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Op-Ed: My grandmother opened a restaurant in Echo Park in 1951. The rest is history

Stand in front of 1822 Sunset Blvd., and you’ll see the old Nayarit restaurant sign, but where a banner below proclaimed “authentic Mexican cuisine,” there’s a marquee advertising upcoming shows at Echo nightclub. It’s a typical LA palimpsest – one story superimposed on the traces of another – and the oldest is worth knowing.

For over 20 years from 1951, Nayarit helped define Echo Park. It provided work opportunities for over 100 people, served delicious authentic Mexican cuisine, and fostered a diverse community of Latinx immigrants and others who met and mixed in the restaurant’s dining room, open from 10 a.m. at 4 a.m., seven days a week.

The Nayarit was the creation of my grandmother, Doña Natalia Barraza. My mother, María, was his right-hand assistant in the business. I never knew Doña Natalia, but I grew up with my brother in the house she was able to buy, a member of a community she helped to forge, and I was carried by the success of what she has built in her 48 years in the United States. States. Doña Natalia arrived in Los Angeles in 1921 and opened three restaurants, but Echo Park Nayarit was the largest and oldest. Well, after Barraza died, even after my mom gave up the restaurant lease, it anchored our life in LA.

As a historian, I know that Nayarit did more than launch my family to the United States. It’s an essential piece of what I call under-documented Los Angeles – overlooked places, people, and events that nonetheless make the city what it is.

Doña Natalia’s restaurant had a huge ripple effect. It offered newcomers a boost and a taste of a home away from home. His many clients have helped eliminate racism in the city. And it was a force multiplier when it came to creating opportunities that immigrants could seize for themselves and their communities.

Natalia Barraza arrived alone in the United States, in the wake of the Mexican Revolution. She could not write, read or speak English, but she would later sponsor dozens of immigrants – many of whom were single and divorced women and gay men – helping them settle, giving them jobs and housing and encouraging them to claim in Los Angeles With its support – and sometimes its seed capital – former Nayarit employees opened their own restaurants nearby, including El Batey Market, Barragan’s, La Villa Taxco, El Conquistador and El Chavo .

Although Mexicans are legally classified as white, they are subject to considerable everyday racism, as well as de facto and de jure segregation in schools and public facilities. LA’s mainstream culture treated them like outsiders, but in Nayarit they were insiders.

They could speak their native language in the restaurant, be served by compatriots, and escape any prejudice they might face in the city as a whole. Immigrants might no longer feel American in Nayarit (and that wasn’t necessarily their goal), but it offered the familiarity of home, a ready-made social network, a place to be. visible, where to belong.

And for eating.

What Doña Natalia put on her menus was not typical California-style mid-century Mexican food. She made some concessions to American ingredients and tastes, but she refused to whitewash her cooking for Anglo-American palates. As best she could with the ingredients available, she offered authentic regional cuisine.

At their home in Acaponeta, for example, the cooks prepare gorditas – a thick pocket of fried masa stuffed with ingredients and bathed in a light tomato sauce made with chicken broth, fresh tomatoes and a little garlic. . Gorditas weren’t on the Nayarit menu — Doña Natalia opted for tacos, which could be quickly put together with stacks of ready-made tortillas, but she topped her tacos with the same Nayarit-style tomato-based sauce.

To insist on details like that in a restaurant outside of an ethnic enclave was a political act. It was also central to the success of Nayarit, implicitly declaring its character.

And the scrappy Echo Park welcomed it. With relatively cheap rents and a bohemian vibe, the inner-city suburb had long been a cultural hub – a haven for gay people, liberal whites, and an abundance of working-class immigrants of many nationalities.

In 1951, Echo Park was 79% white, 16% Latinx, and the rest mostly Filipino. (In 1970 it would be 52% Latinx.) It had been pointed out – too many “foreign” and “racial” elements meant that white bankers considered it a bad investment, which only cemented its underdog character. (which ironically attracted gentrification years later). There’s no record of why Doña Natalia chose Echo Park in 1921. I guess it’s the affordability and nature of the neighborhood, where her restaurant would become both a staple and a draw.

In addition to its Echo Park regulars, Nayarit’s clientele included movie stars, athletes, singers, and musicians, some Latinx (like most of the restaurant’s patrons) and some not. Alexis McSweyn, whose mother was from Arizona and whose stepfather was Mexican, grew up in Echo Park in the 1950s. She told me in an interview that she was always shocked if someone from piece did not have been at the restaurant. “The Nayarite has been Echo Park,” she said.

Doña Natalia died in 1969, two years before I was born. My mother ran the business for a few more years, but sold the lease in 1976 to new owners who kept the old name. Their restaurant closed in 2001 and Echo nightclub opened the same year – not the same type of scene, but still a place where people gather, with a shared appreciation for something they enjoy.

Echo Park always welcomes foreigners. But gentrification – or more precisely, wealthification – has been well under way for two decades. The diversity and authenticity cultivated by places like Nayarit make the neighborhood attractive to its wealthy newcomers, but this legacy and those who built it are often the most threatened by change.

Previously, I could walk from my childhood home to a Dodger game, jumping from one business to another whose owners or employees owed something directly to the success of Nayarit. Those places are gone now, even though those people are still friends and family to me.

And the impact of Doña Natalia persists. Sunset’s storefront is a testament to what she built. So are the fates and fortunes of the men and women who worked there and gathered there. Their stories now go back two, three and four generations in Los Angeles and are tied to a place called Nayarit.

Natalia Molina is a professor of American Studies at USC. His latest book is “A Place at the Nayarit: How a Mexican Restaurant Nourished a Community”.

Los Angeles Times

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