Natalia Molina, historian, author and MacArthur fellow, discusses gentrification and her family’s history of nurturing community.
By Rubén Martínez and Marco Amador
This essay was originally published by the award-winning journalism nonprofit Capital & Main.
The death of Mike Davis, L.A.’s preeminent historian, highlighted once more that the term “Los Angeles history” is not an oxymoron. Twentieth century boosters may have wanted to romanticize the city’s past or erase it altogether to make way for unimpeded speculation and development. But certain communities guarded their legacies carefully — what some scholars call the “hidden archive” — and in recent decades, activist-historians have diligently worked to unearth L.A.’s many pasts.
Natalia Molina is one of those doing the digging — in her own backyard. Molina, a professor of history at the University of Southern California and a 2020 recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship, grew up in L.A.’s Echo Park neighborhood. Going back to the early 20th century, the area was a kind of progressive island in a largely conservative city, a safe and creative space for leftist activists and the city’s early LGBTQ community — a neighborhood more tolerant of integration, especially between Mexicans and Anglos.
Much of this cultural and political energy could be felt at Molina’s family’s restaurant, the Nayarit on Sunset Boulevard, opened by her grandmother and namesake Natalia Barraza in 1951. The restaurant became a fixture in Echo Park, a crossroads for Mexicans and Anglos, but without sacrificing the elder Natalia’s pride in serving Mexican regional cuisine, without turning it into cheesy Tex-Mex.
In Molina’s book, A Place at the Nayarit, the restaurant becomes a keyhole through which she not only tells her family’s story, but also insists on a different approach to making history, and making place — centering not on famous figures but on ordinary people doing extraordinary work.
Telling, or retelling, the history of a place might not have an immediate effect on policies that impact everyday lives. But history is part of the foundation upon which a place is built. Even as restaurants like the Nayarit, ma and pa immigrant joints, are pushed out of gentrifying neighborhoods, there are new Nayarits opening up just beyond the hipster horizon, the beginnings of new places whose stories need to be told.
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A celebration at the Nayarit in April, 1968. Photograph courtesy of Maria Perea Molina.