OCEAN PARK BLVD — Santa Monica has undeniably had a long and rich history. The culture of the city and its place in Southern California’s history is often shoved aside, however, by writers, artists and historians who tend to focus on its more illustrious cousins: Los Angeles and Hollywood.
In his new novel, “Death and the American Dream,” Santa Monica College professor and lifelong Santa Monica resident Daniel Cano is working to change this, paying tribute to his hometown and the unique culture that has been forming for decades on the Westside.
“Death and the American Dream” is the long-in-progress sequel to Cano’s first novel, “Pepe Rios,” which was published in 1991. Inspired by the story of Cano’s own grandfather, who immigrated to California from Mexico in 1910, in the wake of the Mexican Revolution, the novels follow the life of a Mexican immigrant living in the Santa Monica area.
“I was exploring the Latino experience in the United States, particularly in Los Angeles and really particularly in Santa Monica and the Westside of Los Angeles, because that’s where I was raised,” Cano said. “There’s always been a Mexican community here, but not much has been written about it in fiction.”
The son of a second-generation Santa Monican mother and a father with roots in West Los Angeles, Cano grew up steeped in what he calls the “Westside Mexican culture.” Raised among grandparents and aunts who still referred to Olympic Boulevard by the long forgotten name Pennsylvania Avenue, watching the city’s dirt roads and corn fields disappear throughout his childhood, Cano has witnessed, either directly or secondhand, much of the evolution of Santa Monica.
A lifetime of research proved invaluable to Cano as he began to recreate the Santa Monica of the early 20th century. However, in his attempts to create a faithful picture of the city in “Death and the American Dream,” Cano had to turn to other sources.
“There’s a lot of research that’s involved,” Cano said. “I did a lot of interviews with people who lived back in my father’s generation … They told me what neighborhoods were like at the time, what the feel for the area was like at the time. Most of [the historical information] came from my own research.”
During the eight years he spent researching and writing “Death and the American Dream,” Cano spent a great deal of time exploring the intertwining political history of Los Angeles and Santa Monica.
“Politics were very corrupt in Los Angeles at that time. Larger corporations and non-profit organizations that were supposed to help people are the ones that were using them and making money off them. I hadn’t realized that,” Cano said.
The novel centers on Pepe Rios, a Mexican immigrant and journalist with a Spanish-language newspaper in Los Angeles, whose work brings him into contact with the upper echelons of Latino society. The story is rife with political drama, and features such historical figures as anarchist Emma Goldman, attorney Clarence Darrow and, most importantly, Ricardo Flores Magon, a Mexican journalist who incurred the wrath of the United States government with his activist newspaper, “Régeneración.”
“A number of American anarchists were involved in politics at the time within Los Angeles,” Cano said, “They were trying to overthrow the government, but at the same time they were trying to make the issues very clear about what was going on with the working classes.”
For Cano, who began his research with only a basic knowledge of the anarchist movement in Los Angeles, the research proved enlightening and fascinating.
“It was very interesting for me, finding out that these really well-educated people in the anarchist, communist and socialist movements were just so intelligent and so well-read in literature and the arts, and that they weren’t just the crazy people that were portrayed,” Cano said.
Issues surrounding immigration also play a prominent role in the novel. For Cano, educating readers about the history of Mexican immigration was a key point in depicting the political climate of Santa Monica and Los Angeles in the early 20th century.
“I wanted to show, since immigration is seen in so many different ways today, that it was an issue even back in the 1910s, and it was the same type of issue back then that it is today,” Cano said. “What people think they know about immigration today isn’t just something that’s going on in the last 10 years or 20 years. It’s been going on for over 100 years.”
Though “Death and the American Dream” may have a strong political current, Cano insists that wasn’t his purpose in writing the novel.
“It’s not really a political message at all. If anything, it’s more a historical education,” Cano said. “But it is for entertainment — it’s a novel, not a history book. That’s the danger of writing a historical novel … sometimes we might get too serious as historians and forget to be storytellers.”
For Cano, the role of “storyteller” is one he has embraced all his life. He began writing at the age of 10, and has continued ever since, inspired by the works of Thomas Murton, Ernest Hemingway and John Steinbeck, which crossed his path when he was a student at St. Monica High School.
“School really opened my mind to writing,” Cano said.
Writing became even more important to Cano when he returned home after serving in Vietnam between 1966 and 1967, as a paratrooper in the 101st Airborne Division. It was then that he began to write seriously, producing numerous short stories about his experiences at war. These stories would make up the bulk of his second novel, “Shifting Loyalties,” which was published in 1995.
“That was a hard novel to write,” Cano said of book. “I had a lot of friends who were killed in Vietnam, so when I wrote, I had to go back to that time, and I really didn’t want to. I really had to dig down to reach that point where I could get those stories out. … It was kind of cathartic.”
Cano was discharged from the army in 1969 in order to attend Santa Monica College, from which he received an AA degree before continuing his education at CSU Dominguez Hills, where he eventually earned a BA in Spanish and a MA in English. In 1988, after years of administrative work in various universities throughout California, Cano finally came full circle, returning to SMC as an English professor. As a former student himself, Cano “can kind of understand the culture of the students who come to SMC.” The school has proved a successful match for Cano, and working there has provided him with enough time to write, a luxury he didn’t have as an administrator.
Firmly rooted in the Westside culture that produced him, Cano continues to live in Santa Monica with his wife of 21 years, Gloria. His three children all live in the area as well; Cano still takes his grandchildren to the same parks in which he played football as a child.
Cano is an active volunteer with New Roads School (all of his children attended Crossroads, New Roads’ sister school), and served on the founding board in 1997. He is also active with the New Visions Foundation, which works to establish new schools around the Los Angeles area and helps existing schools address myriad issues.
Though he has noticed that there are “more people, and more strangers,” than there once were, Cano still sees the “casual lifestyle” that has long been characteristic of Santa Monica.
The concept of “more strangers” in Santa Monica is one that may come into play in Cano’s next literary project: a third volume of the life of Pepe Rios, exploring the Depression-era world of Los Angeles, and the interactions between the Latino communities and the migrants who arrived in Santa Monica from Oklahoma following the Dust Bowl.
What social, political or historical aspects of Santa Monica he may uncover in this next project, Cano doesn’t know just yet. What he does know, though, is that he will continue to be a storyteller — telling stories of Santa Monica, of Latino culture, and of the world at large. To Cano, this is no option — it’s a part of his life that he can’t ignore.
“I’ve just always felt like I had to write,” Cano said. “So I did.”