USC historian Natalia Molina reframes how we think about race

For the whole life of Natalia Molina, The sight of the San Gabriel Mountains meant one thing above all: She is home.

They towered over the Echo Park home where she grew up. She sees them outside her office window at USC, where Molina is a distinguished professor of American Studies and Ethnicity. They rise above the landscapes and buildings of the Huntington Library, the Art Museum and the Botanical Gardens, where she is interim director of research. They welcome her home from trips to give lectures around the world.

“They’re a sign that I’m connected to Los Angeles,” Molina, 51, recently told me at Huntington’s. “That [my family has] for generations, and that I respect those who came before me” – the immigrants, the indigenous peoples of these lands. “They are a symbol of being grounded and knowing my purpose.”

During our interview, Molina claimed that she was boring. That is not true. She’s smart and surprisingly funny, even when it comes to serious stuff – from structural racism in immigration policy to the tios, Tias and ancestors who shaped their studies and their lives. Among them were strong women like Doña Natalia Barraza, her late grandmother and the inspiration for Molina’s latest book, A Place at the Nayarit: How a Mexican Restaurant Nourished a Community.

A photo of an old building that reads "Nayarit restaurant"

The old sign for the Nayarit restaurant on Sunset Blvd.

(Ian Fusselman)

A solo immigrant from Mexico, with little money and no English skills, Barraza founded and ran the successful and popular Echo Park restaurant for more than 20 years. It was more than just a place to eat: it was what Molina calls an “urban anchor,” a place where Mexican workers and other customers came in contact with their culture and identity.

“I stand on the shoulders of Natalia Barraza, all the women in my family and those who came before us,” says Molina.

Telling the story of under-documented communities is at the heart of Molina’s work, which earned her a 2020 MacArthur Fellowship. She uses stories like Barraza’s to explain how immigrants and other marginalized groups build communities. Her first book, Fit to Be Citizens?, shows how science and public health influenced the meaning of race in the early 20th century. In How Race Is Made in America, she introduces “race scripts,” a central theory in her work that explains how the lives of different racial groups affect each other across time and space.

She also coined – and wrote a book about – “relational formations of races,” essentially the idea that racial designations are formed relative to whiteness and to each other, socially constructed around established hierarchies.

“She tirelessly employs this ‘relational lens’ to help us understand the complexities of the breed,” historian Kelly Lytle Hernández said in an email.

Molina’s work has advanced our understanding of how notions of race and citizenship were produced and politicized, and how they affect the way we view ourselves today. How we fill out the census, who we consider white or fully American — none of this is natural or accidental, she argues.

“In a world that seems to be spinning towards incomprehensible diversity and irreconcilable differences, Professor Molina’s work is crucial as it provides a framework for conceptualizing how the injustices of the modern world are interwoven at their historical roots ‘ Hernandez added.

It was more than Molina’s direct lineage that influenced her life’s work. It was also Echo Park. She grew up and went to school alongside Filipinos, Chinese immigrants, Vietnamese refugees, and Irish white workers. She was amazed at how dynamic Latino identities were (and still are), constantly changing across time and space.

“I was really interested in how what it means to be Latino or Mexican is really shaped by my working-class neighbor, what it means to be an immigrant in a different way than a refugee,” Molina said. “So it was Echo Park that really got me thinking about what I now, as an academic, call race as a relationship.”

When asked what motivates her, she spoke of the “fire in her stomach” that rumbles when communities are marginalized or overlooked. She cited a recent example: When many Americans received COVID-19 vaccines and federal financial assistance, millions of immigrants fell through the cracks.

She recalled seeing newspaper images of farm workers toiling under smoky, neon-orange skies and reading about Mexicans coming to San Diego for COVID-19 vaccines during the 2020 wildfires. “People were outraged” by the vaccines, she recalled, “but there’s no outrage when they come down from Tijuana to clean our homes or pick our produce.” These are things that seem very hypocritical and motivate me to do this type of work.”

Molina is currently working on a new book about the Mexican workers who built Huntington, a site she began visiting as a researcher in 1998. Most of the research is complete; now she has to write.

She recalled once inviting her father, a Mexican immigrant with an eighth grade degree, to the Huntington for lunch. “It’s so beautiful here,” he said after walking through the gardens.

“Yes, but it can also be a little intimidating when you’re the first person in the family to be in a place like this,” she replied.

“Why, mija?‘ he leaned forward and asked her. “We built this place.”

That line still gives her chills. she has become aware of the privilege she has earned as an academic.

“I don’t think I can do that anymore — kind of sit back,” Molina said. “When I sit back, I hold others back.” With her teaching, she hopes to do the opposite.

“I don’t really believe in tapping pipelines, I think we have to build them,” she says. “There just aren’t enough of us. Once you’re in that position, you really need to know that this isn’t about you.”

When she’s not writing books, beating up clichés, or building pipelines for colored students, Molina enjoys reading (mainly autobiographies), going to Dodgers games, and hiking. This year she hiked all 96 miles of Scotland’s West Highland Way.

In the evening she goes for a walk Lefty, her 13.1 lb terrier mix, and thinks through fresh ideas. She records voice messages for herself or others. “I’m known for my voice memos,” she admitted, laughing. (It is true. I received some myself.)

Sometimes she sits on the porch of her home in Pasadena and watches the San Gabriel Mountains.

https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/books/story/2022-11-04/historian-natalia-molina-reframes-race-la-vanguardia USC historian Natalia Molina reframes how we think about race

Sarah Ridley

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