In the sci-fi novel 'Chicano Frankenstein,' reanimated people are an allegory : Code Switch Daniel Olivas's novel puts a new spin on the age-old Frankenstein story. In this retelling, 12 million "reanimated" people provide a cheap workforce for the United States...and face a very familiar type of bigotry.

In 'Chicano Frankenstein,' the undead are the new underpaid labor force

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Just a heads-up - this episode contains a brief reference to sexual violence.


PARKER: Hey, everyone. You're listening to CODE SWITCH. I'm B.A. Parker.


And I'm Gene Demby.

PARKER: Now, Gene, Frankenstein is having a moment right now...


PARKER: ...With "Lisa Frankenstein."

DEMBY: "Lisa Frankenstein," the - like, Lisa Frank, like, the little...

PARKER: Yes. But...

DEMBY: The binders and the little stickers and stuff?

PARKER: Imagine that, but, like, bringing a boy back to life 'cause he's cute.


KATHRYN NEWTON: (As Lisa) Taffy says it's a waste of time to try and fix a boy. It's better to just accept a guy's flaws.

DEMBY: (Laughter) That's funny.

PARKER: Then it's, like, "Poor Things."


EMMA STONE: (As Bella Baxter) I must go punch that baby.

PARKER: And there's a "Bride Of Frankenstein" coming out.


PARKER: Have you ever had to read "Frankenstein" growing up?

DEMBY: I did not. Obviously, I know the story - the broad strokes of the story. But, yeah, I know the dude with the bolts in his neck.


COLIN CLIVE: (As Henry Frankenstein) It's alive. It's alive. It's alive.

DEMBY: You know, Boris Karloff and all that stuff. But I never read the book.

PARKER: That's real - I had to read it in eighth grade.


PARKER: So, you know, shout-out to Miss Bielski (ph). But the synopsis is basically, like - well, it's a story of a scientist who creates a monster that the world doesn't try to understand.

DEMBY: Right. And Frankenstein, of course, is the scientist - right? - not the monster, as - you know, we always get that twisted.

PARKER: Exactly. Two hundred years, and we're still trying to make that clear. Anyways, there's a new novel out called "Chicano Frankenstein" that flips the story of Frankenstein on its head.


PARKER: It's written by Daniel Olivas, a high-powered attorney by day and fiction writer by later that day.

DEMBY: (Laughter).

PARKER: So Gene, here's a scenario. You know how organ donor cards work, right?

DEMBY: I think so. Yeah. I'm an organ donor, but I actually don't know how - the mechanics of this. But OK.

PARKER: OK. Also, same.

DEMBY: (Laughter).

PARKER: Hopefully this is not the outcome.


PARKER: (Laughter) OK. Well, in the book, you can have a card that says, basically, their whole body can be donated.


PARKER: And, like Frankenstein's monster, they can be brought back to life.


PARKER: But - but - when they're reanimated, they essentially become worker drones for the U.S. government.

DEMBY: Oh, boy. OK. So you have this giant, undead labor force out there?

PARKER: Yeah, with, like, mismatched arms and stitches everywhere - forced to do the work that people don't want to do. And while the book is firmly in the world of sci-fi, I think it's pretty obvious that it's trying to force readers to take a harder look at our current immigration system and use this new lens to understand some of the ways that the discourse has gone terribly wrong.

DEMBY: Right. So in this book, there's, like, this giant universe of sort of unpeople, you know, who are doing all the work.

PARKER: Yes. And so because of the treatment of these unpeople-people, the book begs to ask the question, who is the monster?

DEMBY: Right.

PARKER: So coming up, I talk to author Daniel Olivas about his book and the events going on in the world that inspired it.

DEMBY: OK. I'm in. Stay with us, y'all.


PARKER: Daniel Olivas got the idea of his sci-fi novel "Chicano Frankenstein" in 2022 during midterm elections.

DANIEL OLIVAS: And it was, yet again, the MAGA, anti-immigrant rhetoric being used to pump up those numbers on that side of the aisle. And I - frankly, I felt distraught. I felt angry. And I decided I was going to go big. I was going to write a novel. And I wrote this novel in 50 days.


OLIVAS: I wrote in the morning. I wrote at night because I have a day job. I wrote on weekends. And there was a Thanksgiving holiday in there, and I used those days to write, write and write. And I had been thinking about it for months, maybe up to a year, just kind of plotting the concept. I knew I had to write a horror novel. And probably the greatest horror novel, or science fiction for that matter, dealing with the concept of monstrosity and who is the monster, is Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein."

And I had no idea that things would get even worse because we are now in another election cycle at this time for president. And the former president is talking about what he will do when he gets reelected. And that includes mass deportations not only of undocumented people, but also documented people who don't have the right ideology. And, of course, he wants to finish his wall and all that stuff. So it's just come back even stronger.

And I think, in some ways - writing op-eds, you know, is one thing, and I've done that before on this issue. But I think sometimes you can reach hearts through the arts in a way that can't be done in an op-ed piece. I think if you can humanize the other, put a face on them, show that they're just like anyone else. They might have a slight accent, or they may eat different food. They might listen to different music. But, you know what? They love. They work. They live just like anyone else.

PARKER: All right. So in the story, there are all these reanimated people. So what are the reanimated people, and what's their analogy in our current society?

OLIVAS: Right. So in my novel, there are 12 million reanimated people in the United States, about 100 million across the world. Reanimation has been perfected. And a person can sign a donor card, and if they happen to die suddenly, they would be reanimated. But their memories and histories would be wiped. They would still have the same skills they had when they were alive, but they would basically be a new person. Their faces would have some work done and their vocal chords changed and their fingerprints removed so that they could not go back to their old families and simply relive their prior lives.

And the government has agreed to do this over 10 years because of the dwindling population. But there's great, great animosity towards these 12 million. They're not considered real Americans by those people who have not been reanimated, and they become a political football.

PARKER: Oh, gosh. OK, so I have a very English teacher-y question to ask you.


PARKER: All right. So because it's "Chicano Frankenstein," who is Frankenstein, and who is the monster?

OLIVAS: Right. So, there is a doctor who is Chicano who appears in the novel. He's one of the many reanimation doctors. But along with other doctors who are distressed by the fact that people's histories and culture are being wiped, he has broken the protocol and has given a clue to his reanimated subjects as to how to get ahold of him, and also a clue as to what their prior lives were. And only if they want to find out more, they can come to him. So he is my version of Dr. Frankenstein.

The monster - well, that's a tough question. Is the monster the reanimated person, or is the monster the bigoted person or the bigoted president? - President Mary Beth Cadwallader, in my novel who wants to make America safe again - or MASA.

PARKER: I love that so much.


OLIVAS: Are they the monsters?

PARKER: Yeah. I mean, there is this - you talk about this throughline of, like, trying to figure out the past or wanting to know - having to relinquish and not know - you don't know who you are to become this new creation. Do you feel like that is relevant in, like, the current stance as an American - in order to assimilate, you have to relinquish your past?

OLIVAS: Well, we see this happening in certain states - Arizona, Florida - where critical race studies are being attacked, ethnic studies being attacked as somehow an evil way to indoctrinate children, when in truth, when you look at studies, for example, kids who are Latinx and are able to take Latinx studies courses, they do better in school and have a higher rate of graduation from college. There are true benefits to knowing not only who you are, but to read books by people who understand and come from the same kind of community and experiences that you come from.

I know when I was in high school in the '70s, our reading list included books pretty much only by white men. So though you can enjoy great works of literature, you are still reading works that are somewhat exotic because they don't touch upon people who look and sound like you and your family and your grandparents and your cousins.

PARKER: That's so interesting 'cause I was talking with my producer, Christina, about this, about, like, what were books we read as children that we could either see ourselves or see different communities or, like, even, like, Latino communities. And I remember. I think the two key ones for me as a kid was always "The House On Mango Street"...


PARKER: ...Which - like, you had to - I think I've read that, like, three times in school 'cause that was, like, the go-to. And there was the author Gary Soto.

OLIVAS: Oh, yes, Gary. Yes. I know...


OLIVAS: ...Gary (laughter).

PARKER: Yeah. So I was like, every - for summer reading every year, I was like, you've got to read "Baseball In July" (ph).



PARKER: Like, that was it. And I was like, I feel like there should be more (laughter).

OLIVAS: Oh, there's many of us. There's many of us.

PARKER: Yeah. I know this is such a simple question, but - so when you got to the final page of your book, how did it feel? Had you gotten something out of your system?

OLIVAS: There was some relief for me, as an artist, in completing my story. But there's still a deep well of sadness in me. This country is, I think, on the precipice. I was born in 1959. So I was alive when Martin Luther King was assassinated. I was alive when RFK was assassinated, when JFK was assassinated. I was alive during the Vietnam War, the Chicano Moratorium. I was alive during all the great civil rights marches. I thought that we were on a pathway to improving enough that I would never fear for the safety of my family.

I don't know what's going to happen. And I hate to sound like a doomsayer because I tend to run optimistically in my life. I tend to write funny. There's a lot of humor, I think, in my writing. But Joni Mitchell says, laughing and crying - it's all the same release. I guess I choose to laugh (laughter).

PARKER: That's real. It's also kind of comforting. Like, personally, as a millennial, it's kind of comforting to hear that. I was just having a conversation with some older relatives about being in these unprecedented times and not knowing how to process them. And I was told, well, you just can't take it personally. And I was like, I don't know if that's how that's supposed to work. I think I'm supposed to take it personally so that I can make effective change for those around me (laughter).

OLIVAS: (Laughter) Well, you know, I get asked sometimes - writers' conferences, for example - why are you so political in your writing? And I said...


OLIVAS: I don't really have a choice when the existence of people who look like me is being questioned. I was born in this country, but I've been stopped by ICE. I've been questioned by ICE. And I'm a government lawyer, too, on top of it.

PARKER: Jesus.

OLIVAS: I've been called a stupid Mexican by my football coach in high school, who also taught history.

PARKER: Daniel.

OLIVAS: I've been called the N-word. I've been called all kinds of things. Yet I persevered because - why? Because I have - luckily, my parents instilled in their five children a great pride in our culture, in our people. And I have a wonderful network of loving people in my family, and I'm very blessed in that way. But it is difficult not to take it personally when the former president is talking about rapists and murderers and using language like that about immigrants like my grandmother and grandfather on both sides. You know, they weren't rapists and murderers. They were hard workers. They came to this country, and they worked hard. They didn't have a lot of education, but they built homes. They had kids. Their kids did better than they did. Their grandkids went to college, graduate school.

It's difficult to take - not take it personally. I don't understand how we can remain silent. You know, you remain silent, and the atrocities will happen. The families would be separated. The kids would be locked in cages. What could be crueler than doing that to kids? I mean - and kids die in custody, these kids who've been separated. We have governors just laughing, putting immigrants on planes and sending them off to D.C. or LA or wherever. Just - and it's - they just think it's so funny. They just think it's so funny. I'm sorry. See, Parker, you got me going.


OLIVAS: You got me going (laughter).

PARKER: No. No. No, this is great because I think simply to exist is a political act.

OLIVAS: That's right.

PARKER: To try to deny that is disingenuous.

OLIVAS: Yeah. Now, as a writer, I have two goals. The first goal as a writer is to entertain because if I write something boring - well, what's the use of that? And so if I can at least get the reader to enjoy the book and continue reading the book, that's a big victory. If they get something beyond it, that's a treasure. That's wonderful.

And I've had people crying - readers crying after reading some of my work, saying, I recognize the people in your story. Those people are just, like, my people. And so when I can do that through writing, when I can let people know that they're not alone, I think that's a victory. And if I can help change the hearts and minds of people who didn't want to think about these issues, didn't want to acknowledge the humanity of the other - if I can reach them in some small way, that's also a victory. And it's sort of like the "Mary Poppins" song.


OLIVAS: A spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down. I think there are people who will be willing to read fiction or watch a play that might...


OLIVAS: ...Push some of their boundaries in terms of their political viewpoints because that book or that play is entertaining.

PARKER: I'm thinking about that spoonful-of-sugar idea in your writing. And I'm thinking about some of the images that stuck with me while I was reading, like that scene where the protagonist is in the pharmacy. And you can see, like, one - that child sees that one arm is different than the other arm on his body. And the child seems OK with it, but the adult seems disconcerted by it. And it's such a striking image that, like, really stuck with me. But it is also - and it's done in this really clever and satirical way that really speaks to the thing that you're talking about.

OLIVAS: Well, you know, bigotry is, I think, taught. And in that particular scene, my main character died in a car crash, and his left arm and leg had been stitched on from a different cadaver, and they're white. They don't match his brown skin. And so people immediately know that he is one of them. He's a stitcher. He's been stitched together, but this little kid at the pharmacy is just curious. And the man and anyone else who's reanimated - they tend to be very honest. Since their histories have been wiped, they're just honest, honest, honest, and he tends to be very honest with his questions as he tries to understand everything from the concept of dating to how a kid gets a certain skin color. He just asks very honest, simple questions because he's just trying to understand his environment, in many ways, the way children do.


PARKER: Coming up, we're back with Daniel Olivas, talking about how Latinos are portrayed in the public eye.

OLIVAS: Unfortunately, politicians still don't know how to talk to certain groups of people. You know, the former president famously celebrated Cinco de Mayo by getting a tostada and posting a picture, and, you know, that's the type of thing we deal with.

PARKER: Stay with us. You're listening to CODE SWITCH from NPR.


PARKER: Parker.

DEMBY: Gene.

PARKER: CODE SWITCH. And we're back, talking to author Daniel Olivas about his new sci-fi novel, "Chicano Frankenstein." The book tells the story of a new category of people, reanimated people, whose bodies are brought back to life after an accident. These people then become workers with no memories and no histories whose presence is highly debated by the American public, and the book is an allegory for how the U.S. treats its large and diverse immigrant population. And while Daniel has written 12 books, his day job is actually as a senior attorney. So I asked him...

Like, how does your day job inform your writing?

OLIVAS: Our office deals with some of the highest-profile issues facing Californians right now. So my section, for example - we represent a state agency that fights for affordable housing in California. Our office also launched an investigation publicly into ExxonMobil for the plastic pollution crisis. So those issues, the issues that the office deals with, even though I don't write about them explicitly, they are issues of our existence that do come in different ways in the novel. But again, I don't specifically write about any of our cases. I'm very careful about that.

PARKER: I mean, very smart.


OLIVAS: And as far as I know, my office has never gotten involved with the whole reanimation world, so...

PARKER: Give it time.


OLIVAS: That's right, give it time.

PARKER: You are in this powerful position now, and you've been involved in Latino groups. How have you seen the rhetoric around Latino and Chicano identity change over the years?

OLIVAS: There's always a debate about what we call ourselves.


OLIVAS: And you know what? Those debates are important because for so long, we've been labeled by other people who don't like us, and for too long, I know my people - and I'm talking specifically people of Mexican heritage - have been denigrated in such a way that there's a whole panoply of ways to use the term Mexican as an ugly word. So labeling is important. But all the other issues, frankly, have remained the same.

In 1983, I think it was, or '84, I wrote a piece for the Chicano Law Review on the sleeping giant of voters, and we're still talking about the sleeping giant. We're still talking - all these years later, about the voting power of folks who could swing and switch elections, and unfortunately, politicians still don't know how to talk to certain groups of people. You know, the former president famously celebrated Cinco de Mayo by getting a tostada and posting a picture, and, you know, that's the type of thing we deal with.

PARKER: So, like, no real engagement - just stereotypical lip service.

OLIVAS: Exactly. Exactly. You know, I remember - you know, Cinco de Mayo is an important celebration within the community, but it's become a drinking day. And there's, like, no engagement that it was a political battle that was fought on that day and no understanding of what that day means. So it's very surface. And frankly, that's exactly how it was back in the '70s and '80s, when I was kind of coming into the - understanding the political world. There's just no - there's no engagement, as you put it. There's no real understanding or attempt to understand. And that's just one group of people. There are so many different groups of people...


OLIVAS: ...In this country where it's the same kind of thing.

PARKER: It's not just Chicano. Like, people will - everyone has a different experience, different cultures, but it becomes, like, this monolith of just Latino. I mean, I live in New York City. A different block is a different Latino culture.

OLIVAS: That's right. That's right.

PARKER: You know, Mexicans have a different experience than, you know, Costa Ricans or Dominicans.

OLIVAS: Total different - you know...


OLIVAS: ...Different histories. Unfortunately, most of the histories include colonialism. But, you know...

PARKER: Colonialism.

OLIVAS: But, yeah, their political histories are very, very different.

PARKER: But also, with Mexican and Chicano culture, it's a very specific thing. I know that there are - you know, I've...

OLIVAS: Oh, yes.

PARKER: I have had discussions of people who are, like, from Texas. And they're like, my family never moved. The border just moved to a different side. So we just stayed in the same place. And all of a sudden, now we're American. And, like, it's a weird juxtaposition.

OLIVAS: Right. You know, when the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848 was signed, the United States essentially took the entire Southwest from Mexico. In that treaty, the Mexicans who were in Texas and the other Southwestern states - California - were allowed to maintain or have citizenship within the United States. And, yeah, there is that famous phrase. You know, I didn't cross the border. The border crossed me.

My people came to LA a hundred - about a hundred years ago, around 1920. My grandparents came from Chihuahua and Jalisco. And they were escaping the violence of the Mexican Revolution, which was a revolution that lasted for over a decade. And that was that huge influx into the Southwest, and in particular, for my family, into Los Angeles. So I have very deep roots in this city. I even work in Downtown on Spring Street, about two or three blocks from where my mom's parents reunited at the Alexandria Hotel at a party, where they decided that they were going to get married in 1925.

PARKER: (Laughter).

OLIVAS: That's 99 years ago (laughter).

PARKER: (Laughter) And do you get that, like, emotional resonance every time you go to work?

OLIVAS: Yes. Yes. And on top of it, about a block away from there, my mom was a secretary at the Title Trust Building, which is now owned by UCLA. It's a gorgeous building, used in films and TV series. And she was a secretary there in the early '50s. And my dad, when he came back from the Korean War, worked in a factory in Watts. And he would call her during lunchtime. And the - there was a phone booth outside back in the day. And he courted her by calling her at lunchtime every day. And that was in the early '50s. They eventually married shortly thereafter.

So I work in the Ronald Reagan Building on Spring Street, a block away from there. And I've been in that building since 1991, when we moved there. So my family history has spanned from 1925 to today. That's a lot of history in LA.

PARKER: So going back to your book, you write about this thing that happens sometimes, where you can dislike someone or something and then at the same time consume part of it. Like, this messaging of, you know, immigrants, go home, but we love tortillas. Like, in this case, it's ostracizing a group of people while subconsciously using parts of them. I mean, we are a country of cognitive dissonance. And that contrast feels deeply American to me?

OLIVAS: It does feel deeply American. And, you know, the fact that my main character has a white arm and white leg, that - you know, it's almost as if society is saying, you really should be all white. You really need to be erased and just become part of everybody else. So, you know, he struggles with the fact that he's of these different parts. But you know what? Genetically, as a Mexican American, I'm of different parts. I had my DNA test done, and I have, you know, all kinds of things mixed in there.

When my wife and I did a trip to Spain, it was kind of bittersweet. It's a beautiful country to visit. But those are the people who colonized the other half of my DNA. And I probably could very safely say that someplace in my DNA, there was rape. And so that is a struggle a lot of us have. And in some ways, you know, in my novel, people stitched together are, in some ways, a metaphor, I think, for those hard histories.

PARKER: Well, how important is it to know where we come from in order to know who we are?

OLIVAS: In the novel, my unnamed character falls in love with a Chicana lawyer named Faustina Godinez.

PARKER: Faustina.

OLIVAS: Yeah, Faustina. And she's wonderful. She's smart, and she speaks her mind. And she's a partner in a law firm - senior partner. And she struggles with the fact she's beginning to fall in love with this reanimated person. And she talks to her friend, Grace, who's also a partner in the firm. And she asked, you know, how can you have a future without a - you know, without a past?

And I think about all those immigrants, like my grandparents, who left their families behind, who left their past behind to bravely come to a whole new country. They didn't speak the language. And to make a home to be safe, having to make a new history for themselves, I can't imagine that. And I can't imagine what my grandparents went through as young people. And so I think these are the different issues that may come through in my story.

PARKER: I am curious 'cause we're also - I don't know what it is about this year. It's all about Frankenstein. There's, like - there's "Poor Things." There was "Lisa Frankenstein." There's going to be, like, three more Frankenstein things. What do you think it is about that specific narrative that lends itself so well to retellings, like the one that you've made?

OLIVAS: I think it points to the brilliance of Mary Shelley. And in the brilliance of her story, this lends itself to so many different interpretations. Everything from the very dramatic 1931 Universal Pictures "Frankenstein" with Boris Karloff to "Young Frankenstein," the Great Mel Brooks comedy, which is one of my favorite films.


OLIVAS: I think my version may be one of the few political versions. The more recent ones that you've mentioned tend to be very personal, very one-on-one. There's only one reanimated person, and the focus is on that individual's otherness and that individual's attempts to navigate through this world. Mine takes it to a different level. Yes, there is the very personal growth of my main character, the man, but there is that macro level of the political in my novel.

PARKER: You wrote, like, who - quote, "who is the real monster among us? Put another way, what person is truly free from bias?" - end quote. How do you answer that question?

OLIVAS: Well, we all have biases, but there's a spectrum. There's a true spectrum. There is some who are absolutely hateful, and they go with their bias every single day. There are others who struggle with it. I think most of us who want to be good people have to sometimes check ourselves and think what assumptions we might make about people. But it takes energy to do that.

You know, we have to kind of pull back and think about the kind of assumptions we make. And the good person does that all the time, is doing that every day. The person who is selfish and who doesn't care won't do that. And they just go with their assumptions.

PARKER: I don't know. I kind of like the idea of one of those people picking up "Chicano Frankenstein" and having all of those biases shifted or eliminated.

OLIVAS: I hope so. From your lips to God's ear, I hope so (laughter).

PARKER: (Laughter) Thank you so much for talking to us, Daniel Olivas.

OLIVAS: It was my pleasure, Parker. And I will stay hydrated, I promise you.

PARKER: Thank goodness someone's listening to me. Daniel Olivas' book is "Chicano Frankenstein." It's out now. Listen. Read.


PARKER: And that's our show. You could follow us on Instagram @nprcodeswitch. If email is more your thing, ours is And subscribe to the podcast on the NPR app or wherever you get your podcasts. You could also subscribe to the CODE SWITCH newsletter by going to

DEMBY: And another way to support our work here is to sign up for CODE SWITCH+. It's small, but it really does make a difference for us. And you'll get to listen to every single CODE SWITCH episode without any ads. Check it out at, and thanks to everybody who already signed up.

PARKER: This episode was produced by Christina Cala. It was edited by Leah Donnella. Our engineer was James Willetts.

DEMBY: And we would be remiss if we did not shout-out the rest of the CODE SWITCH massive. That's Xavier Lopez, Jess Kung, Dalia Mortada, Courtney Stein, Veralyn Williams, Lori Lizarraga, Cher Vincent and Schuyler Swenson.

PARKER: I'm B.A. Parker.

DEMBY: I'm Gene Demby. Be easy, y'all.

PARKER: Hydrate.

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