By Francisco Portillo
After years of being lost in the gang lifestyle and becoming paralyzed, Obed Silva discovered the power of literature and underwent a major transformation to become a respected English professor.
Born in Chihuahua, Mexico, Silva emigrated to the United States with his mother at just one year of age. His father was an artist trained by Mexican painter Aaron Pina-Mora, who was also his godfather. His father never capitalized on his talent, but instead lived a life of alcoholism and died at an early age of 48.
Like his father, Silva has an artistic side to him. His artistic side comes out in illustrations and in writing.His office windows are plastered with his artwork.
Silva’s mother played a major role in his redemption. She decided to flee her abusive husband and emigrated to the United States in 1980.
“My mother is fantastic. My mother lives here in California. She raised me, she saved my life many times and continues to do so. She’s the reason why I’m an English professor now. She’s the reason that I’m not in prison for the rest of my life or dead,” Silva said.
The family found themselves located in Westminster, California, where Silva spent his early years. With English being his second language, attending school was a challenge. The teachers didn’t care about his education so he dropped out of school in the ninth grade.
During the early years of his life, Silva began to experiment with drugs. At the age of 12, he started off his experimenting with marijuana. Two years later, Silva was introduced to crystal meth, and later even tried heroin. The life of gangs and drugs was a natural progression.
With not too many figures of guidance, Silva looked up to his cousin, who was involved in the gang life.
Silva had his first brush against the law at the age of 13, when he was charged for assault and battery after a prank gone wrong. That was the beginning of his criminal lifestyle as he constantly violated the terms of his probation by continuing with his graffiti and spent his youth in and out of juvenile halls.
“I got excitement. I got something to do every day, look forward to. Something to fight for. Something to believe in. More than anything, I found camaraderie with my friends. You have the same ideas. This idea of an organization make you belong to something. Everybody wants to belong to something and that’s what the gang brought,” Silva said.
His longest incarceration came at the age of 16, when he committed grand theft auto. It was at the Orange County Juvenile Hall, that an important seed was planted in his life forever. After one of his many fights, Silva was punished by being put into isolation for 30 days.
While in isolation, prisoners are stuck in a tiny, dark room for 23 hours of the day. For the other hour, prisoners are allowed to bathe and engage in recreation. During his isolation, his mother brought him the Mark Twain novel, “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.” Silva had never taken literature seriously and the book offered a new perspective on life.
“I got to experience what Tom Sawyer got to experience. That was the start of what would become my love for books,” Silva said.
Despite his newly founded insight when released from the juvenile detention center, he reverted back to his old ways. Having gone back to his neighborhood, the influence of his friends was far greater than that of literature.
On October 5, 1996, at the age of 17 Silva was shot. After taking part in a beer run at a local liquor store, the owner of the store came out of the store and shot Silva from behind. He woke up in the hospital three days later, paralyzed. When he got out, he was back on the streets but this time he was armed.
“I was immature and didn’t think about the consequences of being in a wheelchair. I didn’t begin to see the reality of it until I was 23 and in college,” Silva said.
At 18, he went back to jail. This time, for shooting a rival gang member. After being in custody for two days, his mother put the house up for collateral and bailed him out of the county jail. The case lasted two years until Silva decided to make a deal with the prosecution to serve twelve years in prison for being a gang member, causing great bodily injury and reckless discharge of a firearm.
The judge took it upon himself to suspend his imprisonment, instead sentencing Silva to five years probation on gang terms. Failure to comply with probation this time around would result in him having to serve all twelve years. In the two years that Silva spent his time fighting the case, his mother enrolled him into various colleges. After trying different schools, Silva enrolled in Cypress College
“I started going to school and doing well in my classes. I think the judge saw that I was trying to do good in life. Maybe seeing me in a wheelchair, he took that into consideration as well. I think those were some of the factors in not sending me to jail,” Silva said.
In college, an English professor named Christie Diep began to guide and mentor Silva. It was this mentorship that led Silva to want to play the same role in others’ lives. He went on to get his AA from Cypress College, his BA and Master’s Degrees from California State University of Los Angeles. After obtaining his Masters, he began tutoring at Cypress College.
His tutoring position then led to an adjunct teaching position at both Cypress and Orange Coast Community College. Silva was a professor for the Puente program, which introduced Silva to Carlos Centeno, an English professor at East Los Angeles College. The two met at a training for the Puente Club and Centeno was so intrigued by Silva’s radiant personality that he felt Silva would make a great professor at ELAC.
“He’s got a very outgoing personality. He’s very easy to talk to, he’s very approachable and I feel like he’s someone who is able to connect with students and can make them feel comfortable. I thought that he would be a great fit for our community. I felt like he would be a good person to inspire and motivate our students,” Centeno said.
When a vacancy was available, Centeno tried convincing Silva to apply for the position. At first his attempts were not successful. It wasn’t until a year after, that Silva decided to apply for the position.
Now, as a respected college professor, Silva spends his time as an educator and mentor for the students of ELAC. This semester, he founded the Writer’s Society, which is a club that was created by the students in his Creative Writing course. The club spends its time trying to revive an ELAC publication, “Milestone,” as a magazine under a new name, “The East Side Rose.” The publication is to offer students a chance to tell their own unique stories of the community.
The club recently held a “Drop the Mic” event in order to fundraise for the new magazine. The goal is to fundraise so that they can publish a few thousand copies.
“We chose rose because the stories will be the pedals of the rose. We envision that every year the book is out, the cover will have the rose somewhere embedded into it. It’s going to be voices of East LA that showcases the talent that (these) students have. Not only them but East LA, period, which is very cultured in art. You can’t go a block without looking at murals or seeing people perform on the street,” Silva said.
“I think that the stories that our students have are very powerful and moving, but they don’t always recognize the power of their stories. That’s why I think he’s such an important asset to our campus because in motivating students to tell their stories, he’s helping them recognize their value,” Centeno said.
Silva organized students and faculty to attend the “Zoot Suit” play. “The fact that he’s so open to exposing students to theater, I think is really significant. It comes back to the idea of him recognizing the value of stories and helps students realize the value of their own stories,” Centeno said.
“He moved students to open up about their old stories as well. He’s a very gifted story teller. I think that he’s a great role model because students see the way he teaches stories and I think they have something to emulate,” Centeno said.
Silva feels as if he relates to the students heavily. When students are facing issues outside of campus, he is able to offer some advice. He uses the classroom and subject material to bring out the life experiences of his students.
“I like to show them that this material is not too far from their own lives. In actuality, it is their life,” Silva said.
While teaching, Silva also works on a memoir about his late father.
“When he passed away, it was bittersweet. I was happy that he didn’t have to suffer anymore but I was sad because he was my father.
He also enjoys watching his community evolve. Silva brings up the case of Mendez v. Westminster, which was a case that ruled: it is unconstitutional to segregate Mexican American students into separate “Mexican schools.” The case was recognized as a major event everywhere but the city in which it took place.
In early May, city council members unanimously approved a proposal from Councilman Sergio Contreras. The proposal was to create a historic bike trail that would pass through the elementary school that played such a huge role in the case.
According to Silva, it was an idea that he presented to Contreras to commemorate the event.