According to Daniel Cano (Class of ’77, B.A., English; ’84, M.A., Spanish), all one needed to make it as a journalist in 1920s Los Angeles was the ability to read and write, and a good mentor. In Cano’s case, all that was needed to become an award-winning novelist was his desire to become a writer and his education at California State University, Dominguez Hills and Santa Monica College (SMC), where he now teaches literature, composition, and creative writing.
This fall, Cano received the 12th International Latino Book Award for historical fiction with his third book, “Death and the American Dream.” The Los Angeles native says that the protagonist of his 1991 “Pepe Rios,” which was based on the life of his paternal grandfather who arrived in the United States around 1910, took on a life of his own in the sequel.
“He wasn’t my grandfather anymore, but more like a composite of many Mexican men who left [Mexico] during that time to come here,” says Cano. “There were a lot of Spanish language newspapers in the United States in the 1920s. My character gets involved as a writer in one of those newspapers. It [echoes] my grandfather’s life because he was one of the few literate Mexicans who came over. At that time, most people were laborers. He had taught himself to read and write.”
Cano’s determination to get an education mirrored his grandfather’s. Upon returning from service in Vietnam with the 101st Airborne Division in 1969, he enrolled at SMC and took every English class available, and when he spoke to a professor about transferring to university, he was told about CSU Dominguez Hills.
“I could have gone to UCLA, which is right down the street from my house,” he recalls. “But I was married at the time and a teacher told me that I should come [to CSU Dominguez Hills] where I would get more support. So I came out here and visited and fell in love with it. It was like the country back then, in the early 1970s, there were just fields here.”
Cano worked a full-time custodial job that allowed him to work nights and go to class during the day, or vice versa depending on the demands of his class schedule. He says that CSU Dominguez Hills was extremely supportive of the older, working students who were among the majority of his classmates.
“I was an older student, many of us were older students,” says Cano. “At the same time, we had different life experiences that teachers would talk about in class. They still made us work hard, but they understood. That’s always been something that Dominguez Hills prides itself on.”
Cano says that his primary goal in college was to learn to become a writer. One experience that enhanced his education was the opportunity he had to study in Granada, Spain, for a year, thanks to a fellowship from the Del Amo Foundation, which was given by the descendants of Manuel Dominguez, the university’s namesake. Cano, who majored in English and minored in Spanish, says that the experience was transformational.
“Studying in [Spain], not just the language but the culture, going to homes of people, going to university classes – it was life-changing,” he remembers. “It probably changed my whole way of viewing education because I didn’t have to work for the first time; I could simply study and go to school.”
As faculty leader at SMC, Cano works closely with student retention. He has held a variety of administration positions from director of Early Outreach Programs and assistant director of admissions at UCLA, associate director of admissions at CSU Dominguez Hills, and dean of Enrollment Services at SMC. After this extensive experience with first generation college students, he says that they need guidance from all those involved in their education and that professors have the advantage of direct mentorship in the classroom.
“We talk to a lot of instructors about collaborative learning rather than always following the lecture method all the time, getting to know your students,” he says. “Faculty have a lot to offer students, counselors can only do so much. [Professors] have a captive audience. Each professor may have between 150 to 200 students a semester, so we have a huge impact on them.”
When asked which of his professors at CSU Dominguez Hills had the greatest impact on him, Cano replies, “All of them.” Of being in classes taught by many founding faculty, including Porfirio Sanchez, Frances Lauerhass, David Rankin, and Agnes Yamada, he says that he and his classmates were “inspired to learn.”
“In those early days of the 1970s, many of the teachers were teaching here because they knew that the population they would be dealing with would be first-generation college students,” Cano says. “Back when I was a student, there were about 5,000 students here. Even then, all the teachers knew all the students. They were really friendly, really informative. That’s what I liked about it because I was a first-generation student, I didn’t really know what to expect [from college].”