Through the intertwining stories of Johnny, Matelasse, and Ximena, Straight shows intricate intersections of personal and family histories to create a broad and deep picture of a dynamic, multi-ethnic Southern California. Johnny is the son of Mexican and Californian Indian parents. Matelasse, a light-skinned black woman often mistaken for Mexican, traces her lineage back to the ancient citrus groves of California, to the fields of the Coachella Valley, to a slave plantation in Louisiana. And Ximena is a migrant whose story highlights the Hispanic natives who arrived in California after the horrors of crossing the US-Mexico border (including for Ximena’s rape and the drowning of her younger brother).
Born and raised in Riverside, California, Straight has devoted her writing career to representing the outback of Southern California. At the heart of most of her work is the idea that one’s relationship with a place may play the most critical role in shaping how we understand the world. ‘Mecca’, like much of Straight’s writings, is a love song for a place and its people. She writes lyrically about workers pollinating date palms in the groves as if it were a cosmic dance: “It was magical here, even in the heat. Gigantic swaths of golden strands feathered with small flowers, four feet long. Like fantastic brooms and the gods can sweep the sky.”
In “Mecca”, the characters are constantly beset by events – raging wildfires, immigration raids and other disasters, both personal and social – but they survive thanks to their community and cling to family and friends to persevere.
One of the most striking aspects of “Mecca” is Straight’s focus on how characters negotiate their racial identity through language. For characters like Johnny Frias, whose family lived in California long before it became part of the United States, or for recent immigrants like Ximena, learning the language of whiteness is mandatory. Their survival depends on it. They deal with an American English that is fluent, generative, sometimes arbitrary, and intended to signal cultural connection or otherwise. Although Johnny learns to speak Spanish and English fluently at a young age, his assimilation into white culture, despite his profession and his competence, is never complete: “I remembered I was 20 and tried to figure out all the variations. Holy cow† Never horse or dog or chicken. holy smokes† Never fire or flame. Holy mackerel. Never trout or salmon or sardine. Holy mole. Whatever the hell that was.”
Straight offers some similar examples with several other characters as they trace the idiosyncrasies of the American vernacular and reveal the terrible power built into it. For example, Ximena’s daily process of getting to know the world around her requires several steps: “Three languages. Every word had to be repeated in Ximena’s head. agua. Water. Nducha. Pelo. Hair. ix. Only one word was always the same; Luz never said it in Spanish, only English. Ice† Some facts are so specific to a language and culture that they only require one word. In the desert, where keeping the heat at bay is essential for survival, Ximena discovers that immigration and customs enforcement is an even more dangerous threat, one that must be avoided at all costs.