“You know, you look like Geronimo,” the mayor of Menifee, California, once told Michael Cano. It’s no wonder. Cano is the great-grandson of the infamous Bedonkohe Apache who waged war against Mexico and Texas for invading his tribal lands.
“I have the same droopy eyes,” said the 65-year-old Cano, who really isn’t comfortable talking about his notorious lineage. He identifies more with his father’s Italian side. “I don’t seek any kind of recognition for it or reflect on it much.” He’s just following the advice of his mother, he said. “She told me I have my own life to live and not to worry about what happened in the past.”
No need for Cano to ride those coattails of history anyway, as he has blazed a trail of his own. This past June, Lance Corporal Michael Cano of the United States Marine Corps received the 2014 67th Assembly District Veteran of the Year award, presented to him by California Assemblywoman Melissa Melendez.
“His service to our country and fellow veterans over the years is inspiring and deserves recognition,” Melendez said.
Cano believes he received this award for his patient dedication to other veterans at the VFW Post 1956 in Menifee. “A lot of vets don’t know how to apply for government benefits. It’s hard to get through all the red tape and fill out all the different forms, so I help them with all that,” he said.
Couple that with his heroic service in the Vietnam War, and one can see why this warrior was singled out for recognition. Immediately after graduating from high school, Cano joined the Marine Corps. During his tour of duty in Vietnam, he fought in a fierce conflict later memorialized in the Hollywood film, “Hamburger Hill.” Wounded twice, he earned a handful of medals, including two Purple Hearts, the Vietnam Cross of Gallantry Palm and a Combat Action Ribbon.
Cano said it’s wonderful that military veterans are being honored today, but it has been a long time coming. “Nowadays, they look at veterans a lot differently. In my day, when I got out of the service, vets were spit on. Nobody even said ‘Thank you’ to us.”
After an honorable discharge from the military, Cano had some trouble trying to land a job. “Nobody would hire me. They were worried that other employees wouldn’t get along with me because I had been in the Vietnam War.”
Eventually, the ex-Marine was hired by Equitable Life to sell insurance, and later became a collector for Beneficial Finance and GMAC. During this early professional journey, he continued to take classes on the side at a local college. Cano, whose Sicilian-born father couldn’t read or write, and whose mother had only a third-grade education, placed a high priority on education. He knew that a college degree was the ticket to something bigger and better someday.
Cano ended up earning not one, but two bachelor’s degrees from California State Polytechnic University in Pomona – in business management and social science; and a master’s degree in finance from the University of La Verne. While attending La Verne, the dean asked him if he’d like to teach a finance class.
“It was an awakening. They paid me only $700, but it was one of my greatest moments of starting to be a real teacher.” Cano said it felt like he had finally found his place in the world.
To this day, 24 years later, Professor Cano continues to teach economics, accounting and statistics at the University of La Verne. “This spring, I’ll be teaching some international students from Japan.” He also runs a successful dry cleaning business in Menifee with his wife.
This great-grandson of Geronimo not only looks like the Apache leader, he has his fighting spirit, too; that part of him that continues to push forward toward the next conquest – in education, of course. At the end of his interview with Indian Country Today Media Network, Cano threw one last little nugget: “Oh, yeah … I also earned a Ph.D. from USC in 1997.” He explained the real motivation behind getting a doctorate: “I didn’t even need it, but I went ahead and got it for my dad, anyway.”
Lynn Armitage is an enrolled member of the Oneida Tribe of Indians of Wisconsin.