Blaise Zerega: Hello everyone and welcome to Alta Journal's California Book Club. It's a thrill to be here tonight with Natalia Molina and special guest Alex Espinoza. My name is Blaise Zerega. I'm Alta Journal's Managing Editor and I'm broadcasting live tonight from San Francisco. And I encourage everyone to say hello in the chat and say where they're joining from. Maybe give a little bit of housekeeping here for those who are joining us tonight for the first time, the California Book Club is our free monthly gathering featuring books that reflect the wonderful diversity and humanity of life in the Golden State. In the weeks leading up to each book club meeting, altaonline.com publishes numerous articles about that month's pick. If you haven't had a chance to read them, please go back and do so. Got several great essays and an excerpt from Natalia Molina's, A Place at the Nayarit, which is the subject of tonight's conversation.
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So without further ado, it's my sincere pleasure to turn this over to the host of the California Book Club, John Freeman. John.
John Freeman: Thank you Blaise. It is so lovely to be here on, as you can see, this sunny Thursday afternoon. I am actually on the west coast for this interview, which makes me a lot perkier, but I'm going to be a lot peppier as well because the book that we're talking about today, A Place at the Nayarit, it kind of surprises me, it took us this long to get to this kind of book. But that might be because this sort of book, this book that Natalia Molina has written is unique. It's a book that is an atlas of community making structured around a restaurant. And how many of us who are sitting here tonight, over the next hour, our stomachs are going to start to grumble. Maybe you have made plans already. Maybe the restaurant that you're going to go to is one that you go to all the time, or maybe it's one that you feel more comfortable in rather than other restaurants.
And all over California, almost every night, thousands and thousands and thousands of people sit down to eat together in public, in spaces which have been curated by communities, by members of a community. The food is not just about nourishment, it can be delicious, but it can also be about memory, it can be about culture. It can be an avenue to employment, an avenue towards cultural capital. It can be basically a nice place to have a good time. And what's really wonderful about A Place at the Nayarit, how a Mexican restaurant nourished a community. The book we're here to talk about tonight, it recreates this world for us, to read this book is to step into the restaurant that Natalia Molina's grandmother created in 1951. You can still see the sign if you walk down Sunset, the neon is not there, but the memories are there.
And as this book unfolds, we don't just get the story of her grandmother who started this restaurant, who came to the United States over a hundred years... Exactly a hundred years ago. But we get the story of everyone who worked there, the bus boys, the waiters. We get the people who came to the restaurant and we watch as a restaurant becomes more than just about how to serve food and who to serve it to. It becomes an anchor, a community anchor. One of the terms that Professor Molina unveils in this book, and there are many other ones and we're going to talk to her about them tonight. You should know she's a distinguished professor of American Studies and ethnicity at USC. She's a former MacArthur fellow and her previous books include How Race is Made in America and Fit to Be Citizens. But this book I think is my favorite of the three, partly because it's also just so warm and delicious and it's brilliant and I'm so happy to have her here. Professor Molina, please join us at the California Book Club.
Natalia Molina: Hi John. Thank you for having me.
Freeman: It's really, really nice to be here. And an ideal world, I think we would be sitting in a restaurant having this discussion. And I guess I want to start very easily with saying, what can you tell us about this restaurant for those who haven't started the book?
Molina: My grandmother started a couple of restaurants before this restaurant, and the one previous to the Nayarit was also called the Nayarit. It was near [inaudible] Vera Street and really catered to a working class crowd, so kind of lunch crowd, white collar workers, office workers, Mexicans on the way to work. But for this restaurant, when that lease ended, she could have chosen to go two miles east on Sunset Boulevard. She was right off Sunset and be in Boyle Heights, it's Los Angeles surrounded by her fellow nationals and speak in Spanish. She never learned to speak English, but she chose to go two miles west on Sunset into Echo Park. And Echo Park was a cultural and geographic crossroads. And I say all this because I do think it affected the restaurant. It meant that she wanted to claim a bigger space, she wanted to reach out to non-Mexican clientele.
The ethnic Mexican workers were always her core clientele. And so the restaurant started off humbly. She didn't have a lot of capital, she was leasing the restaurant. And as it grew she added upholstered booth, she added a dance floor, she expanded into the space next door. But it became an urban anchor because it was the kind of place that you could go to at various points in the day. You could go there for lunch if you were an office worker, you could stop by on your way home. And this is the 1950s and '60s. So if you're a Mexican worker at this time, especially a working class worker, you often are a single man. If you're an immigrant, this is the time of the Bracero Program. You might not be cooking for yourself. And there were people in their interviews that told me, "I went there every day. I just always would stop, say hello to my friends, have a quick bike to eat, maybe linger, maybe not."
And on the weekends was the kind of place that you would start your night and end your night at. And a host of celebrities would come, baseball players, musicians. And on Sundays it was a kind of place that a family might come and have their Sunday meal at. So the restaurant was a different space at different times for different people, but certainly a place where many could call home.
Freeman: Mm-hmm. Your mother worked there, Maria and your father worked at the Ambassador Hotel and was indeed on... He was indeed working when Robert Kennedy was killed there. I wonder if you can talk a little bit about the difference in their experiences as your mother working at the restaurant where her mother had created, which was catering to a primarily, as you said, Mexican and Mexican American audience and your father working at a hotel where the clientele was more mixed and presumed to be possibly more white and upscale.
Molina: That's a great question. No one's asked me that and I haven't really thought about that. But it's funny that you ask it today because I was just thinking about this. We were talking about this at dinner last night. My dad was from the state of Sonora. And so my dad's... I'm second generation on my dad's side. My dad immigrated here when he was a teenager from the state of Sonora, born in Cananea, the birthplace of the Mexican revolution. And I always say he had that spirit of the revolution in him. He didn't like injustice. He always spoke truth to power. And because he was in these restaurant jobs, he was often in a union and ended up becoming his shop steward. So on the one hand, working at places like the Ambassador gave him a certain cultural capital. My father came here undocumented, he learned to speak English here or perfected is English here, though he always spoke with an accent. And then he had these things that you'd think he wouldn't have cultural capital, but he would take me to nice restaurants, he would show me how to tip.
He knew what cocktails to order, these kinds of things. So there was both the way that he spoke truth to power, but he also had a cultural capital from working at these places. My mom inherited this restaurant, this place that my grandmother made that served as an urban anchor for immigrants. And to this day, my aunts in their late 70s and 80s kind of look up to my mom because she was the second generation for her generation. So she could speak English, she already had some cultural capital when they immigrated here, she would train them in the restaurant but then also maybe take them out. But she didn't have that kind of necessary... Or necessarily what my dad had as always struggling with unions. So they had overlapping experiences, but definitely distinct experiences as well.
Freeman: I love the way that you bring the Nayarit to life and I wonder if you can read a little bit about the restaurant and describe it for us more.
Molina: What I really wanted to do was show that many people have a place like the Nayarit in their lives. And so I really wanted to write something that would show, "Here's like a little blueprint for you should you want to write about your neighborhood restaurants." So first I had to show the importance of restaurants. And the earlier drafts of the book included looking at the Woolworth counter in Greensboro, North Carolina where there was a protest that in many ways launched what we think of as the civil rights movement. Because there was four African Americans who sat down and despite being yelled at and cursed at and threatened and they had food thrown at them, they stayed there. And so I wanted to show that segregation happened in other parts of the country, even in what we consider progressive California. It happened in other parts of California even though we think of Los Angeles as a melting pot and this mega city and burgeoning city and we like to describe all these progressive attitudes, but we did have this kind of segregation.
And so I wanted to show that even in restaurants where we don't have this momentous civil rights movement, that they're still really important for thinking about how immigrants stake their claim in a new homeland. At the Nayarit and places like it, immigrants lived out values of mutuality, public sociability and collectivity. The restaurant provided immigrant workers and customers with the familiarity of home and already made social network. Offering local history, introductions and information about how to navigate the system. All invaluable assets for newcomers attempting to negotiate a large, daunting foreign city. The resources and networks available there allowed working people to assume full identities that went beyond who they were as laborers. At the restaurant, immigrants might not feel any more American, nor was that necessarily their goal, but they were insiders.
Freeman: I love that description and maybe we can dig into it a bit more. What made them, other than the food and the fact that you could speak Spanish the whole time, your grandmother never learned English pretty much. What else made them feel like insiders?
Molina: I think there are a few things. So one, if they work there and they were connected to my grandmother in any way, then she helped to immigrate them from Mexico. And what she would do is they were younger and maybe a young woman, she would speak to their father, which it was interesting that as a woman she would go talk to them and say, "I will make sure that your daughter is taken care of properly. That she will be chaperone, she will live in my house, she will work in the restaurant and she will go to school and learn English." But she used the restaurant as a way to help immigrate people legally. It wasn't that she was against undocumented immigrants. We knew at this time that labor was always needed and especially if you have a program like the Guest Worker Program, the Bracero Program where people might leave the program and therefore not have papers anymore.
There were lots of reasons that people were working as undocumented workers. But her thing was that if you came to the restaurant, she wanted you to have mobility. So it wasn't just that she wanted to immigrate you, she wanted to be able to train you in the restaurant, hopefully that you would acquire English. And then you wouldn't necessarily just have to be back of house workers. You could be front of house workers, you could earn tips, you could have your own station, you could leave the restaurant if you wanted. Some of the workers, once they were trained... And most of the people, pretty much all the people that she brought from her home state of Nayarit had no training in the restaurant business. So she certainly wanted to turn a profit, but she certainly did it in a way that was more difficult by hiring people that weren't used to working in restaurants. And training them not only to be servers and bus boys and hostesses and cashiers, but also cooks.
And some of those people then because of the skills they learned, the cultural capital and sometimes the seed money, they went on to open their own restaurants. Restaurants that are beloved in Los Angeles, down Sunset Boulevard, Paragon's. Then Paragon's was east of the Nayarit, El Chavo, El Conquistador, La Villa Taxco, El Batey, which was a market but owned by one of the cashiers on Echo Park Avenue. So it was both that they could be there, they could grow in their skills, they might expand their networks. And then many of the people then would go to the Nayarit one night or go for a drink, but then go eat at Barragan's another night they'd go to Barragan's for a drink, then go eat at the Nayarit. And so it was this little world that they created in Echo Park. So it was the food, as you said, it was knowing that they could go there and speak in Spanish, it was knowing that they could go there and bump into friends.
Jaime Jarrín, the Hall of Fame, Spanish language broadcast announcer for the... Broadcaster for the LA Dodgers who just retired. He went to the Nayarit and here's like somebody who has social capital was just one of the smoothest talkers you'll ever meet. And he would come to the Nayarit because he said, "I knew I'd bump into somebody I knew there and I could always go and bump into a friend." And so it was the sociability, it was the food, it was the opportunity, it was all of this put together that then made this an urban anchor for immigrants and residents of Los Angeles and visitors to Los Angeles alike.
Freeman: I don't make you to put on your professor hat, but I'm very eager for you to talk about the difference between say an institution and an urban anchor and why urban anchors are under studied or ought to be studied more.
Molina: Thank you for asking that because it's interesting. When I first started this book, there were two terms that I kind of had to play with and then get comfortable with kind of claiming. One is that the urban anchor idea. So I got a little pushback saying, "Well, we have urban institutions." But the more I studied them and the more I looked at the way they were written, they were often more top-down. Of course, libraries and non-profits are important and I grew up going to my Echo Park Branch library and I don't know what I would've done without it, but there's ways that we recognize those places as necessary for a city and in a way that we don't recognize restaurants. And some people have written about this before, especially with an African American communities. Jazz clubs or juke joints or beauty salons or barber shops. And yet it's like we keep reinventing the wheel around it. We still don't take these places as seriously.
And I think one of the things that I was trying to get across was, "Let me write about this specific place, but let me write about it in a way that I hope then teachers, professors can lift those terms and then I'm creating curriculum for it and teach it to their students so that they go to their local Burger Point, their local dry cleaners." I have a dry cleaner here that I love from an Armenian family. All these different places are meaningful to us. And I think there's another thing that happened as I was getting ready to release a book and that was a pandemic and 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, boy do I want to be seen by that server or do I want to sit at the bar and talk to the bartender?" It wasn't just about going to a place, it was going to a community.
Freeman: Can you talk to me a bit about the challenges of writing a book like this when you're relying upon traditional archives and what parts of this book do not exist in a, quote-unquote, traditional archive? As I was reading it, I was thinking about, as I mentioned in the piece that I wrote, Saidiya Hartman's Wayward Lives because it takes the archive and what it showed of the women she was writing about, some of whom their lives were criminalized and it unpeels them from that and shows a much richer space. And I'm curious, in the case of this restaurant of your grandmother's, what if anything, was in traditional archives and where it pointed you? And I don't want to get too far into that because I know our guest, Alex Espinoza would really like to ask you as well about your methodologies.
Molina: I can answer it two different ways so... I can answer it many ways, but I'll answer it this way for you in a different way for Alex. So one, I would say that I learned a couple things from my first two books. So my first book was on how public health shapes our ideas about race and how that gets cemented into the city. So it's Fit to Be Citizens, public health and race in Los Angeles. And in that book I used a lot of records of the people... I wanted to tell the community story, I wanted to tell the story about midwifery and how women made community and I just couldn't find the records. And so I thought, "Well, who would be interested in them?" So instead I did, what we call as historians kind of top-down, who was watching these communities. So it's a story told through public health officials eyes, doctors, teachers, social workers.
And what you can do then is to show what they were interested in, what that meant in terms of how they surveilled these communities and how immigrants spoke back or resisted. From nobody came to the clinic today or we're trying to tell them that their bees aren't healthy. And you look at the translation and you're like, "No, that's not the translation. Of course, they didn't take you seriously, right?" So, I wanted to tell a story from the community side. So I knew I didn't want those kinds of records. Then for my second book I looked at how immigration practices shaped our ideas about race. And so I thought, "Oh, I've got this." Right. I mean I went to the national archives, it's like rows and rows of immigration records and how now I'm studying immigrants. And so when I came to tell this story I thought, "Well, I'll do what I always do." And I think for research you have to start with some kind of foothold and then you just go as far as you can. And then once you finish that string of research, there's usually other questions.
So I was able to do that through interviews, through some genealogical research. But the breakthrough was looking at this newspaper from Mexico. I had looked at the LA Times, which I didn't expect to find much, but the Spanish language newspaper, La Opinión and I still didn't find much. And then one day, probably not while I was at my desk's, probably like as I was on a walk, those aha moments, I remembered my dear [inaudible] Chao sitting on her porch in Echo Park in her chair in the afternoon reading La Opinión, the newspaper from Nayarit that she still had mailed to her, that everybody I knew from Nayarit still had mailed to them. And in that paper there's this column called [foreign language], the Ferris wheel for the ups and downs of life. And it just was like this archive, this index of all the social cultural activity of all the people from Nayarit that had relocated to Los Angeles. And so it was this kind of mapping through genealogical records, oral interviews, what I could find in the official archives and Echo.
Freeman: Is that the paper in which your grandmother ran a full page ad for her restaurant in Los Angeles?
Molina: Yeah. When she shows up in the paper, I just had to laugh because I never got to meet her. I was born after she passed and I like to joke, "I might not have been born had she not passed because I doubt she would've let my mom marry my dad." But that ad is just wonderful, right? She's like, "Oh, LA is full of these boosters that are always promoting LA, I'll play that game. Hi, I'm Natalia Molina, come look at the sites in Los Angeles, right?" Because she's advertising to people in Mexico, "Come look at Hollywood and Vine, MacArthur Park, City Hall." And you're like, "Well Hollywood and Vine. Okay, but that's not a picture of Hollywood and Vine." MacArthur Park, it's not really a tourist attraction. City hall. Yes, it was the tallest building when it was built in la but that's not really a tourist attraction either.
So she's trying, but she's also doesn't quite get it. But in the text of it, she knows how to appeal to people. And she talks about the discrimination they might fear coming to LA. "Don't fear discrimination. You will come to my restaurant, you will be attended by Mexican staff that speak your language and you will eat mind blowing food." And then she signs her name.
Freeman: That ad comes in early and you describe it early, but it's a moment where you realize the genius, the entrepreneurial genius that your grandmother had. In a second, I'm going to bring on Alex Espinoza, the novel novelist and cultural critic. But before I do, I wanted to come back to something that I find so exquisitely modulated in your book, which is that you're working in archives that typically aren't plumbed for the kind of book that you're writing. You're also talking to people, you're having interviews and one of the things you describe in the book is how to go out to the Nayarit, allowed you to see and be seen to be in an uncomplicated way. And yet it also meant that you didn't have to completely disclose everything. And I'm bringing this up because several of the waiters who worked on every shift were gay.
And I wonder if you can talk a little bit about working within the cultural norms of the time as a researcher. Because in the course of this book you don't try to correct against silences that in your community, in your grand grandmother's restaurant were respected. And I wonder how you situate yourself as a historian in that sense because it feels like allowing those silences to speak silently was perhaps some of the power of the restaurant.
Molina: One of the reasons I wrote the book was I am a professor. I have taught a lot in ethnic studies, urban studies, history, and we tend to look at immigrant histories and we tend to look at LGBTQ histories and we don't necessarily look at them together. But I grew up in a world where we did not differentiate. And that's because I grew up with my [inaudible] kin network, right? A kin that was made not from social ties due to religious ceremonies like baptism or first communion, but through a place based kinship, one that many of the workers were from the Nayarit. And two that people settled in Echo Park and they worked together. And even after the restaurant closed, many of them went on to work at some of the other restaurants that sprung from the Nayarit. So they kept in contact that way, but to this day they're still together.
And so for me, I wanted to get at that. And yet in trying I did find those silences and I thought there's a couple ways that I could deal with them. And one is there's a beautiful book by Leisy Abrego who teaches at UCLA on Salvadorian immigrants and kind of the cost of undocumented immigration. And there are times in her interviews where sexuality comes up and she wants to respect the silence and she leaves it. On the other hand, there's another beautiful book by [inaudible] where she talks about the but Bracero program, the Guest Worker Program between the US and Mexico 1942 to 1964 and going through Mexico interviewing ex-Braceros years later, decades later and seeing that the questionnaire she has isn't sufficient. So if I had a silence that I bumped against, I at least, wanted to explain why because the task of the historian is always to understand that context.
And so it required what were the laws at this point. And so we don't know why my grandmother both hired gay workers, supported them, but also didn't let them be so openly gay. We know something about the context of the time that her restaurant could have been shut down. But we also know that some of the things that she guarded against are still in place today. And so to me, it's also a way that we look to the past to try to understand the present as well. And the story that I tell about that in the book is that I went to dinner with one of the former waiters, Boncho Garcia and his restaurant that's just when El Conquistador, which was just not only a Latino urban anchor, but a gay Latino urban anchor for years in Silver Lake. That restaurant was closing and we said, "What's going to happen to the workers? What's going to happen to Ricardo?"
And Ricardo was always out at work, it was a different time now, '70s, '80s, '90s, into the 2000s. And Ricardo was always out at work. I said, "Oh, you're retiring from your restaurant in East LA, he can go work there." And he said, "No." And he did this little like box move with his hand with [foreign language]. It would box him in. And so I thought, "Wow, here I am talking about workers in the past that had to navigate these worlds and even to today, they need to navigate these worlds."
Freeman: Well, at this point I'd really love to bring on Alex Espinoza, the author of the novel Still Water Saints, as well as a recent book Cruising: An Intimate History of a Radical Pastime. I would love to bring you on to ask some questions of Professor Molina.
Alex Espinoza: Absolutely. Thank you so much John. And Natalia [foreign language].
Molina: Oh Alex, I'm so honored to have you. Thank you for coming.
Espinoza: No problem. It's so wonderful to be here with you and to be sharing the space and this wonderful community and to be talking about this great book. During my reading of A Place at the Nayarit, I kept coming back to this quote from Frantz Fanon, which appeared in his seminal the Wretched Earth. And he says, quote, "Imperialism leaves behind germs of rot, which we must clinically detect and remove from our land and from our minds as well." And I personally wanted to take this opportunity to thank you and your exhaustive research and scholarship 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 on a personal note, Fit to be Citizens was fundamentally important text that guided my understanding of public health attitudes towards immigrants in early Los Angeles when I wrote my second novel, The Five Acts of Diego León.
So it was a joy for me to be able to be serving with you on the board of California Humanities and when we met and because I'd been following your work for so long and it's just important scholarship that's necessary. And my question for you was one, kind of piggybacking on what John had brought up and a little bit that you talked about also. I had a question about your approach. In the introduction specifically, you talk about the predominant kind of methodologies that historians employ when trying to paint a picture of a community. I'm always so fascinated by the way in which history gets assembled for us, especially as colonial subjectivities, right? The stories that are kind of told to us about us and who gets to assemble those and the ways in which they assemble them and how those are kept stored. Who has access to those?
In chapter three, you also mention the fact that the gay immigrant community that you just talked about didn't leave much of an archival trace, that their experiences are documented by sociologists and anthropologists. So I'm curious to hear more about your approach and specifically has the discipline of history itself shifted at all to accommodate the experiences of those that you coin, undocumented or those experiences of, say, intersectional and fluid communities that exist between and within borders?
Molina: That's a great question and I think the answer is yes and no. So one of the reason... One of our other California Humanities board members who's interviewed me about this book is Professor Bill Deverell.
Espinoza: Oh yeah, Bill. Yeah.
Molina: He interviewed me a long time ago when I was still writing the book and he said, "Have you always wanted to write this book?" And it was the first time I'd got in that question and I said, "No." And it was in public and it was the first time I got the question. So I didn't want to give him the real answer because I guess I hadn't realized it until he asked. Which is no, because we're told we can't write about our communities. We're not objective enough. And I got that first message when I was at UCLA as an undergraduate and I was taking a Latin American history class. It's in this huge lecture room, hundreds of us, many of us and Chicano organizations like MEChA. And the professor told us, "None of you will ever be Latin Americanists because you're Latino and you wouldn't be objective enough."
So not even just research our communities, but even tell our stories. We complained and we protest and it was a big thing. But it's no accident then that my first book was wanting to get at these same issues that I write about in this book, but from a public health perspective, right? Medicalized racism, scientific objectivity. And it took a while to get to this story. Then in terms of then wanting to do it, once I got to graduate school, a friend of mine invited me to a kind of high school reunion for our 50th birthdays the other day and she said, "I want a headshot of everybody." And I don't have... Like I said, I was like, "Where's my senior portrait? Let me go to my mom's." And I found this accordion file that I had kept, all the letters I'd received when I was in graduate school, when I was away at Ann Arbor when we used to, remember, write to each other and we couldn't just text each other.
So I kept the cards and the letters and at the very front there was a piece of paper that had a timeline of the restaurant. I had no memory of this, doing this, of when my grandmother immigrated here when she adopted my mom and my uncle. It was during the depression. If my grandmother hadn't adopted them, they would've been sent to Mexico even though they were born here and they'd never been to Mexico. And there are these little pieces. And I'm pretty sure I was not discouraged from doing the project because I would've remembered that and because my advisor was always very supportive. But I also didn't know how to tell that story yet.
Molina: Because it is telling the story of the under documented, and one of the things that I want to show in the book is that, that's a violence. It's another violence that undocumented people have to go through that when people are not only having to either their-selves in the present, but they don't leave an archival trace.
Molina: And so we really need to figure out ways to tell these stories. I talked about this at a book reading I did, and I'm really grateful that I was able to do this at the Boyle Heights Bar on Whittier Boulevard because not everybody's going to go to a book reading.
Molina: Not everybody has Zoom and internet at home and not everybody's going to go to a museum and my other public places that I give talks, but they felt comfortable in this bar. So it was a mainly older Latino crowd, retired. And I was telling them about this importance of telling our stories. And actually, do you mind if I read you the section that-
Espinoza: Not at all. Please go ahead.
It does fit here. So I know not everybody wants to be a historian and not everybody is going to do a map or even an Instagram post. I wrote, "The community that grew up around the Nayarit remains tethered to one another today. I think about this community when I eat from the dishes given to me by my mother that Doña Natalia collected, they're from the Franciscan Ceramics plant in Atwater, hand painted with apples and leaves around the edges. The plant has since closed, but it's a popular pattern. As a kid watching, I Love Lucy, my first English lessons growing up in a Spanish speaking household, I notice that the [inaudible] Carters own the Franciscan Ivy pattern. Those dishes say a lot about my reserved grandmother. She wanted elegant tableware and she got it for herself piece by piece. I like to imagine her setting her place and enjoying the sheen and the color of those dishes, not just as a sign of aspiration, but also as a way of embracing the place where she lived and asserted her belonging.
Molina: And so I read this and I told everybody, "I know you're not going to write a book, but have you told your story to the people in your family?" And hands started shooting up around the bar. "I inherited my grandmother's sewing machine. She taught me how to sew on it and I sewed a dress from my mother and I had this zipper that I recycled from another dress and my mom has since passed and I still wear the dress." "I don't have those dishes, but both my mother and my husband's mother collected dishes by using blue chip stamps. And I just gave those dishes to my daughter. And I never told her how her [inaudible] grandmother got it."
Another man knowing that his wife wasn't going to speak up, but she sat there so proudly with her, like her chin jutted out. Dan Parker and talked about his wife Shirley Parker and she's from Burma. And he said because of the way they left, she doesn't have those kind of material possessions that she keeps her history alive through her food. And she'll cook for 60 people, all the curries that she knows the recipes of. And so part of it is like tell your story to whom you can with what you have.
Espinoza: That's beautiful. That's absolutely beautiful. Thank you so much, Natalia. And I see John back, so I will-
Freeman: We'll bring you back Alex in about 10 minutes. But that should be a little monograph. "Tell your story about your people with what you have." And I want to come back to some of the terms that you use in this book. You use the term place making but also place taking. And I wonder if you can say something about place taking, because in the beginning when you're using it, you're describing, to some degree, taking up actual, physical, literal space at a restaurant, being able to address people you may not necessarily otherwise be able to address because let's say they're a celebrity or a prize fighter or a musician and you're a waiter. But I think as the book goes along, that term grows. And I wonder if you connect place taking to writing a book like this.
Molina: I love that. I had not thought about that. Yeah. What I wanted to show was that growing up in Echo Park... So Echo Park, as I said, is this geographic and cultural crossroads and you're around people that are different than you, but also you have these commonalities. It's established by people on the margins. It's established by writers and artists and print makers, immigrants that establish their own urban anchors. Taix Restaurant, [inaudible] Elaine Nicolas. And parts of it are also occupied by socialists, communists, union workers. And it doesn't have the same kind of segregation that you see in other parts of Los Angeles. Other parts of Los Angeles entire housing tracks are built into the landscape. And it doesn't matter if you and I wish to discriminate or not, it's written into the deeds of all the track [inaudible] palms. And so because of that, there is more fluidity, more ability to connect with people across racial ethnic lines, across sexuality because it's the home of the Mattachine society, the first organized gay society.
And so for all these reasons, I always felt like I had a different experience growing up in Echo Park than some of my colleagues that when I went on to UCLA or Ann Arbor, people that grew up in a predominantly Latino ethnic neighborhood. And so I saw that in both the way that the workers ventured out and so on their days off, they would go to the Ambassador and maybe my dad and his best friend would sneak them a free drink. People from the restaurants often had a second job at Dodger Stadium. And I just wrote this essay that came out in Zocalo that loving the Dodgers. It's complicated because yes there's Chavez Ravine, but yes, so many of the workers there are Latino. I mean along with the baseball players, but also just the people who work there. And so that place taking enables people to feel free to move around the city.
Art Laboe recently passed away and why is Art Laboe mentioned? Because he would have these concerts in [inaudible] El Mani and it was the first time that you could dance with people outside of your own race and ethnicity and people would traverse this segregated LA landscape in order to go. And so it's that if you can find these connections and communities in a cultural and geographic cross roots, it makes it much easier than to clean space as you go along throughout the world. And for me, I really wanted to open up that space to tell that story for this one story, but to hear everybody's story. I would love to see when people teach California history, for them to do it by tracing not the history of a mission. I understand that we need to know this. I'm a historian. Yes, of course we need to know, but also so that people can see themselves reflected in that history.
Freeman: Grace Toi who's been listening has a question about... She says that both Mexican and Chinese, Asian American communities have resided side by side in California. Were there Chinese or Asian American patrons who came to the restaurant in its day?
Molina: That's a great question, thank you. The Asian population in Echo Park itself was much smaller. And so I don't have interviews with anybody who's Asian or Asian American, but... Because I did a lot of research on the other restaurants as well, I know it Taix, I have one example of a white collar worker who's Asian American that goes to Taix. But I'm also really interested in what I learned from reading about Chinese restaurants that there are a lot of similarities with what I see at the Nayarit. One that it's hard to always maintain a purely kind of authentic cuisine because ingredients change in a new home land, but you're also trying to appeal to a broader clientele.
But also that, especially in New York and the historian Heather Lee is written about this, that in New York, because there were so many anti-Asian immigration laws, those were some of the first ones established. Chinese restaurant owners were the first ones to say, "Oh, we could use a restaurant to help issue a visa, to help get a visa for workers." And so for Chinese restaurants sometimes they'd have dozens of owners so that they could use the restaurant as a way to immigrate people.
Freeman: I can't wait to see the books that this book makes possible because it's not just restaurants, it could be bowling alleys or skate parks or riding rings. I mean there any number of cultural clearing houses where people need to see and be seen and be together and feel safe, if you will. Someone else had a question in the chat about, is there a cultural center or in LA that functions in a similar way right now, Mexican or otherwise that you want to bring up?
Molina: This goes against my definition, as I just said, I want people to understand these restaurants. Well one, there are many restaurants. So the LA Times just for Hispanic Heritage Month did their Cal-Mex column, which was beautiful. And they talked about restaurants like this. And then of course they got a slew of angry letters. "You didn't put my urban anchor." Right. So the book is trying to get at that we need to valorize that. There's also still places that we still go to, for generations since I first started going to places looking for this kind of community. So the one that always pops into my mind is Self-Help Graphics in East Los Angeles. It's a nonprofit and so it already has a certain recognition, but in terms of what it does for the community and community building, I think a lot of also just the way that we look at so many popup places now, right? The fact that Mexican cuisine has changed so that it's very hard to start a restaurant nowadays.
But when I look at a taco truck now that just has a plastic awning that they've set up some patio chairs, I just kind of... Do a U-turn at my car. And I'm like, "That is..." Right. There's just something regional about it. And I could tell by the way that the folks are dressed that are there, that there's a regional identity and it signals, "This is a place where I can eat food that will transport me to my homeland even if I can't regularly go back and forth." So I think we're seeing urban anchors, but they're done in slightly different ways. And I think that's the other way that social media, as much as social media can be harmful, it creates a space, a democratic space that's free. So Latino TikTok and the way that people will form community be able to put their voice out. So I think there's lots of ways that we can expand this notion of place making.
Freeman: And a lot of the listeners are resonating with you on this way to conceive of urban anchors. Gail Raytano says, "This is brilliant. I'm as an Italian American, I'm relating so much to what you're describing. Sewing, acquiring nice China and the gratitude of older generations who find joy in the preservation of their history. I can't wait to read this book." One thing that has come up and also in the chat is food. One of the things I quite liked about this is it's not an excessively foodie book. It's not like you're sitting there with recipes and debates about the way that certain things are made, but there is this wonderful capsule history of what Mexican food was and considered to be and how it changed and how the Nayarit changed it. And I wondered if you could say a little bit about that with a detour, if you will, because there is a question about it, about Tex-Mex and I'll just leave it there.
Molina: Sure. So I tried writing this book in different ways and so I did look at that foody angle. But again, for me as someone who's so interested in place and what it means to feel comfortable in a place and why people feel uncomfortable, I was really interested in the way that a restaurant played a role in that and food as part of that place making experience. So my grandmother, she didn't name the restaurant like El Sombrero or El [foreign language], she was really interested in telegraphing that this was regionally based food. So she names it the Nayarit. And in my interviews people said, "I saw that neon sign and I knew I had to go." So there's already that way that she's signaling it. The restaurant itself has that kind of Cal-Mex food, what Gustavo Arellano from the LA Times calls Cal-Mex, that kind of taco enchilada combo plate because she did want to open it to a wider clientele.
But even within that she would do things that were still very much of the state of Nayarit. So something like a hard shell taco. She wouldn't make a gordita, which is more Nayarit where it's at nice corn filled masa pocket because that's labor intensive and you can't just have it there ready to fill. She would use a hard shell taco instead, but she would bathe it in this beautiful tomato broth. It's super light, it's made with the fresh chicken stock. So you've made the chicken for something else and you keep the stock and use it for the tomato bath and you add spices and garlic and then you bathe it. And during the pandemic I went to a new taco place that opened up in my neighborhood and I take a bite of that taco. And I was like, "Where are you from?" "Why?" "The tacos?""Well, we're from Nayarit." "Yeah, I know you're from Nayarit, but where in Nayarit?" "Well, Tepic. The capital." "But where in Tepic?" "Well, outside..." So it was this... You just knew. It's like when you hear somebody speaking Spanish in public and you're trying to figure out their accent, you're like, "Where are you from?" So you can do that with food. But the other thing she would do is that she would procure ingredients from Tijuana. So when she couldn't get ingredients here, she would go to Tijuana. So it's like a 240 mile round trip. She might just go for the day, she might also get her hair and nails done while she was there. But she would get things that also made food more available year, year round. So like corn huss for tamales, which you might otherwise only have at Christmas or Easter mole basis because Mole is so labor intensive. So she would still reconstitute these paste with that fresh chicken broth. When she started out, she used much cheaper cuts of meat. So [foreign language], pig's feet.
And [foreign language], tongue that she also would tenderize with the broth and everything. But Nayarit is also a coastal town. And so when we've taken friends to visit, they're like, "Oh this is great, all this fresh seafood." But by the end they realize, "Oh, you're never going to run out of shrimp dishes." Because we have shrimp tamales, dried shrimp. [foreign language]. So with chili we have shrimp and [foreign language]. Shrimp and bananas. We can just keep going with the shrimp dishes. Those dishes were harder to procure in Los Angeles. So she couldn't always get those ingredients. But when she did, she might make a nice [foreign language], which is something that we're only seen more recently in Los Angeles, which is a whole fish cooked with these spices over this flame.
And it's just like 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. And then she also would advertise on the local radio. And so she became friends with Martin Vescera who would do ads for her on the radio. But then when he would present and MC at the Million Dollar Theater downtown just on his own, he'd say, "I don't know about you all, but I'm getting hungry and at the end of this show I'm going to the Nayarit. And I'm going to have those [foreign language], costilla, those tablecloth staining ribs because they're delicious." So she had a wide menu, some regional, some more Americanized and some that were dishes from other parts of Mexico.
Freeman: Oh my God, I'm so hungry right now that that is the most beautiful riff on food I've heard in quite some time. And I think it an answers Diane Shahab's question about what kind of food was served. Denise Chavez from New Mexico sends a Love and Felicia Dodds, on this wonderful book. And Kathy Rucciani who said, "Her in former in-laws were Italian and lived on Porsche Street where there was a thriving Italian community and wonders if they also frequented the Nayarit." I want to bring on Alex just very briefly at the end because when you talk about food that way, I can't help but think it also touches arrows in love. And Alex, you've written this book about Cruising and I wonder if we could go out by talking a little bit about just the many relationships that developed out of the Nayarit, as a kind of dynamic space of love and desire. And I wonder if it was not just a food success but a matchmaking success.
Molina: I just got distracted because you said Denise Chavez because I was like, wait a minute, if it's the writer then I read your book, Denise, to help me write this book. So thank you for your world making your [inaudible] conviction. For me, there was so much love that came out of this restaurant. So one that there actually were matchmakers. And one of the reasons... So I started by writing this as a talk to give at... I was giving a keynote and then I knew they would publish the talk and I needed original material. But there were so many people that came to the talk because they saw gentrification erasing the stories and the histories in their neighborhoods. And so some were from Echo Park, but others from Highland Park, from Boyle Heights. And so I think one is it's a love story of your neighborhood that you don't want people to forget this history.
You want people to know that there was life before gentrification got there. Another reason is that in my historical research, I do a lot of legal research. And so I have testimonies, affidavits from people, from Whites who are witnesses on behalf of Mexicans to gain naturalization. And I just was always like, "How did they become friends?" Or for Chinese launderers in Los Angeles when there were ordinances, you had their White neighbors stick up for them. So you have some White neighbors saying, "Yes, they're a menace." You have other White neighbors saying, "They're just trying to run their own business, leave them alone." And then I started seeing that pop up in my interview. So my [foreign language], who she and I are very close had never told me, "Oh, one of my best friends was this English man named Lindsay." So it was those friendships, other people that did get married.
But the other part to me, again going back to the gay waiters, were the ways in which they formed community with one another. The ways that they formed communities with the single straight women and that they could then sometimes go out on their own. And so I don't know how much, it was an example, what we call lavender coupling, right? This way this enabled the single women to go out, the gay men to go out and they could go to places that otherwise would've probably been hostile to both. Somewhere like the Ambassador, right? Because while some people are comfortable there, not everybody would be. So to me it's a love letter to that. And then when I did that reading about thinking about that community, one of the other reasons I wrote the book, was because I looked around one day at the rosary that we were praying for on the anniversary of my uncle's death and looking around that room in saying, "Everybody here worked at the Nayarit or was a customer at the Nayarit."
Molina: And this isn't like a party, they're coming to, this isn't just about a good time, this is about when you're grieving and you want support and you want to relive memories, this is the community we have. This is the love.
Freeman: Mm-hmm. Alex, since you're back here and we're talking about the sort of space in which people can step into their fullest selves, is there something that you would like to further ask Natalia in the context of your own work and writing about Cruising and how reading this book seems different than or overlaps with some of the issues you faced as a writer in writing that book?
Espinoza: Yeah, absolutely. And before, I just want to add real quick, that story that you were talking about with having met the people, taking a bite of food and saying, "Where are you from?" I had that experience when I lived in Fresno and there was this Casa De Tamales, the Tamales place. I bit into it Tamale, and it tasted just like my mom's. And I asked them, "Where are you from?" And they said, "Michoacán." And I said, "What part of Michoacán?" And they said, "La Piedad." And I was like, "Specifically, where?" And it was from the same region of Mexico that my family was from, and it transported me to that.
I think one of the things that I find fascinating about A Place at the Nayarit specifically, in looking at sort the trajectory of your work, Natalia, and what you've accomplished is just the panoply of material that's present. And I know when I wrote Cruising, one of the difficulties for me was here I was sort of looking at history and sociology, archeology, ancient Greece and Rome art, finding all of these disciplines and having to find a way to funnel it all and put it all together. I guess my question would be, was there something that you had to... Was a story or a tidbit about the Nayarit that you had to cut that you wish you hadn't, that you would like to share now? Because I'm always interested in what we have to take out, right, and the things that sort of land on the cutting room floor. Is there anything that you didn't include that you wish you had about the Nayarit?
Molina: Not that I wish I had, but again, I could have written this book so many ways. And so I had thought about organizing it, each chapter would be each restaurant.
Molina: But in the same way that all of this didn't fit in the article that I had hoped. And it kept kind of growing. It also didn't all fit in those couple chapters, so then I had to cut that down. But I think all those restaurants, along with everybody's favorite Mexican restaurant, probably deserves its own book. But then I also thought of tracing all the Nayariters, exploring all their lives. And so, one of the examples of that is there's this woman that I do write about in the book, Carmellita. I think it's Carmellita... No, I forget her last name. Maybe Carmellita Torres. But she writes into [inaudible] Echo and they have this anniversary issue and it's almost like, you remember high school yearbook where you would place an ad at the end.
Molina: [inaudible] You would place an ad, but then people would just use the ad space to send messages. "I'm in LA now and come to my business." Like my grandmother, but someone like Carmellita wrote, "Hi, I'm in LA now... Well, I'm in Beverly Hills and if you come visit, I hope you'll come visit me. Did I mention I was in Beverly Hills?" "How is she in Beverly Hill?" So I'd look it up, I'd look up City directories, this and that. Girlfriend was a housekeeper.
Molina: So to me it's like, "Wow, think about those lives." So then I asked people that I interviewed, Did you know her? "Oh yeah, she baby sat some kids for some rich family in Beverly Hills when they went out town, sometimes she would just bring the kids to the Nayarit, or they would come here and she didn't want to cook for them since the family wasn't there. And so yeah, they all ate here." It's those stories that we just... And yet that family is represented and they are actually represented in the OJ documentary or Docudrama because he covers the case. There's no sense of who the help is and the help is there, they're serving them in the dining room. And to me, that's the point of the book. The help our people, the help live three dimensional lives and they all have these wonderful stories. And so to me it's that kind of invitation. But since it kind of veered a little too far off the screen, I had to cut it out.
Espinoza: That's a great story.
Freeman: That is a fantastic story. And I love that the first time that that name has come up in the California Book Club, it is in this context that we drive by it. Because whatever you think about the work, it is slightly overrepresented in terms of our imagination of California. And part of the point of this club is to enlarge that imagination to get closer to the size of real life and how life is lived and what they eat. How people fall in love, where they fall in love and who opens the restaurants and who closes them and very late at night. This is an extraordinary book. I think it's going to make many, many other books possible.
We could be here for a long time and I wish dearly that we could all leave and go to our restaurant together and eat and dance and stay up late and get to know one another. But it is the time where we pull out and say goodbye to everyone. But also just a very, very gracious thank you to Alex Espinoza for coming in and asking some questions of Natalia Molina who has written just an absolutely dynamite book, which I hope everyone, if they haven't picked up, goes and gets. Because I think there are 10,000 books like this that can be written, which should not diminish this book. It just shows what this book has made possible.
Molina: I'm so grateful. Thank you all for opening up this space because that is what I wanted for the book. To open up the space for others. And you've given it a platform. And I really appreciate this beautiful discussion as well as your work. So even more of an honor, thank you.
Freeman: Well, Anita Felicelli and all the people at Alta, who've created a kind of carton wheel of pieces around a book. To me, it's one of the most wonderful aspects of the book club is have all these different takes of the book coming up to the day that we have this discussion. So you can see all sorts of other facts and trivia and perspectives. And to me, that counteracts kind of intellectual gentrification, if you will, where you get one point of view distributed everywhere. And I think the thing that your book makes so evident is, your book is speaking for it's itself. It's speaking for this restaurant. It's not meant to be representative of California or Echo Park. And I think what it does is showcase how enormous the worlds it opens up are. And that doesn't take away from the need for other worlds to be opened up too. So I think, Blaise is now going to come on and remind us what comes up next. But thank you very much for coming and thank you everyone.
Molina: Thank you everyone.
Espinoza: Thank you. Thank you, John. It was great to see you Natalia.
Molina: Great to see you, Alex. Thanks.
Blaise Zerega: Wow, that was great and big thank you to Natalia, to Alex, and to John. And you know what a gift this book is indeed. Tonight's program was recorded and will be up on californiabookclub.com later tonight or tomorrow morning. And be sure to join us next month please for Kim Stanley Robinson for his book The Gold Coast. We have a special time next month. It'll be on Tuesday, November 22nd at 5:00 PM And don't forget the special offer for this fantastic CBC hat here. It's got it on the back and the front so that they can see you coming in going. It's altaonline.com/hat. I think I'm going to keep this if I can get... Yeah, there we go. And again, there's also a $3 a month digital membership. And finally, we'd be so grateful if you would participate in a one minute survey that will pop up on your screens as soon as we end this event. And again, thank you so much for tuning in tonight. I'm hungry. Let's go eat. So stay safe and see you next month. Take care.•