An East Side Rose: Professor Silva & the East LA College Writers' Society
By Mike Sonksen
Juan Obed Silva is a professor at East Los Angeles College (ELAC) and, increasingly, a beloved educational role model throughout Southern California. In a moving 2011 Los Angeles Times tribute titled “Taking Advantage of a Second Chance,” award-winning novelist, journalist and University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communications faculty member Héctor Tobar wrote: “Born in Mexico but raised in Orange County, Silva is a 32-year-old former gang member paralyzed from a gunshot injury who reinvented himself as a scholar.” Six years later, Silva’s journey continues to reflect redemption and triumph. The parallels to a path previously trod by author, human rights activist, youth advocate and former Los Angeles Poet Laureate Luís J. Rodríguez are unmistakable.
A nine-year teaching veteran–with the last three on the faculty at ELAC, Silva has also taught at Homeboy Industries, Cypress College and Orange Coast College. He has mentored Latino students across the Southland through the Puente Program and is active in the regional poetry scene. A recent reading with Rodríguez in the San Fernando Valley is just one example of commitments that have taken him from the UC Riverside campus to community-based Tonalli Studios gallery on Avenida Cesar Chavez in East LA’s Maravilla neighborhood. He is even featured in G-Dog, a documentary on Father Greg Boyle and his acclaimed gang intervention efforts.
Undeniably inspiring, Silva’s story is now complemented by the equally compelling narrative centered on the young writers who have organized themselves as the “ELAC Writers’ Society.” Founded by Silva, the student-led campus club publishes a literary journal called East Side Rose and hosts regular cultural events both on and off-campus. He helped found the Society last year, says Silva, as a way to channel the enthusiastic response to his Creative Writing classes among students.
As a creative writing instructor, Silva has achieved critical mass with his students. “Teaching at ELAC has been life-changing. This is where I am supposed to be,” he says. “The culture here is rich and the students are highly driven. And most importantly, I can relate to almost every one of them in one way or another.”
The camaraderie and chemistry in Silva’s class are evident on a Tuesday night in May as students read their responses to a writing prompt aloud and listen attentively to their classmates. Albert Romero, 52-years-old, is among them and eagerly describes being struck on the first day of class when Silva divulged his personal past. “Professor Silva related his story of how he came to be dependent on a wheel chair and how he became a serious student, college graduate and professor,” Romero says.
“He told us that his mother pleaded with him on countless occasions to become as passionate about reading as she was. I knew in my heart,” Romero confesses, “that I was going to be a better writer because at that moment I realized how this man’s contrasting misfortune and redemption, his confidence, his joy for life attitude and contagious enthusiasm for literature had transformed him into somebody bigger than life. His story is universal in a sense, and it had spoken to me like no one else’s.”
Silva has an uncanny ability to be both hilarious and deeply poignant at once. He embodies true humanism, and it is this quality that his students connect to. “This is what makes him such a great professor; he becomes an accessible and tangible example of a scholar and human being to all his students. He is the epitome of the phrases, ‘if you persevere you will succeed regardless of any possible obstacle’ and ‘there is time for work and there is time to play and neither has to be painful,’” Romero adds. “As for me… a way late bloomer, he has helped me reach the point… where I should have been 30 years ago.”
Silva’s road to what could easily be described as a “rebirth” began in juvenile hall. His mother, he recalls, emphasized even then the importance of literature and repeatedly expressed her love of reading. At first resistant, he reveals, he began to consider her counsel as he began turning his life around. Reading played a critical and direct role in his transformation, Silva points out. During his discovery of literature, he found solace in the work of writers like Victor Hugo, Miguel de Cervantes and Rodríguez, author of Always Running: La Vida Loca: Gang Days in L.A.
He also loved Tupac, and—once he went back to school—found Cal State LA professors Steve Texiera and Michael Calabrese, who encouraged him to write. Silva has since become closer to Tobar, who was kind enough to edit a few of his short stories. He is thankful, most of all, to his mother, who continues to motivate him, he says. He is also driven by the plight of undocumented immigrants who struggle to make a better life for their families and are now among those unjustly targeted by the Trump administration.
Determined to change his destiny after grave youthful mistakes, Silva earned an Associate of Arts degree at Cypress College and went on to Cal State LA for both his undergraduate and graduate studies. He finished with a Masters’ in 2008. “CSULA means the world to me,” he says. “The faculty there turned me into the literature and student-loving professor that I am today, especially Steve Texiera and Dr. Michael Calabrese. Steve taught me how to stay true to my people and Calabrese showed me my people in English medieval lit. How dope is that?”
Charisma, Clarity, Humanism
“Juan Obed Silva is the incarnation of courtliness and old school respect which he gives to others and which he earns dramatically,” effuses Dr. Calabrese in an email. “He is one of the most charismatic, kind, thoughtful and indomitably strong students I have ever had. He still holds the record for seven courses taken with me at Cal State… and… was… a sterling exemplar [of] grace, clarity and humanism in writing and in his class participation.” Calabrese’s observations emphasize the genuine honesty and kindness that have earned Silva love and admiration among those he has taught. They recognize their own struggles in his hard-fought climb to success, one that defies stereotypes and statistics that often stigmatize Chicanos.
An apprentice to master Mexican muralist Aaron Piña-Mora, his biological father was a brilliant painter, Silva concedes. Lamentably, the elder Silva was an alcoholic who ultimately chose drinking over his art. Inheriting his father’s creativity, Silva paints as well, but frowns on distraction. He refuses to be like his dad, and insists on uses his time wisely.
“Nothing’s worse than wasted talent. I want to leave something behind,” he says. When he is not teaching, meeting with his students or grading papers, Silva writes, draws and paints. But he is clear about his primary calling. “I am dedicated to helping my students transform their life,” he says finally. After a series of early transgressions, it is obvious he has embraced his second chance and the opportunity to demonstrate the transformational power of art.
The Writers’ Society
Through the ELAC Writers’ Society, Silva has been able to help his students spread their wings even further. Romero and the other Society members, exemplify Silva’s commitment to opening doors. “Being his student has meant that I will constantly learn from his endless knowledge of literature, but also on how to better myself in a way that helps to empower myself and the community,” says Christian Siguenza.
“I am challenged by him to read text that once seemed too difficult, to sit down and write of a past that sometimes is hard to revisit, to stand up in front of a classroom and read that paper that is so heavy with ink, pain, and tears, to stand in front of over 200 people and share what once made me feel weak but at the end… makes me feel stronger than I’ve ever felt before,” says Siguenza of Silva.
Ronie Townsend, a member who also serves as an East Side Rose editor, says that after studying with Silva and joining his Writers’ Society, she actually began enjoying school. “I’ve gained more pride in my writing,” she says, “and I began creating more of my own work rather than just reading others.”
She is excited “to be working on the literary magazine. Going through the process of reading all the submissions and editing along the way together. Having the chance to experience someone’s writing, raw and untouched, showing their vulnerability, is an honor to me.” According to Townsend, Silva has even influenced her career choice. “After college, I’m joining the Peace Corps to teach English,” she exclaims. “I plan on utilizing what I’ve learned and will learn with the club and pass it along to my future students, so it may improve their writing as it did mine.”
“As a son of a single mother who brought me here illegally at the age of one; as someone whose family, including my mother, has worked in the fields picking strawberries, celery, and tomatoes; as someone who is a former gang member and has been through the justice system; as a first-generation non-traditional college graduate; as someone who as a Mexican-American… I am able to see a part of me in every student that comes through my classrooms.”
For more information on East Los Angeles College Writers Society, email Obed Silva directly at: firstname.lastname@example.org. Mike Sonksen is an educator, a poet and one of the coolest Angelenos you'll ever meet. reach him at email@example.com.