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Natalia Molina

Distinguished Professor of American Studies and Ethnicity and
Dean's Professor of American Studies and Ethnicity
University of Southern California

Specializing in History, Latinx Studies, Immigration, Gender, Foodways, and Public Health

2020 MacArthur Fellow


Dr. Molina

Natalia Molina is a Distinguished Professor and Dean’s Professor of American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California. Her influential research examines the interconnected histories of race, place, gender, culture, and citizenship. An award-winning author, teacher, and mentor, she has written three acclaimed books: How Race Is Made in America: Immigration, Citizenship, and the Historical Power of Racial Scripts; Fit to Be Citizens?: Public Health and Race in Los Angeles, 1879-1940; and, most recently, A Place at the Nayarit: How a Mexican Restaurant Nourished a Community. The Los Angeles Times called A Place at the Nayarit an “essential Los Angeles book.” It was a finalist for a James Beard Award and received 14 awards and honorable mentions from various organizations. The book chronicles the lives of immigrant workers, including Molina’s grandmother, who became placemakers, nurturing and feeding their communities at restaurants that served as urban anchors.

Professor Molina is currently working on a new book, The Silent Hands that Shaped the Huntington Library: A History of Its Immigrant Workers. Named a USC 2023 Communicator of the Year, she has written for the LA Times, Washington Post, San Diego Union-Tribune, and elsewhere. In 2020, she was named a MacArthur Fellow.

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2023 James Beard Award Media nominee ™

2023 PROSE Awards Finalist for North American and U.S. History Category

Named an LA Times essential book

New York Times named a Best Books About California

Pacific Coast Branch of the American Historical Association’s

Norris & Carol Hundley Book Award


A Place at the Nayarit

How a Mexican Restaurant Nourished a Community

In a world that sought to reduce Mexican immigrants to invisible labor, the Nayarit was a place where people could become visible once again, where they could speak out, claim space, and belong. In 1951, Doña Natalia Barraza opened the Nayarit, a Mexican restaurant in Echo Park, Los Angeles. With A Place at the Nayarit, historian Natalia Molina traces the life’s work of her grandmother, remembered by all who knew her as Doña Natalia––a generous, reserved, and extraordinarily capable woman. Doña Natalia immigrated alone from Mexico to L.A., adopted two children, and ran a successful business. She also sponsored, housed, and employed dozens of other immigrants, encouraging them to lay claim to a city long characterized by anti-Latinx racism. Together, the employees and customers of the Nayarit maintained ties to their old homes while providing one another safety and support.

The Nayarit was much more than a popular eating spot: it was an urban anchor for a robust community, a gathering space where ethnic Mexican workers and customers connected with their patria chica (their “small country”). That meant connecting with distinctive tastes, with one another, and with the city they now called home. Through deep research and vivid storytelling, Molina follows restaurant workers from the kitchen and the front of the house across borders and through the decades. These people’s stories illuminate the many facets of the immigrant experience: immigrants’ complex networks of family and community and the small but essential pleasures of daily life, as well as cross-currents of gender and sexuality and pressures of racism and segregation. The Nayarit was a local landmark, popular with both Hollywood stars and restaurant workers from across the city and beloved for its fresh, traditionally prepared Mexican food. But as Molina argues, it was also, and most importantly, a place where ethnic Mexicans and other Latinx L.A. residents could step into the fullness of their lives, nourishing themselves and one another. A Place at the Nayarit is a stirring exploration of how racialized minorities create a sense of belonging. It will resonate with anyone who has felt like an outsider and had a special place where they felt like an insider.

How Race is Made in America

Immigration, Citizenship, and the Historical Power of Racial Scripts

University of California Press, 2014

Molina demonstrates that despite the multiplicity of influences that help shape our concept of race, common themes prevail. Examining legal, political, social, and cultural sources related to immigration, she advances the theory that our understanding of race is socially constructed in relational ways—that is, in correspondence to other groups. Molina introduces and explains her central theory, racial scripts, which highlights the ways in which the lives of racialized groups are linked across time and space and thereby affect one another. How Race Is Made in America also shows that these racial scripts are easily adopted and adapted to apply to different racial groups.

How Race Was Made in America by Natalia Molina Book Cover
Texas A and M

Susanne M. Glasscock Humanities Book Prize for Interdisciplinary Scholarship

Relational Formations of Race

Theory, Method, and Practice

Relational Formations of Race brings African American, Chicanx/Latinx, Asian American, and Native American studies together in a single volume, enabling readers to consider the racialization and formation of subordinated groups in relation to one another. These essays conceptualize racialization as a dynamic and interactive process; group-based racial constructions are formed not only in relation to whiteness, but also in relation to other devalued and marginalized groups. The chapters offer explicit guides to understanding race as relational across all disciplines, time periods, regions, and social groups. By studying race relationally, and through a shared context of meaning and power, students will draw connections among subordinated groups and will better comprehend the logic that underpins the forms of inclusion and dispossession such groups face. As the United States shifts toward a minority-majority nation, Relational Formations of Race offers crucial tools for understanding today’s shifting race dynamics.

Fit to Be Citizens?

Public Health and Race in Los Angeles

1879-1940, University of California Press, 2006

Meticulously researched and beautifully written, Fit to Be Citizens? demonstrates how both science and public health shaped the meaning of race in the early twentieth century. Through a careful examination of the experiences of Mexican, Japanese, and Chinese immigrants in Los Angeles, Natalia Molina illustrates the many ways local health officials used complexly constructed concerns about public health to demean, diminish, discipline, and ultimately define racial groups. She shows how the racialization of Mexican Americans was not simply a matter of legal exclusion or labor exploitation, but rather that scientific discourses and public health practices played a key role in assigning negative racial characteristics to the group.

The book skillfully moves beyond the binary oppositions that usually structure works in ethnic studies by deploying comparative and relational approaches that reveal the racialization of Mexican Americans as intimately associated with the relative historical and social positions of Asian Americans, African Americans, and whites. Its rich archival grounding provides a valuable history of public health in Los Angeles, living conditions among Mexican immigrants, and the ways in which regional racial categories influence national laws and practices. Molina’s compelling study advances our understanding of the complexity of racial politics, attesting that racism is not static and that different groups can occupy different places in the racial order at different times.

Fit to be Citizens by Natalia Molina Book Cover

Pacific Coast Branch of the American Historical Association’s Norris & Carol Hundley Award



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Curriculum Vitae

Academic & Administrative Appointments


  • 2023-

    Distinguished Professor of American Studies and Ethnicity and Dean’s Professor of American Studies and Ethnicity

  • 2021-

    Distinguished Professor of American Studies and Ethnicity

  • 2020-2021

    Huntington Library Fellow

  • 2018-

    Professor, Department of American Studies & Ethnicity, University of Southern California

  • 2017-2018

    National Endowment for the Humanities Public Scholar Fellow

  • 2015-present

    Professor, Department of History & Urban Studies Program, University of California, San Diego

  • 2010-2015

    Associate Professor, Department of History & Urban Studies Program, University of California, San Diego

  • 2006-2010

    Associate Professor, Department of Ethnic Studies & Urban Studies Program, University of California, San Diego

  • 2001-2006

    Assistant Professor of Ethnic Studies & Urban Studies, University of California, San Diego


  • 2022 - 2023

    W.M. Keck Foundation Director of Research, Interim, The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens
  • 2019–2020

    Inaugural Dean’s Administration Mellon Foundation Fellow

  • 2016-2017

    Associate Dean, Division of Arts and Humanities

  • 2014-2015

    Associate Vice Chancellor for Faculty Diversity and Equity

  • 2011-2014

    Associate Dean for Faculty Equity, Division of Arts & Humanities

  • 2008-2010

    Director of Graduate Studies, Ethnic Studies Department

  • 2007-2008

    Director for University of California Education Abroad Program, Spain


  • B.A.

    History & Women’s Studies Double Major University of California, Los Angeles

  • M.A.

    U.S. History University of Michigan, Ann Arbor

  • Ph.D.

    U.S. History University of Michigan, Ann Arbor


For speaking engagements, please contact:

Kevin Mills

The Tuesday Agency
  • 404 East College Street, Suite 408
    Iowa City, Iowa 52240

  • 319-338-5640

For media requests, please contact:

Jim Key

Senior Associate Dean for Communication and Marketing

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