Straight (I Been in Sorrow’s Kitchen and Licked Out All the Pots, 1992, etc.) paints a bleak yet not hopeless landscape as a young girl and her mother, separated by happenstance 12 years earlier, search for each other among the down-and-out of southern California.
When immigration authorities pick up Mexican-Indian Serafina, the 18-year-old lacks enough English to explain that her 3-year-old daughter, Elvia, is asleep in a car parked nearby. Elvia, the child of Serafina and an itinerant Anglo worker, passes through a series of foster homes before her long-term placement with a nurturing surrogate mother. She’s happily ensconced there when her father Larry, himself the product of foster homes, shows up and reclaims her. Larry’s undeniably redeeming characteristic is his sense of parental responsibility; he spent years tracking Elvia down. But he is also a loser and speed-freak. Elvia becomes involved with Michael, an orphaned Native American whose sweet dreaminess masks his dangerous attraction to speed and hallucinogens. Pregnant at 15 and afraid to tell her father, Elvia’s longing for her birth mother, always simmering, boils over. She steals Larry’s truck to look for Serafina, or at least for clues to why Serafina abandoned her. Meanwhile, Serafina has never lost hope of reuniting with her daughter. When first deported, she immediately tries to sneak back across the border but is badly beaten and returns to her hometown in southern Mexico, where filial obligation demands she remain to care for her sick mother. Once her mother dies and Serafina’s brother sends money from California, she endures extreme hardship to cross back into the States. In the town where they had lived as a family years before, Elvia and Serafina conduct separate searches for each other. Almost crossing paths, each finds familial love in unexpected places.
Strong physical detail and a carefully rendered cast mostly overcome long stretches of talky description and occasional slips into sentimentality.