Mexican restaurant El Nayarit prioritized immigrants, newcomers

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Natalia Molina stands in front of the Nayarit, which is now the Echo nightclub. Her family owned the Mexican restaurant, which welcomed neighborhood newcomers and immigrants for decades. Photo by Zaydee Sanchez for KCRW.

Greater LA launches a special series called “Born & Razed,” taking a close look at changing neighborhoods across Southern California. Up first: Echo Park. 

El Nayarit was one of the biggest and most popular restaurants in the area, opening in 1951 and shutting down in 2001. Now the Echo nightclub stands in its place. The eatery was owned by the family of Natalia Molina, professor of American Studies and ethnicity at USC. She talks about how this Mexican eatery made everyone feel at home. 

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

KCRW: Your new book, “A Place at the Nayarit,” is about your family, community, and Echo Park. Why is now the time to tell that story?

Natalia Molina: I had been seeing all the changes going on in Echo Park since the early 2000s, and I think a lot of people thought that these changes were only good. They saw that it brought in businesses and cafes and lattes. And I would often get the question, “Aren't you excited about all the changes in Echo Park?” I couldn't help but lament the history that's being erased there and that we already had life in Echo Park. There were already restaurants and bars and cafes where Cubans would come and sit and play dominoes. I wanted people to remember that life that had been here before.

When you walked into the Nayarit, was it dark with vinyl booths? 

Yes. The Nayarit can be different things at different times of the day and to different people. For the lunch rush, it might be office workers coming from downtown LA. For the evening crowd, it might be somebody stopping by for just a beer and a taco on their way home from work. On the 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 they ate. There was something there for everybody. 

A group of men dine at the Nayarit, an essential part of the Echo Park community until it closed in 2001. Photo by Natalia Molina.

What was the common thread that made everybody feel at home? 

There was a culture there that was started by my grandmother, after whom I'm named, Natalia Barraza. People called her Doña Natalia. She … was an immigrant. While she was a reserved person who wanted to operate a successful business, her first priority was to bring in immigrants and make sure that they had a place that they could call their own. So she sponsored and helped over 100 Mexican immigrants that worked at a restaurant. She also always extended respect and a smile to the customers that came. 

And while she wasn't always the best people person, she had my mom, Maria, who would greet you, who would remember your name, and who would make sure you were seated promptly. My grandmother in the background was making sure there was table turnover, that your food was piping hot, and to her exacting standards. Then you had waitstaff who had all been outsiders that became insiders and they wanted to share that spirit with you. 

Your mother and grandmother ran the show? 

My grandmother ran the back-of-house, and my grandmother would sit on a stool in between the kitchen and the living room and inspect every dish that came out because she had trained all the cooks. Whereas my mother was the one that greeted you, smiled, remembered your name, dressed up on the weekends. 

All the women there loved to dress up — my aunts, my mom's cousins. Even if they were working, they would dress up, maybe put on an apron because they like to soak in the nightlife atmosphere as well. 

It was a place that movie stars went to. Marlon Brando, Linda Fernandez — both English-speaking movie stars, Mexican movie stars. 

It was a place that when people started their night, they'd go have a drink. And then when the clubs closed, they would come and have another drink. It was open till four in the morning. It was where musicians would come after their sets, so there was always a crowd. 

Can you tell us about other people who worked there and added to its welcoming atmosphere?

It's absolutely not easy working in the restaurant business, but the waiters and waitresses would help train each other and incorporate each other into what it was 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 to the white American clientele?” And she said, “Well, I never learned to speak English, but I spoke food.” 

… And the other thing was that my grandmother knew what it was like to be an outsider. So many of the waitresses were divorced women, single moms, or people that needed that network. The waiters, the men, the cooks, many of them were gay men that might not thrive in a traditional ethnic enclave, but Echo Park was a geographic crossroads. It was a cultural crossroads. You had this cross segment of society that lived in Echo Park that had always been inhabited by placemakers — whether they be artists, printmakers, Hollywood writers or protesters, Unitarians, socialists, or communists. There was a sense that these are people that did not fit in easily in 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.

Nayarit founder Natalia Barraza (center, behind the plant) joins in on a celebration at the restaurant in 1968. Molina’s mother Maria is pictured on the far left. Photo by Natalia Molina.

The waitstaff also dressed the part, didn't they?

They would sometimes forget it was a job and they would definitely dress the part. They might bus the table, but then shimmy onto the dance floor. Once a month, my grandmother would ask them to go to another urban anchor, restaurant or place, so that they could know Los Angeles. It was very important for her, not only that they had a place at the Nayarit, but that they had a place in LA. So I called my grandmother and the immigrants that worked there “placemakers.” But when they left the restaurant and ventured through segregated Los Angeles, they were “placetakers.”

What happened when the Nayarit closed — how did that affect the Echo Park neighborhood at large?

I think it's very important for every community to have an urban anchor. A place where you can go and feel that you can claim space, speak in your own language, feel comfortable. People always say something like, “That's where we celebrated our birthday. That's where my aunt and uncle had their wedding reception. That's where we went on Sunday nights.” Without those kinds of spaces, it's not just a breakdown of the space, it’s a breakdown of the community. We need places where we can get together in public and enjoy ourselves, feel like ourselves, but also maybe meet someone new, smile, get to know someone. 

David Porras (left) stands with his sister Natalia Molina (right). Their mom sold the lease to the restaurant in 1976. Photo by Zaydee Sanchez for KCRW.

Where do you go now to feel that sense of community?

It's difficult to find that kind of place. When I first started researching this and gave a talk on this topic, I wanted to celebrate it. I wanted to celebrate this history. I called my brother, David, I called my cousins and I said, “Let's meet after the talk. Where can we meet?” Well, Barragan's has closed. El Conquistador has closed. La Villa Taxco is closed. El Chavo. So we came here to El Compadre

Is change ever good? Sometimes a neighborhood needs to evolve and attract things that make life better. 

The businesses that were here in Echo Park were in relationship to one another. They saw themselves as part of a greater community. You would shop at Pioneer Market, you would shop at Finers, you would then go to the Nayarit for a meal. The waiters across the street at Taix would also come to the Nayarit and they felt connected. 

I think there's also something to say about what if we look at a place, a neighborhood, through the lens of community rather than just individualism? And are we able to buy there? [Can we] think about how our choices around where we live also affect our neighbors?

Classic cars drive by the Nayarit in 1966. The restaurant boasted banquet rooms, lunches, dinners, and food to go. Photo by Natalia Molina.