A Place at the Nayarit – Unknown Expectations- Opening Plenary: Natalia Molina

Conference planning.

I am the type of person, that when I make a schedule of what to see maybe WAY more than I can possibly fit in a timeslot, I feel more comfortable just having a list in the waiting, to know what I might or might not miss. JUST because I make a list of what I plan to attend does not mean I know ANYTHING about what is going to happen – and that is where the magic occurs.

NOT knowing alot about topics actually is better – don’t you think? Open mind, no expectations, and wider scope of what might apply to you, what might not, I feel you are in a better situation when the expectations at times are unknown.

I say all this ahead of what was the Opening session for the exciting location in CA for the Humanities Conference, hosting Natalia Molina.

I knew nothing, and yet, when I discovered what she had to bring to the Humanities Conference, my knew nothing turned to, okay, I want to find out more.

Coming out on stage, California Senator Ben Allen provided an amazing overview of Los Angeles and the pockets of culture and areas many might not be familiar with in Los Angeles. It made you want to discover the cultural areas that many might not be aware of – he obviously knew so many original names of areas before they became developed and that always is the most inviting aspect of any area, being aware of their history before it became something even bigger and can have the tendency to hide what it was initially first known as. It was interesting to hear how he grew up in the Santa Monica area and his experiences that were pretty grounded growing up in public schools in that area and knowing the areas of California and seeing them change, His introduction to California was fitting and as his benefit to the California Humanities was obvious as was stated in their retrospective view of the conference:

Senator Ben Allen

“We are fresh off the success of hosting the National Humanities Conference in Los Angeles in November, co-produced by the Federation of State Humanities Councils and the National Humanities Alliance, a conference that saw the highest number of registrants in its history. Our plenary speakers included our former board member Natalia Molina, along with Riverside author Susan Straight and Pulitzer Prize-winner Viet Thanh Nguyen, along with California State Senator Ben Allen, who has been so instrumental in helping us to secure $3 million from the State of California in the past few years. “

Paving the way to Humanities Conference speaker Natalia Molina, and embarrassed to NOT know anything about her, I was very curious. What a background and resume she had, WHEW! – (Be preparing to consider the topic of STORYTELLING and its power).

“Natalia is the author of two award-winning books, How Race Is Made in America: Immigration, Citizenship, and the Historical Power of Racial Scripts and Fit to Be Citizens?: Public Health and Race in Los Angeles, 1879-1940, as well as co-editor of Relational Formations of Race: Theory, Method and Practice. Her work examines the interconnectedness of racial and ethnic communities through her concept of “racial scripts” which looks at how practices, customs, policies and laws that are directed at one group and are readily available and hence easily applied to other groups. She continues to explore the themes of race, space, labor, immigration, gender and urban history in her forthcoming book Place-making at the Nayarit: How a Mexican Restaurant in Los Angeles Nourished its Community.

Natalia is a 2020 MacArthur Fellow, and her work has been supported by various organizations  including the National Endowment for the Humanities, Ford, Mellon and Rockefeller Foundation. She is a Distinguished Lecturer for the Organization of American Historians. In 2018, she was the Organization of American Historians China Residency scholar. She has also been the recipient of various awards for her diversity work, including Diverse: Issues in Higher Education. During her tenure at the University of California, Natalia 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 the University of California Education Abroad Program in Spain.”

The heart of her talk, circling around food, restaurant and how it became a collective for individuals that often had to hide aspects of their identity was powerful – the caption here says it best from UC Santa Cruz:

“USC professor Natalia Molina, author of A Place At The Nayarit: How A Mexican Restaurant Nourished a Community, enthralled the NHC audience with a talk about the way her grandmother’s restaurant fostered community in the Echo Park neighborhood of Los Angeles.”

The above left image I took, and that quote, was a huge emphasis on what public spaces should provide for all individuals, havens of safety, diverse representation, and provide expressions of who we are as a country without fear of injury, reprisal, or degradation. The amazing center symbolism of what Molina’s restaurant created for the communities surrounding this Sunset Boulevard restaurant. Sitting there, I could not possibly ignore the discoveries I had made in pockets of Mexico when I was lucky enough to experience the neighborhoods there, and find the realities of Mexican culture thanks to the food, hard work, and culture that escaped the news and coverage day after day. The parallels and connections Molina was making to my own discoveries of what the word Humanities, and culture meant was impossible to ignore.

One of the most interesting aspects of Molina’s speech that truly nailed a concept. Her use of the word “Placemakers” (individuals staying tethered to their communities by establishing what would be coined as “Urban Anchors“, indicators of some truly amazing terms that set the idea of how spaces are used to something much deeper, a way for students and youth to be connected to history on a deeper level, and why researching spaces to see where they “…fit in their state history.” The depth of what a restaurant means to a country, to a area, to a people, to a culture, I discovered myself in Mexico, and what a gift that aspect has been able to stay with me.

The powerful history that Molina presented about culture being unearthed, discovered, researched and finding photos that are buried yet priceless when discovered, all is part of the process of valuing a culture, neighborhoods, the past, and how it connects and influences the present. That in itself is a powerful speech. Months later, yes, I am still eager to jump into her book, “A Place at the Nayarit”, and deep down, that is how I envision conferences. So many individuals attending take it in and for that first week, so excited and then, weeks, months later nothing – zilch. I do believe efforts should be taken as an individual to bring back aspects of a conference, weeks, months, years later, and still use to impact future efforts to improve communities, individuals institutions, and be used to unearth discoveries that stay with us for years to come, revisiting specific workshops, appearances, and experiences and not “dating” attendance to conferences as in the past and old.

These experiences need to stay with us for a long time forward to truly be effective and impressionable to make a difference. Yet another aspect of what the Delaware Humanities, and the Humanities Conference means in relation to our own communities.

A small sample of what storytelling can mean to a community – Boyle Heights.


About Harry Brake

Employee of Woodbridge High School, Library Media Specialist, Media crazy! :)
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