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USC’s Natalia Molina Wins MacArthur Fellowship for Work on Immigrant Stereotypes

When Natalia Molina was growing up in Echo Park in the 1970s, she’d spend evenings at the Mexican restaurant her mother owned, Nayarit, a neighborhood staple her grandmother founded in 1951 that was frequented by a cross-section of the city: immigrants, Dodgers players after games, celebrities such as Marlon Brando and Rita Moreno. The nights were late, and after hours of people watching and escorting customers to their tables, a young Natalia would crawl into a red vinyl booth and fall asleep, her belly full of enchiladas suizas or stewed ribs in a spicy red sauce.

Molina, a professor of American studies and ethnicity at USC, is now at work on the book “Place-makers: The Story of an Ethnic Mexican Community in Twentieth-Century Los Angeles,” which explores the restaurant’s history as an urban anchor for immigrants. Her third book, it fits right into her oeuvre: The historian has spentnearly two decades exploring how long-held stereotypes and narratives of immigrant communities have shaped our views about race and public policy.

On Tuesday morning, Molina was named a 2020 MacArthur fellow, recognized by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation for “revealing how narratives of racial difference that were constructed and applied to immigrant groups a century ago continue to shape national policy today.”

Molina thought she was joining a phone call with MacArthur staffers to discuss other nominees when she learned of her award last month.

“I had my yellow legal pad out, my pen was poised,” she said. “Then they said: ‘We’d like to talk about the nominee, and that nominee is you!’ I was shocked. It was such a brain jam. But then it was just gratitude. This will be good for talking about race, social justice, issues of equality. It was just: Thank you for caring about these issues.”

Of this year’s 21 fellows across the arts, education, science, media, law and environmental studies, Molina’s work on race, gender, culture and citizenship is particularly timely, essentially at the heart of the national conversation as America undergoes a reckoning over systemic racism and grapples with questions of equity, inclusion and identity.

“There is this moment — we’re seeing how people’s civil rights and human rights are being disregarded,” she said. “One moment it’s the story of George Floyd, the next an Asian American who’s had acid thrown on them, and the next, a child being separatedfrom their parents — and that can be in one day. We need to see how these racial moments are connected so that we can make systemic change.” 

Not surprisingly, Molina has been especially busy as a media commentator and public speaker during the pandemic, having done more than a dozen interviews for TV, radio and print outlets on “race, health, place and how we remember history,” she said, including the toppling of the Junipero Serra statue in downtown L.A. and forced sterilization at an Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention center in Georgia.

Read entire article at Los Angeles Times