conducted in English, they tend to distort and erase. They tend to reify structures of power, and what interest would those nodes of officialdom have in a Mexican woman who came to the United States at barely 21 years old, not speaking English? It’s astonishing how quickly, though, Molina picks up her trail, describing how her grandmother founded one restaurant, which failed, then another, called the Nayarit, located first on Sunset in Downtown during the 1940s, when postwar Los Angeles was booming and Mexican and Mexican American workers longed for food from home.

Doña Natalia’s greatest gamble was her biggest success: moving the Nayarit to Echo Park, a racially and ethnically mixed neighborhood in Los Angeles. Molina delivers a dazzling and exquisitely modulated capsule history of the place, from the early days in which Spanish missionaries took land from Chumash and Gabrielino/Tongva people, to the rise of surrounding neighborhoods and their racial covenants, to the resulting densifying of Mexican, Vietnamese, Chinese, and Filipino communities, which together with a large gay population, gave Echo Park a decidedly bohemian air. Within the neighborhood, people lived vividly in opposition to primary ideas of what the city was—a fantasy of whiteness that ran from pop culture to policing to the way loans were given out—while also establishing alternate centers of wealth for Echo Park’s communities.

The Nayarit sat at the convergence of these contested crossroads. Over the years, it employed more than 100 people, and fed thousands more, people who were grateful for a space that reminded them of where they were from, a place open late, a safe place—Doña Natalia made savvy bargains with LAPD officers, feeding them for free so that they would keep an extra eye on the place—and also a place where they could be themselves. Where they could speak Spanish and not feel as though it needed to be translated, where they could be queer and not expect that would put them in danger. Where Latinx people, some of them new to the United States, could feel as if some part of home had come with them to Los Angeles.

Doña Natalia played an astonishing number of roles at the restaurant. She was its maître d’, its icon, its social planner, its advertising guru, the entrepreneur smart enough to run ads in newspapers back home in Mexico so that by the time people arrived, it already loomed large in their imagination. She was a financial sponsor who put up family members and friends upon arrival in Los Angeles, lent them the expertise of her attorney so that they, too, could apply for documentation—a key element of Depression-era forced repatriations, not too far in the past. She was a paramour-maker who introduced lovers; she was a protector who played den mother to the women, keeping an eye on Marlon Brando and others who came to the restaurant with swiveling eyes. She was a fixer, a political power broker, a mentor to future restaurateurs, a pipeline of money back to Mexico, a culinary historian, a mother of two adopted children, because, of course, why not take on more responsibility? The scale of her endless generosity is simply breathtaking.

Molina is a historian, so as close as she gets to Doña Natalia, she also respects her singularity, her scope, the limits of her knowability. Rather than make this book a story about only her family, Molina has made it about all the families involved in the Nayarit. She speaks to former busboys, waiters, waitresses, hostesses, customers, and food critics. This narrative generosity with her family’s legacy has two effects. First, it opens the book up to the knowledge and history that reside in the bodies of everyone her grandmother touched; second, it demonstrates the very principles she is musing about with regard to reconciling how people actually lived with how history is told.

In early parts of the book, Molina discusses the difference between community institutions—like libraries or governments—and community anchors. The former tend to rely on top-down approaches, even if what they do can be very helpful. The latter tend to be made from the community up. By seeing the Nayarit as the latter, Molina also gives herself the excuse to remember and address the careers of early community figures—like Representative Edward Roybal, the first Mexican American councilman in the history of the United States—thus contextualizing Doña Natalia’s work in light of their efforts on behalf of their community.

There are moments in this book when you can feel Molina—a fabulous writer whose prose is supple and warm and feels addressed to you as a reader—realizing that if this sort of history is going to be written again, she will need to talk to historians, too. She will need to lay the blueprint for the kind of book A Place at the Nayarit is so that it can be written in other neighborhoods, about other communities, other restaurants, other spaces, from bowling alleys to jazz clubs. Watching her lay this groundwork is incredibly moving. To see someone of such immense erudition turn her novel creation, something she could raise up on a pedestal, into an invitation, an open-source work of memory, is powerful. True, there are other books set in motion by this impulse, such as Saidiya Hartman’s brilliant intimate history of Black women and queer people in New York and Philadelphia during the early 20th century, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Riotous Black Girls, Troublesome Women, and Queer Radicals, but by proceeding from what she calls an “urban anchor,” Molina has pointed toward a new way of bringing back the past—framing, perhaps, what has so often slipped through history’s too stingy register.

It also simply makes for vivid reading. When you accept that a territory is not merely what can be seen but what was lived, a fresh spirit of possibility enters. New incidents are drawn to the historian’s magnet. Indeed, by pulling from interviews, stories, and the whole panoply of memory that exists within a community—orally as well as in print—Molina has resurrected the way in which spaces, not simply institutions, are where we become, where we work our lives out relationally, picking up and putting down different identities based on whom we’re with and in what context. The variety of happenings at the restaurant attests to this, from a 45-minute boxing match that occurred between two leading prizefighters, to the promenade of musicians after midweek sets, to the idle Friday-night takeout order of a family who lived nearby and simply didn’t feel like cooking.

Of course, the restaurant doesn’t exist anymore; of course, it isn’t forgotten. In later chapters, Molina describes the way the memory and possibilities of the Nayarit live on, even if it’s not serving up delicious food at three in the morning. What an uncynical way to think about loss, while respecting what it means: to follow the lives into which care was poured, at all hours of the night, with afterlives so long they are almost comical. One interview subject with whom Molina sits remembers how Doña Natalia intervened to pay his gas bill because he needed help. The bill arrives to this day with her name on it, even though he has long since resumed paying it.

Now, at last, a few more people will know the place and the many other generous things this great woman did, made possible, most important of them being the restaurant she created and kept open for a while, making the nights more hospitable, more fun, more tasty, more worthy of their sweet music.•

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

John Freeman is the host of the California Book Club.
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