This talk is drawn from my forthcoming book, “Place-makers: The Story of an Ethnic Mexican Community in 20th Century Los Angeles.” “Place-makers” tells the story of a variety of community builders and the ways in which they helped define LA’s Echo Park as a “place.” “Place-makers” views local restaurants as urban institutions and forms of public space which, through the efforts of their owners and employees, acted as “place-makers.” Far more than places to get a meal, these restaurants provided a welcoming home away from home for immigrants (customers and employees alike) who were new to Los Angeles. Echo Park’s Mexican restaurants presented an entry point into a ready-made social network, offering local history, introductions, and information about how to navigate the system—all invaluable assets for newcomers attempting to negotiate a large, daunting foreign city. A foothold in a space where the language, food, and atmosphere were reassuringly familiar helped to better position recent arrivals for success in their new lives. And the resources and networks available there allowed working people to assume—or in some cases create—full identities that went beyond who they were as laborers. Taken in the aggregate, these restaurants helped establish an extended community that was highly receptive to immigrants and others without being an ethnic enclave: a place where Mexicans and Mexican Americans, single people and families, working-class and middle-class, gay and straight, felt comfortable.
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