Kicking off the California Book Club conversation about Natalia Molina’s A Place at the Nayarit, which tells the story of her grandmother’s Echo Park restaurant, host John Freeman called the book an “atlas of community-making.” Molina explained that even though Mexican workers were the restaurant’s core customers, her grandmother wanted to also reach out to non-Mexican clientele. The restaurant started humbly, but as it grew, “it became an urban anchor because it was the kind of place that you could go to at various points in the day.… The restaurant was a different space at different times for different people, but certainly a place where many could call home.”
Molina explained that as a historian who’s studied institutions, she’s found that while libraries and nonprofits have often been recognized as necessary places for a city, restaurants haven’t. With her book, she tried to write so that teachers and professors could lift up terms like “urban anchor” and teach their students to write about the places meaningful to them, whether those were a local burger joint or a local dry cleaner. She noted, “What did we miss most during the pandemic, in terms of luxuries? In terms of, ‘I know this isn’t vital-vital. I know that people are suffering, but boy, do I want to go to my local restaurant.’”
When novelist and critic Alex Espinoza, the evening’s special guest, joined the event, he thanked Molina “for shining a light on many of the historical injustices that the Chicano and the Mexican American communities have had to endure over the years and decades and still endure” and noted that Molina’s Fit to Be Citizens?: Public Health and Race in Los Angeles, 1879–1939 was “a fundamentally important text that guided my understanding of public health attitudes toward immigrants” in early Los Angeles as he wrote his second novel, The Five Acts of Diego León.
Molina and Espinoza have served on the board of California Humanities together.
Espinoza asked about her approach to history. In the introduction of A Place at the Nayarit, she discusses the predominant methodologies historians employ. He commented on his fascination with the way history gets assembled and stored, particularly in the case of the stories told “to us about us,” and who has access to that storage.
Molina noted the difficulties with researching certain communities, such as the gay community, because they don’t leave much of an archival trace. She also responded that another California Humanities board member who had interviewed her, historian William Deverell, had asked her long ago when she was still writing the book, “Have you always wanted to write this book?” She hadn’t been asked the question before; in the moment, she answered no, because until he’d asked, she hadn’t realized that “we’re told we can’t write about our communities.” She’d first received that message when she was a student at UCLA, where a Latin American history professor said to Latino people in the room, “None of you will ever be Latin Americanists.… You wouldn’t be objective enough.”
Years later, at a reading for A Place at the Nayarit at Boyle Heights Bar, which involved a mainly older Latino audience, she emphasized the importance of telling your stories. Molina told stories about her grandmother’s tableware, which her grandmother bought piece by piece, and asked who in the audience had told their own family’s stories. One man explained that because of the way his wife had left Burma, she didn’t have material possessions, but that she kept stories “alive through her food, and she’ll cook for 60 people all the curries that she knows.” Molina concluded, “Tell your story to whom you can with what you have.”
Freeman asked Molina about how the Nayarit changed what Mexican food was considered to be. Molina answered that her grandmother was interested in telegraphing that what she served was regionally based food. While the Nayarit did have a Cal-Mex-style taco-enchilada combo plate, her grandmother prepared the food to make it more of-the-Nayarit-region. A traditional masa pocket was labor-intensive, for instance, so Molina’s grandmother used a hard-shell taco, but she would bathe it in a “beautiful tomato broth…made with the fresh chicken stock.” Because of the coastal nature of the Nayarit region, she also served tons of shrimp and other seafood dishes that weren’t frequently offered at restaurants back then, like a whole fish cooked with spices. “You bite into that [and] you’re not just transported to Nayarit, but you’re transported to a little hut on the beach in Nayarit and you’re sharing that kind of dish with your family.”
Connecting elements of Molina’s history to the exploration of eros in Espinoza’s book Cruising: An Intimate History of a Radical Pastime, Freeman asked Molina to talk about the many relationships that developed out of the Nayarit as a “dynamic space of love and desire.” Molina explained, “There was so much love that came out of this restaurant.” She commented that the book started as a talk to which many came because they were affected by gentrification. “It’s a love story of your neighborhood.… You want people to know that there was life there before gentrification got there.” And then at the restaurant itself, gay waiters formed communities with one another and single straight women, and their relationships allowed them to all go out to places that would otherwise be hostile to both.
Later, Molina thought about the relationships at the restaurant when she looked around the room at an anniversary gathering for her uncle’s death and realized that “everybody here worked at the Nayarit or was a customer at the Nayarit.” It wasn’t a restaurant that was only about a good time; it was a place you came when you were grieving and “you wanted to relive memories.”
She said, “This is the community we have. This is the love.”•
Join us on Zoom on Tuesday, November 22, at 5 p.m. Pacific time, when author Kim Stanley Robinson will join Freeman and special guest Cory Doctorow to discuss The Gold Coast: Three Californias. Meanwhile, 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.