Mexican restaurant employees didn’t speak English, they spoke food
Greater LA is launching a special series called “Born & Razed,” taking a close look at the changing neighborhoods of Southern California. In the lead: Echo Park.
El Nayarit was one of the largest and most popular restaurants in the area, opening in 1951 and closing in 2001. Today, the Echo nightclub holds its place. The restaurant was owned by the family of Natalia Molina, a professor of American studies and ethnicity at USC. She shares how this Mexican restaurant made everyone feel at home.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
KCRW: Your new book, “A place in Nayaritis about your family, your community and Echo Park. Why is now the time to tell this story?
Natalia Molina: I had seen all the changes going on in Echo Park since the early 2000s, and I think a lot of people thought those changes were only good. They saw it brought businesses and coffees and lattes. And I often got the question, “Aren’t you excited about all the changes to Echo Park?” I couldn’t help but lament the fading history there and that we already had a life in Echo Park. There were already restaurants, bars and cafes where Cubans came to sit and play dominoes. I wanted people to remember this life that had been here before.
When you entered Nayarit, was it dark with vinyl cabins?
Yes. Nayarit can be different at different times of the day and for different people. For the lunch rush, it might be office workers from downtown Los Angeles. For the evening crowd, it might be someone just stopping in for a beer and a taco on their way home from work. On weekends, it was more of a nightclub atmosphere. On Sundays, people wore their Sunday best. Families came, families made the sign of the cross before eating. There was something for everyone.
What was the common thread that made everyone feel at home?
There was a culture there that was started by my grandmother, whose name I bear, Natalia Barraza. People called her Doña Natalia. She…was an immigrant. While she was a reserved person who wanted to run a successful business, her first priority was bringing in immigrants and making sure they had a place they could call their own. So she sponsored and helped over 100 Mexican immigrants who worked in a restaurant. She also always showed respect and a smile to the customers who came.
And while she wasn’t always the best person, she had my mom, Maria, greeting you, remembering your name, and making sure you were seated promptly. My grandmother in the background made sure there was table turnover, that your food was piping hot, and that it met her exacting standards. Then you had servers who had all been strangers who became insiders and they wanted to share that spirit with you.
Your mother and your grandmother ran the show?
My grandmother ran the scullery, and my grandmother would sit on a stool between the kitchen and the living room and inspect every dish that came out because she had trained all the cooks. Whereas my mom was the one who greeted you, smiled, remembered your name, got dressed on the weekends.
All the women there liked to dress up – my aunts, my mother’s cousins. Even if they were working, they dressed up, maybe put on an apron because they also like to soak up the atmosphere of the nightlife.
It was a place where movie stars went. Marlon Brando, Linda Fernandez — two English-speaking movie stars, Mexican movie stars.
It was a place where when people started their evening, they went for a drink. And then when the clubs closed, they would come for another drink. It was open until four in the morning. It was where the musicians came after their sets, so it was always busy.
Can you tell us about other people who have worked there and who have contributed to its warm atmosphere?
It’s absolutely not easy to work in the restaurant business, but the waiters and waitresses helped and integrated each other into what it was like to run a station. Some of them spoke English, but most of them spoke Spanish. And when I asked one of them, “How did you communicate with the white American clientele?” And she said, “Well, I never learned to speak English, but I was talking about food.”
…And the other thing was that my grandmother knew what it was like to be a foreigner. Many of the waitresses were divorced women, single mothers or people who needed this network. The waiters, the men, the cooks, many of them were gay people who might not thrive in a traditional ethnic enclave, but Echo Park was a geographic crossroads. It was a cultural crossroads. You had this cross section of society that lived in Echo Park that had always been inhabited by placemakers – whether they were artists, printmakers, writers or Hollywood, Unitarian, socialist or communist protesters. There was a feeling that they were people who didn’t fit in easily into mainstream society, and they were comfortable being together, so they accepted this single Mexican immigrant woman who adopted two children, who then immigrated 100 Mexicans.
The waiters also dressed the role, right?
They sometimes forgot it was a job and they definitely dressed the role. They can take the table by bus, but then wiggle on the dance floor. Once a month, my grandmother would ask them to go to another urban anchor, a restaurant or a place, so that they could know Los Angeles. It was very important to her, not only that they had a place in Nayarit, but that they had a place in Los Angeles. So I called my grandmother and the immigrants who worked there placemakers. But when they left the restaurant and ventured into segregated Los Angeles, they were “placetakers.”
What happened when the Nayarit closed – how did that affect the Echo Park area as a whole?
I think it is very important that each community has an urban anchor. A place where you can go and feel like you can claim space, speak in your own language, feel comfortable. People always say something like, “That’s where we celebrated our birthday. This is where my aunt and uncle held their wedding reception. This is where we went on Sunday evenings. Without these types of spaces, it’s not just a breakdown of space, it’s a breakdown of community. We need places where we can gather in public and have fun, feel like ourselves, but also maybe meet someone new, smile, get to know someone.
Where are you going now to feel that sense of community?
Hard to find this kind of place. When I started researching this topic and gave a talk about it, I wanted to celebrate it. I wanted to celebrate this story. I called my brother, David, I called my cousins and I said, ‘Let’s meet after the discussion. Where can we meet?” Well, Barragan’s closed. El Conquistador closed. Villa Taxco closed. El Chavo. So we came here to The Compadre.
Is change always good? Sometimes a neighborhood needs to evolve and attract things that make life better.
The companies that were here at Echo Park were connected to each other. They saw themselves as part of a larger community. You would shop at Pioneer Market, you would shop at Finers, then you would go to Nayarit for a meal. The servers across the street in Taix also came to the Nayarit and they felt connected.
I think there is also something to be said about what happens if we look at a place, a neighborhood, through the prism of community rather than just individualism? And can you buy it there? [Can we] think about how our choices around where we live also affect our neighbors?