Natalia Molina is a Professor of American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California. She is the author of two award winning books. Her first book, Fit to be Citizens? Public Health and Race in Los Angeles, 1879-1939, explored the ways in which race is constructed relationally and regionally. Her second book, How Race Is Made in America: Immigration, Citizenship, and the Historical Power of Racial Scripts, examines Mexican immigration–from 1924 when immigration acts drastically reduced immigration to the U.S. to 1965 when many quotas were abolished–to understand how broad themes of race and citizenship are constructed. Through the use of a relational lens, How Race Is Made in America demonstrates that racial scripts are easily adopted and adapted to apply to different racial groups. She extends her work on racial scripts in her co-edited volume, Relational Formations of Race: Theory, Method, and Practice. She continues to explore the themes of race, space, labor, immigration, gender and urban history in her book in progress. With the support of a National Endowment for the Humanities Public Scholar Fellowship, she is expanding her award-winning article, “The Importance of Place and Place-makers in the Life of a Los Angeles Community: What Gentrification Erases from Echo Park” into a book. During her tenure at the University of California until 2018, Professor Molina served as the Associate Vice Chancellor for Faculty Diversity and Equity. She has also served twice as the Associate Dean for Arts and Humanities and before that as the Director for University of California Education Abroad Program in Granada, Córdoba, and Cádiz, Spain. She is a Distinguished Lecturer for the Organization of American Historians. She previously served on the Faculty Advisory Committee for the University of California’s President’s Postdoctoral Fellowship Program, as well as a six-year term on the board of California Humanities, a non-profit partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities.
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.