MacArthur Fellow Natalia Molina visited Pomona College’s Rose Hills Theatre Nov. 3 to talk about her new book “A Place at the Nayarit: How a Mexican Restaurant Nourished a Community,” published this April.
Moderated by Pomona history professor April J. Mayes, the event was sponsored by the History Department and the Ena H. Thompson Fund. Each year, the event gives historians an opportunity to broaden the audience’s worldviews in an engaging and interactive manner.
Before Molina began her talk, in honor of her book’s focus on workers, Mayes invited Francisco Villaseñor PO ’25, a student organizer with the Claremont Student Worker Alliance, to speak to the audience. He discussed the status of the ongoing contract negotiations between Pomona Dining Hall workers and Pomona’s administration, including the strike that took place during parents’ weekend.
Villaseñor encouraged attendees to support workers in their fight for higher wages, asking professors to sign a faculty letter in support of the dining staff and students to follow the movement on social media through CSWA’s Instagram.
“We’re talking about home [in this lecture]. We’re talking about family and community and all these things,” Villaseñor said. “Thank you so much, Dr. Molina, for coming out tonight. But the workers ultimately are the ones that help make this place a home for us.”
After Villaseñor finished speaking to the audience, Mayes introduced Molina, who she said was the first Latina Ena H. Thompson lecturer in over 20 years. A distinguished professor in the department of American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California, Molina researches the intersections of race, place, gender, culture and citizenship, Mayes said.
Molina started by giving the audience a background on her work for the past 20 years studying narratives of race, belonging and citizenship in the United States, which served as a basis for her new novel.
Through her work, Molina said she has tried to understand “how thoroughly being Mexican has shaped people’s access to space, including where they worked, where they played and where they went to school.”
Molina said when writing “A Place at the Nayarit” — which tells the story of her grandmother Doña Natalia’s Mexican restaurant on Sunset Boulevard in Echo Park — she tried to focus on telling the story through the eyes of the restaurant’s workers, looking at moments of joy, hardship and belonging.
“In a world that sought to reduce Mexican immigrants to invisible labor, the Nayarit was a place where people could become visible once again, where they could speak out, claim space and belong,” Molina said.
Doña Natalia passed away before Molina could meet her, and the restaurant closed in 1976, so Molina said most of her insight on her grandmother and the Nayarit came from interviews of people who knew Doña Natalia. Molina said she conducted oral histories and consulted archives, articles and records, asking her sources to refer her to new ones.
“This book is an attempt to tell these hidden histories that we otherwise wouldn’t know because our families don’t always tell us these stories,” Molina said. “These communities don’t always leave archives, and these areas are rapidly gentrifying, so there’s an urgency to telling these stories.”
Molina said the Nayarit was a place where her grandmother, who immigrated in 1921, could help other people make a life in Los Angeles, giving them jobs, helping them get visas and giving them a space where they could find a community where other places were segregated.
“This [was] a space that’s created for the community, by the community,” Molina said. “[The Nayarit] was a space that can be comfortable for people that might not otherwise feel comfortable in a traditional ethnic enclave — single women, divorced women, single mothers, gay men that were able to have different sensibility in Echo Park than in other places.”
Molina ended her lecture urging audience members to use her book’s framework as a guide on how to capture untold stories in their communities.
“Many immigrant communities have their version of the Nayarit restaurant, a place that helps sustain them when they are far from home in both culinary and communal terms,” Molina said. “And in many communities, their Nayarit is closing if it hasn’t already … This book is an exploration of what is at stake if we do not begin to capture these stories, as well as a demonstration of how to do so. So please tell your story.”
After Molina’s lecture, she answered audience questions related to her writing and research process, as well as her thoughts on assimilation, race and community.
Attendees later said Molina’s focus on previously untold stories inspired them. Michelle Hernandez PZ ’24, who is double-majoring in Chicano/a-Latino/a studies and Sociology with a strong emphasis on oral histories, praised the lecture’s impact.
“It’s really inspiring to see how these histories that are very much unknown and hard to encounter are being brought up, and it’s really amazing to see the development of it,” Hernandez said.
Jacqueline Zavala PZ ’24 also attended the event and said that Molina inspired her to reflect on her own family.
“I thought [the talk] was really significant,” Zavala said. “[Molina] was saying how in immigrant families, a lot of stories are very much untold, and I reflected on that within my personal life and the significance of talking to older family members and getting oral histories in communities where traditionally those histories are ignored and not archived at all.”