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date: 08 December 2019

Summary and Keywords

Daniel Cano is a Mexican American author of three novels, Pepe Rios (1991), Shifting Loyalties (1995), and Death and the American Dream (2009). Among literary critics, Cano is recognized mainly for his second novel. This work loosely reproduces his experiences as a Mexican American who comes from a proud military family, becomes a soldier who comes of political age while fighting in the Vietnam War and must deal with the trauma of his combat experiences afterward. Thematically and politically aligned with other Chicana/o narratives about the conflict, Shifting Loyalties articulates a staunch anti-war political ethos. It does so, in part, by assessing historical and social grievances of minorities in the United States and then linking those complaints to the historical condition of the Vietnamese against whom they must fight. It further articulates its political protests by narrating the protracted trauma of the war for ethnic Americans and working-class soldiers and their families, including the ordeals these communities faced in fighting for democratic rights abroad while lacking full rights at home. In this way, Shifting Loyalties imagines political protests according to the cross-racial contradictions of class difference across the nation and across the Pacific.

Cano’s first novel, Pepe Rios, similarly engages the author’s personal history. It draws largely from his uncles’ oral stories about his grandfather Maximiano Cano’s life in Mexico during the national revolution (1910–1920) and his subsequent migration to the United States. As such, Pepe Rios narrates the experiences of the Cano patriarch, refigured in the image of the novel’s eponymous hero, during his search for justice when the Mexican nation became a battlefield of conflicted and corrupted national ideologies. Yet his figurative identity as a soldier-turned-immigrant also narrates a potential shared point of origin for much of the Los Angeles community. Indeed, the novel locates in the violent and complex politics of the Mexican Revolution a starting point for conceptualizing and imaging modern Mexican American life, including the transnational and politically messy genealogies that generated a large-scale exodus of Mexican immigrants to the United States in the early 20th century.

The sequel to Pepe Rios, Death and the American Dream, follows its protagonist’s integration into lower-middle-class life in the United States after his escape from Mexico, including his involvement in early labor movements in California. The narrative begins with Pepe’s arrival in Los Angeles and his investigative work regarding exploitation of Mexican and Mexican American labor in the region. In the course of this narrative action, the novel articulates corporate, state, and union fraud and misconduct on an international scale in the 1920s. Collectively, this criminality and corruption ensured a steady flow of cheap workers from the south to satiate starving US labor markets in the north. As such, the novel provides a rare historical account of the West Side of Los Angeles in relation to labor history in the hemisphere. The novel relates how this area in particular experienced a construction boom in the 1920s, during an era of immigration restrictions for Asian workers, and how the history of Mexican labor immigration and Mexican American labor exploitation made this economic explosion possible.

Keywords: Chicana/o literature, Vietnam War, Mexican Revolution, labor justice, Mexican immigration, US-Mexico borderlands, class critique

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