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“The Death of My Father the Pope,” Obed Silva’s debut, is a memoir about his own struggles with violence and addiction growing up in Chihuahua, Mexico and later in Los Angeles, CA, as he processes the life and death of a father from whom he inherited deep alcoholism and psychological wounds. An abusive, larger-than-life figure, whose talent for painting was never fully realized, Silva’s father is portrayed by the East Los Angeles College professor in both his worst and best lights. At the same time, as Silva relates his father’s story and his own, including details about Silva’s seven brushes with death–one of which has left him paralyzed for life–the author also provides insight into the transborder existence of so many who live along the United States’ southern border with Mexico.
On this week’s “Scheer Intelligence,” Silva joins host Robert Scheer to talk not just about his memoir but how literature saved his life in more ways than once.
“I’m able to see these similarities between my life and the characters [in books such as ‘The Brothers Karamazov’ or ‘The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn’],” says Silva. “When I read these books, I take that information and apply it to my life. [To me] there’s nothing in [a] self-help book that isn’t in a Dostoyevsky novel or a Victor Hugo novel, or Don Quixote de La Mancha.”
In a poignant moment, Scheer opens up to Silva about his own past struggles with alcoholism, highlighting how the author’s book, while deeply personal, is also profoundly universal in its themes. Silva also tells Scheer about his father’s missed opportunity to become a professional painter after the famed Mexican muralist Aarón Piña Mora took him under his wing. Ultimately, says Silva, addiction was stronger than his father’s drive to paint, leading him to pursue a career as a plasterer rather than as a visual artist.
Listen to the full conversation between Silva and Scheer as they discuss paternal love and loss, as well as immigration, liberal arts, and Silva’s mother, a bright spot in the author’s life.
Natasha Hakimi Zapata
RS: Hi, this is Robert Scheer with another edition of Scheer Intelligence, where the intelligence comes from my guests. And not just intelligence; incredible life experience. This is a memoir, and the title is The Death of My Father the Pope, a memoir by Obed Silva. And it’s a memoir of an incredible life that succeeds, in my view, on a number of levels. I mean, first of all, the memoir itself: a life that begins when you’re one year old or in infancy, taken across the border, and you’re in the United States, and then you end up being separated from your father and all that sort of thing. And you end up getting involved with gangs, you end up getting shot. You’re paralyzed; you’re now in a wheelchair, you also end up shooting someone after. And out of that chaos, you end up graduating from college. You credit your teacher at the community college, and then you go on to, I guess it’s Cal State L.A. And now you’re a professor of writing in, what is it, East L.A. College—is that the same as Cal State L.A.?
OS: No, they’re two different colleges. East Los Angeles College is a community college, and Cal State L.A. is a state university.
RS: And you’ve come out with this book, which you started writing when you were 30. And I just want to say, I mean, I don’t do too many—well, it’s a political book, but it’s a life story. And I’m not a great expert on literature or anything, but I just would commend this book, let me just say right off the bat. I’ve been reading it for the last 10 hours, and it’s an incredible read. And I guess you teach writing. And so I want to just mention a few things of why it’s so important. As a memoir, it’s compelling, and you get into all sorts of issues of life on the border with Mexico; you go, the book takes place half in Mexico, your family’s native village, going back for the funeral of your father, and half basically here in L.A.
And so it deals with this hot-button issue of immigration and the border, and your own encounters with the border. But it’s a story about a relation to a father that—I don’t know, I’m a father and a grandfather, and while I think I’m a much kinder character than your own father, I must say there were things that you, when you described your father I wondered whether they apply to me. And so I took it as a kind of, a real insight into the whole father-son relationship. And in this case your father had his appeal, but he also had a very strong dark side, which you describe.
And the other thing is, the issues that you describe here are universal. You know, and you refer—one of the great strengths of this book, and it’s mentioned, oh, by all sorts of famous people on the back of your book: Héctor Tobar, one of the leading writers we have around here, and Father Greg Boyle and others. These are—you’re able to quote Russian literature, French literature, world literature, to enlighten us about these problems because the problems are universal. Not just father-son, but the whole range of social problems and the relation of the individual.
And finally, I want to make a point where I feel connected. I’m an alcoholic; I haven’t had a drink, I’ve been sober for about I guess 20 years now. But I know the curse of alcohol. And aside from everything else that’s important about this book, as an examination of what alcoholism is all about, it’s probably the most significant work that I’ve ever read. And this is an issue that I have struggled with. And so I would commend it on any one of these levels. But let me just let you begin by giving your take on why the book, and how did the pope get in the title? At first I thought your father would be from a traditional Mexican Catholic family, but he was actually a Jehovah’s Witness. And you really use the pope in a—well, tell us why: The Death of My Father the Pope.
OS: Yeah, ah, that’s the question that always arises when I tell people about the book, when they learn about the book. But the pope came about because my father and I, we were on very bad terms before he passed away, and our relationship was very tumultuous. And we often fought, and often it was because of his alcoholism. And on a day after a big fight, while we were driving to his wife’s house in Chihuahua, toward the airport, we passed a wall whereupon was the mural of John Paul II, the pope. And he’s waving at the passersby as they go to the airport—sort of like, you know, wishing the passengers well and safety. And on this particular day I saw the pope and, you know, it’s an image that we would see all the time going to his wife’s house. But on this particular day I cursed the pope, because it just annoyed me that he was there, all happy and waving and things of that nature.
And so I said out loud, pinche papa, which in English translates to “effing pope,” right? And my father, who was driving, thought I was speaking to him. And so he turned and he asked me why I said that to him, and then I said that I wasn’t talking to him, that I was talking about the wall, the mural on the wall. And everybody in the car laughed. Because his wife was in the car, and my brothers and sisters were in the car as well. So it became a joke. So it’s not that my father was an actual pope or anything close to that, as I explain in the book. But he became more of a caricature of the pope, right? Although I do make a comparison and draw similarities between sins that had been committed by the Church and sins that had been committed by my father. And in those two ways, I do pretty much align them together. But that’s where the term comes from, my father the pope. Because after that we just called him El Papa every time he walked into the house.
RS: Well, not to be a spoiler here about the book, but you have at points very flattering descriptions of your father; he was a talented artist, although he never made a living at it; he was actually a house painter. But you mention a very famous Mexican artist that he worked for and studied under, and we could discuss that a little bit. There are warm moments, like when he takes you fishing. And you know, it’s a complex family you introduce us to. But it gets very dark, and at one point you want your father killed, or you certainly want his face busted up, and you talk to some hoodlums you once ran with to do the job. So it has—you know, it goes the extremes. And at the end, you’ve kind of got a confession: you talk about the good, the bad, and the ugly about your father, but you also talk about yourself. So why don’t you—in the book you introduce yourself, so give us basically the high points of the memoir.
OS: Yeah. Well, you know, just as you say, the way I describe my father, it’s almost Machiavellian in that he gives you love with one hand, but then he takes away that love or harms you with the other hand. And a lot of that is because of the alcoholism, right; when he’s sober, he’s a great man, he’s a kind father, he’s caring, he’s loving. He comes and kisses his sons on the cheek; he takes us fishing, as you said; he takes us to various water parks and things of that nature—does things that a father should do. However, he was drunk more often than he was sober. So we got to see a lot of the cruelty that comes with alcoholism and the way people behave, especially fathers towards their family. And so, you know, to be fair, I said well, if I’m going to describe my father in this way, and be honest about my father, then I’ve got to be honest about myself, too. And so that’s why I express what I express in the book: that I, too, am two people. I’m a professor; I am an author now; I am also a painter. And, you know, I’m very charismatic, I’m very sociable; people tend to like me. But at the end of that spectrum, on the other end of that spectrum, is you know, I’m an alcoholic as well. And I still drink, I’m still fighting it, I’m still trying to sober up. But just like my father, who had his ugly side, I have my ugly side—although I’m not violent towards women, I’ve never hit a woman or anything like that, I’m not married—
RS: Well, you shot a rival gang member.
OS: Yeah, but that wasn’t due to alcoholism. That was due to, you know, being in that life, per se. But back to the alcoholism, which is what I explain in the book, you know, there have been times when I’m out at night drinking, and I’ll end up on the floor in the middle of the street at midnight, and strangers have to pick me up. Or when I wake up in the morning in my own urine on the floor. You know, those ugly things. Or I’m at a bar eating, and I have food all over my clothes because I have no sense of self. So that’s what I express in the book towards the end, when I bring myself into it.
RS: Well, let me say something about your own journey here. Father Greg Boyle, who is somebody I have enormous respect for, and he’s worked with people who have been in gangs and been in prison probably more effectively than any other individual that I know of. And he says, “Obed Silva’s memoir is a magnificent and poignant achievement. Weaving the great literary giants throughout this narrative, Silva brings us a rich and luminous excavation of the father wound, of the contours of death and the sure triumph of love.” Well, I don’t know about the sure triumph of love; there’s a lot of misery in this journey of yours. You know, you’re only, what, now, 42?
OS: That’s right.
RS: And that’s an incredible life. And you’re going to be in a wheelchair for the rest of your life, right? You had a bullet go through your spine—
OS: That is correct.
RS: And you know, and in the book, you know, you show an impatience with a lot of other people who are kind of faking—oh, yeah, everything is fine, only it isn’t fine. Wives get beaten, you know, people get robbed; a guy picks you up in the airport and tells you a wonderful story about the people he works for as a gardener, but he has stolen the things he’s showing you as if they were gifts. And you know, your—one does not emerge from this book thinking we’ve got a lot of wonderful people out there. The most wonderful person, consistently, is the figure of your mother.
OS: Absolutely. And who is the one that is most absent from the book as well.
RS: Yeah, you discuss that at the very end. But she’s there. And she’s the one that saves you; she saves you from long prison, 12 years in prison, right.
OS: That’s correct.
RS: She intervenes. And you have others; you have a couple of sisters that you’re kind about, and a couple of neighbors. And why don’t you tell us about the painter who so influenced your father and his work, and his significance in Mexican culture?
OS: Yeah, ah—well, Aarón Piña Mora, he was a famous muralist, one of the greater muralists of Mexico, from Chihuahua, from the city that we’re from. And he was actually godfather to my uncle Trini, who is also in the book and who, you know, sadly just passed away a couple of months ago, due to a drunk driving accident where he technically killed himself. But he was, Piña Mora was his godfather, but Piña Mora saw that my father had a talent—
RS: Could you spell his name so people can look him up?
OS: Yeah, it’s—well, his first name is Aarón, A-A-R-O-N, so Aaron, and last name is Piña Mora, and it’s two words: P-I-N—like the n with the little accent over it—A, and then Mora, M-O-R-A. Aarón Piña Mora.
RS: And your father worked for him, and he recognized your father’s talent, right? But your father never picked up on it. That’s one of—one of your distinctions in the book, you know, some people take the hand they’re dealt with and do great things. And you’re an example of surviving; you’re now a respected professor, you even teach in a tie, I teach over at USC and I don’t know if I own a tie that will work there. But you know, you’re one of the heroes, although you—
OS: Well, I’m not sure I’d consider myself a hero, but I do what I can to not follow in my father’s footsteps, for sure.
RS: Yeah, and your father had real talent. I mean, you know, what’s so fascinating about this book is your sense of human complexity. And you know, here’s a father you’d like to see dead; on the other hand, two paragraphs away, you’re kind of giving him great praise for things that were great about him. A lot of people admired your father, and this great painter thought your father was really talented.
OS: Yeah, he certainly did. He thought so highly of him that he moved my father and my mother and myself into his home, in a very rich area of Chihuahua. And my mother and my father lived there, I don’t recall for how many years, but I know it was only a couple of years. And during that time my father, all he had to do was wake up in the morning, go to the studio, and paint with Piña Mora, and he’d be instructed throughout the entire day. And all my mom had to do was pretty much take care of me and take care of the house. But my father, you know, he didn’t have the discipline. And he just didn’t want to go through with his artistic talent, or to refine it, because he preferred to drink. So drink was always his curse; it’s the thing that kept him from advancing as an artist. And you know, even as a—he wasn’t a painter, he was a plasterer; he worked with yeso. So he worked a lot in construction; he did a lot of other stuff, but he was very artistic in doing that as well, because he had a lot of following in Chihuahua; people came and sought him for his work. Because he did wonderful work for homes that other people just couldn’t do. So even though he never became a painter, like a muralist or a portrait artist, it reflected in his work in construction and as a plasterer.
RS: This is your father, not his mentor.
OS: No, that’s my father, sure.
RS: So look, you know, it’s hard for me—and the book is so compelling because there’s—you went through a life of chaos, of madness, of pain. And not just you; your siblings. And this is probably a more typical human story of migration and suffering out there that we paper over. So just take us through your journey. This is, after all, a memoir. And in the book you mention seven encounters with death, but I mean, god, you’re only 42 years old and it’s like you’ve lived seven lives, you know?
OS: Yeah. Yeah—oh, you know, I get teary-eyed just thinking about that, and I get goosebumps. Because it’s so true. Ah, you know, my suffering, most of it came from being involved in gangs and gang activity, and causing havoc in the streets. You know, being incarcerated; that’s very painful, it’s very stressful, it bears difficult on the mind. But the biggest suffering, or the most suffering I’ve had to endure, was from being shot, and being left paralyzed and having to live out my life in a wheelchair. Although I do a pretty good job at it. People, you know, when they see me, they don’t see the suffering, they don’t see anything of that; they don’t see the pain that I constantly live with. They just see the happy Obed Silva, the happy professor who’s always smiling. So that was, you know, the biggest and closest encounter I’ve had with death.
The other encounters I’ve had with death, they’ve come as a result of drug overdoses, whether it was from methamphetamine, cocaine, or you know, some other reason that my body was being affected by alcohol or the drugs. And in one particular case, after a long week binging on alcohol and cocaine and Vicodin, I was constipated, and I couldn’t go to the bathroom. And fortunately—and I say fortunately; it’s ironic, because I was overdosing on the drugs, and I had to go to the emergency room. And while there, they discovered that I had gangrene in my intestines. So they had to perform emergency surgery, and they cut out a foot of my small intestine and reconnected it. And the doctor said, Dr. Kim, he said: Son, you’re lucky, because had you not been overdosing on those drugs tonight, we never would have caught the gangrene, or you probably never would have caught it, and you would have been dead within a week. So I was grateful for that.
But again, you know, drug addiction and alcoholism, you would think that those encounters would prevent me from continuing to indulge, but it’s hard. Right, as we see across the country today with young people who are addicted to pills, or other drugs like heroin or that new drug fentanyl. And a lot of people, unfortunately, are passing away at a very young age because of that. And I’m lucky that I didn’t pass away.
RS: Well, more than that, though, you were able to develop an interest in literature. And throughout your book there are these exquisite, you know, highly illuminating, relevant references to Dostoyevsky and, you know, Shakespeare, and—I mean, take us through that. I mean, you—you’re not teaching a sociology class on gang violence. You’re introducing your students at a community college to the highest level of literature. I assume in your teaching you’re doing what you do in your book: you make that high level of literature relevant to understanding the human condition.
OS: Sure. And you know, I can say that in large part, literature and writing is a reason why I’m still here. Because even though I’ve had those encounters with death, I’ve always had literature to fall back on. You know, and Victor Hugo says, “Books are cold but sure friends.” Right, and so in my worst days or nights, I’d just go pick up a book. You know, and Dostoyevsky and Victor Hugo, they’re just my top favorite. And they’re my favorite because my mom introduced me to those writers very early on in my life, even though I didn’t really care much for them early on, because I didn’t really understand the power of books. Until I was shot; until I had shot the other gang member, and until I was being charged with attempted murder and facing a life sentence.
And my mom said to me, look, son, this book here—and I’m talking about Les Misérables by Victor Hugo—she said, this book is about you. And I looked at that book and I saw how thick it was, and I’m like, what? No way. And she told me, she encouraged me: read it, and you’re going to see what I’m talking about. And it took me a while before I accepted her offer, but finally I said, OK, I’m going to read it. And once I started reading that book, I understood exactly what she meant when she said that that book was about me. She saw me as Jean Valjean in that book; and Javert she saw as the district attorney who was trying to put me away forever. Because the district attorney that was prosecuting me as an adult had also been the district attorney who had prosecuted me as a youth. It just so happened that when I committed that crime, she got promoted to adult court, or something along those lines. So she was really fighting hard to put me away. Although she did show some leniency toward the end of the court proceedings. But yeah, but that’s where that comes from: from my mother, and from her love of reading, and you know, just the value that she has for it.
RS: Is she still alive?
OS: Yeah, my mother’s still alive, she was with us at the book launch last night, I presented her, and everybody gave her a standing ovation. You know, my mom has this wonderful smile that just lights up the room. So she was there and she graced us with her presence, and it was very lovely. I mean, at least to me; it made me cry.
RS: She’s a great survivor. Because in your book—I mean, she’s the person that’s abused by your father, right?
OS: That’s correct.
RS: You were witness to it. And describe that. Look, the book is called The Death of My Father the Pope. We’re not going to do it justice in this time frame. But I’m going to tell you, this is a beautifully written book, and it’s profound.
OS: Thank you.
RS: It is a truly profound work. And because it’s so illuminating, it’s not depressing. It is a reality check on the human condition, and on these things that we treat like headline issues, like gang violence or immigration or what have you. You know, alcoholism—we treat them as kind of headline issues, but they’re complex. And what you do is you sort of tear people apart. The same father that took you fishing, and you loved him—and you do love; there’s love of this monster father of yours, there’s love in that book—he’s the one that attacked your mother.
OS: Right, yeah. Ah, as an adult, I never saw him attack my mother. I mean, me as an adult. When I saw him—and I actually never—
RS: He attacked your brothers, but not you.
OS: Yeah, he—well, I think me being in a wheelchair played a part in that. Had I been able to walk, we probably would have gone head-to-head, my father and I. But yeah, early on when I was a child, I never saw my father hit my mother directly, but I would see my mother with the black eyes or with the sunglasses, right. And it was no secret to anybody in the household at the time that she wore sunglasses because her eyes were black-and-blue because my father had hit her the previous night. Although I did witness a more horrible thing that my father was doing to my mother in the bedroom, and I was trying to hide and not listen to what was going on. And I don’t want to get into that, because it’s—
RS: Well, it’s in the book—
OS: Yeah, it’s in the book, but—
RS: It’s a compelling scene in the book, yes.
OS: Yeah, ah—so never directly did I see my father hit my mom. But I knew that he did. But you know, my mom being the strong person that she is, she decided enough is enough, and by the time I was three or four she decided to divorce him, and she did. And the reason we came to the United States was because my mom was running away from his wrath. And it was for no other reason; it wasn’t for economic purposes, it wasn’t for her trying to find a well-paid job or anything like that. It was because she was trying to get as far away from my father as possible—although he did follow her over here for a certain time, but then, you know, he got the message and he went back to Mexico and never returned.
But as an adult, you know, I started—I would visit my father, in the wheelchair now, and during those last years of his life I just saw him pretty much unmask himself. Because every time I would go to Mexico as a kid, during the summers that my mom would send me over there to be with him, he was always the kindest man. Loving man towards me, gave me everything that I wanted, you know, just cherished me, showered me with love and kisses. So I never got to really see the person he was when he was under the influence of alcohol or drugs—until I became and adult and started visiting him as an adult. He just—he just couldn’t hold it anymore. He couldn’t wait a week to drink, right, for me to leave and then him to start drinking. He just said, eff it, and would just start drinking in my presence, and from there all of the problems and violence would start.
RS: You know, but it’s interesting. It didn’t stop you from—you know, it’s funny; my father was quite the opposite of your father as far as temperament. You know, he had a temper, but I hold my father up as one of the greatest human beings I’ve ever met. But you know, he was German, and they had beer with all their meals, and then they went out and played ball and had beer, beer, beer. And yet I got into—and I wouldn’t say my father was an alcoholic; some of my uncles certainly were—but I became an alcoholic through journalism, because it was so easy, so conventional, legal and all that. And reading your book, you’re an alcoholic.
OS: That’s correct.
RS: I’m not your [Laughs] your confessional here in AA. But you’re an alcoholic. And yet, so the example, the horrible example of your father didn’t stop you.
OS: Yeah. And you know, that’s—that’s what I try to express through the book. It was almost like an examination that I was trying to do in writing the book, because what I was trying to get at was, how is it that a son can be so much like the father, even when the father is not present? And that’s what I was trying to establish, that’s what I’m trying to establish in the book: how does this happen? And you know, there’s research out there that shows that if you’re a child of an alcoholic, you’re predisposed, probably, to be an alcoholic. It’s in the genes. So I’m pretty sure that’s where I get my alcoholism from.
However, on the other side of that coin is my mother, right? Alcohol hasn’t taken me to the extreme to be violent towards other people while intoxicated, or anything like that. And I think it’s because my mother has provided that balance. And it’s a tough balance, because as you say, I’m an alcoholic; I drank last night at my book launch. I woke up this morning feeling guilty because I did so. And again, promising that I wouldn’t drink again. But you know, as the Little Prince says in the book The Little Prince, you know, the alcoholic drinks to cover his shame, and then wakes up ashamed that he was drunk, and then he drinks again, and it’s just a whole circle.
RS: Well, call me before you have your next drink. I’ll try to talk you out of it. [Laughs]
OS: Thank you, I appreciate that. I really do.
RS: Hey listen, I want to—we’re going to run out of time, but I want to convey how deep this book is, and the range. And you know, on the one hand this book would succeed, [if] on no other level, just as, what’s really going on with our border? And the complexity of the U.S.-Mexico—we’re not going to have time to go into it. But you introduce us to both countries. And there’s one thing that struck me: you go out of your way to exhibit a kind of fawning, pro-America view. [Laughs] You know, wow!—sometimes I can’t tell whether you’re kidding or you’re serious, you know. [overlapping voices]
OS: Yeah, I think it’s a little bit of both. I mean, I completely love my mother land with all of my heart, but I recognize the issues that Mexico has; I recognize the problems that it has with the cartels and the poverty, with the corruption within the government. And I also recognize the blessings that I’ve had here in the United States, although at times, the United States itself hasn’t been very kind to me, or immigrants, or people that look like me. So it’s a little bit of both, right? I show appreciation, and I exalt the United States, absolutely, as a country that’s given me a lot. It’s given me a lot of opportunities; I mean, I wouldn’t be here with this book if I had stayed and lived in Mexico. I don’t know what would have happened had I been over there.
RS: By the way, I should mention, the book, The Death of My Father the Pope, a memoir by Obed Silva, is published by Farrar, Straus [and Giroux], one of the most distinguished publishing—you know, the publisher of Susan Sontag and others, Farrar, Straus and Giroux in New York. And it’s a high honor to have a literary work of this sort published by them. I would say right now it puts you in a high rank. And one of the people you refer to in your acknowledgment, as now you’re kind of a contemporary of his, is Héctor Tobar, who has written as you have, but he’s written longer, on the complexity of the U.S.-Mexican relationship, and of the populations that have gone across that border. And he says about your book, “In this wondrous memoir, the pain, the rage, and the fortitude of the Latino experience finds its full voice. Obed Silva fearlessly looks into the darkest corners of an immigrant family’s past, and creates a searing and unforgettable work of art.”
Now, that really caught my attention, because I come from a family of immigrants; Jewish-Russian on one side, my mother came over after the Russian revolution, my father came from Germany when he was 15, ran away from Germany, and I was raised among immigrants. And I loved them; I loved the experience and the wisdom. But I was always aware that it was a complex experience: don’t glorify the Bronx Jewish community or the Brooklyn German community. And there’s contradictions; there’s contradictions as far as religion and family and loyalty, and economics. One of the things you discuss very persuasively in your book is the economic class division in Mexico. And I think Héctor Tobar is paying you a high compliment. This is a “wondrous memoir,” but it’s maybe the best book you can read right now if you want to know what’s going on in our relations across the border. This is really a cross-border book, which you were crossing. And the scene that you have, where they want to deport you right there when you’re coming back from Mexico—because they looked the wrong way at the computers, and these guys are sitting there making you tell what happened and how you were shot and all that sort of stuff—is worth the price of admission.
OS: [Laughs] Right on.
RS: It really gives you a feel for that border. I covered that for the L.A. Times for many years, and it really gives you a feel of that reality. Your vulnerability, you’re suddenly there, your green card has been taken away—wait a minute, I got there when I was one year old, and suddenly you’re pulling the ground out from under me. And talk a little bit about that. Because after all, you got put on probation again, and could have faced time being involved in a civil rights rally against right-wing, anti-immigrant people going after Mexican “beaners,” right?
OS: Yeah, that’s right.
RS: So, what happened to that? You were home free, the judge had cut you loose, and now you go get busted on a civil rights thing?
OS: Yeah, that’s very true. And last night my lawyer was, my lawyer Victor Cueto who defended me on the attempted murder case, he was at the launch last night and he made it clear, he reminded me of that moment. I had barely gotten off probation the day before, when I attended that rally where—it was the Minutemen, the Minutemen project, they were holding a rally in the city of Garden Grove in Orange County in California. And I went with a group of students to protest, and you know, in mob mentality, I naively or ignorantly picked up rocks and started chucking ‘em—not at the police officers, but at the Minutemen who were on the other side of the fence. But the police, they witnessed me doing it, and they charged me with throwing rocks at the police officers themselves. Which was not the case, but that was the charge. And I got probation for three years again after that.
And I don’t—when I was coming back from Chihuahua, from visiting my father on the airplane, I was on probation, and I had been given permission, and I had a permission slip from my probation officer. So that helped, because I wasn’t traveling outside of the country without the permission of my probation officer; she very well knew that I was going to Mexico. However, when I came back through customs and they ran my information through the computer, you know, the computer revealed that I was a convicted felon who could be possibly deported. And so they took me to an interview room, and it was something like three, four hours, where they just—question after question after question. But you know, after like about 15, 20 minutes of telling them my story, it seemed like I was just, you know, a librarian reading a book to children. Because these two customs agents were really enamored by my story; surprised, shocked, in awe of it, you know, because I had been shot; I’d gone out and shot a rival gang member, but I didn’t go to prison. So they just couldn’t see, just couldn’t comprehend how all of those things could come together and I was still free.
RS: Yeah, they were enamored, but they still recommended that you be a candidate for deportation.
OS: Yeah. But you know—and they told me themselves, look, we could send you back to Mexico right now, but we’re not, because we kind of see, like a good guy now, right? You did all these things in the past, but that’s not who we see here in front of us.
RS: But it is an arbitrary system, and they could have easily just said, you know, kick him out.
OS: Oh, without a doubt. Absolutely, yeah.
RS: We’re going to run out of time, I could talk to you for hours, but you know, I want to get some radio stations, particularly KCRW, to run and keep in some time limits. But let me ask you a question, because liberal arts education is under attack. And you know, why do we need it, everybody should be a STEM student, and learn—which is fine; I studied engineering myself in much of my college years. But the fact is, reading your book, I came to really appreciate the role of literature in our education. And you have taken this discipline—you know, teaching literature, talk a little bit about it—but in the book, these are not just quotes, you know, oh, this guy knows Dostoyevsky. They’re meaningful; they’re powerful. And yet we’re talking about contemporary issues, we’re talking about contemporary life. How could Dostoyevsky be so revealing about what’s going on on the border with Mexico, or what’s going on with somebody like yourself, trapped between two cultures? And I think it’s, the book is—by the way, very well-written, and I’m not saying that in some condescending way; I’m just saying it shows that the study of great writers helps produce a new generation of great writers. And you know, the book has those marks. But it’s the way you weave it into the story. We go from a whorehouse in Mexico to Dostoyevsky—you know, boom, and it fits.
RS: So as a teacher, tell us the value of literature to your survival. Because you are now a professor, teaching writers that most people don’t even remember anymore, or have never read.
OS: Right. Well, you know, again, books are the reason that I’m here; books saved my life. The first book I ever read was while I was incarcerated and in solitary confinement for 30 days for fighting in a juvenile institution, and my mom brought me The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. And when I first saw the cover—
RS: This was when you were 13 or something?
OS: This was when I was 17. Yeah, 17 years old, and I was in juvenile hall. And she brought me The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and I looked at the cover of that book, and it was a little white boy, and it was like, the image was cartoonish. And I felt offended, because I thought, well, my mom must think I’m a child or something, giving me this book. But once I cracked it open and started reading it, I couldn’t put it down, because I saw myself [in it]. And I recognized the mischief that he got himself involved in. And then my mom brought me The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and I fell in love with Huckleberry Finn, because his father was an alcoholic; Huckleberry Finn was an outcast; his father was violent, was constantly after him.
So I’m able to see these similarities between my life and the characters in these books. And with Dostoyevsky, I mean, Dostoyevsky touches a lot on the father-son relationship; I mean, The Brothers Karamazov is all about the father-son relationship, and I think it’s Dmitry in that one who almost kills his father. And then with Les Misérables by Victor Hugo, that’s the first book that touches on social justice; it literally is. And so I’m able to, when I read these books, take that information and apply it to my life, almost like as if they were self-help books. Because when people come to me and they tell me, look, you should read this self-help book, it’s good for this or it’s good for that, I’m like, there’s nothing in that self-help book that isn’t in a Dostoyevsky novel or a Victor Hugo novel, or you know, even Don Quixote de La Mancha.
So you talk about liberal arts—you do away with liberal arts, you’re going to do away with good people. With creating good people. Because if we all just go to STEM, you know, we’re going to create a bunch of robots, and we’re already so connected to the grid and computers and social media, if there was ever a time when we need liberal arts, it’s now. More than ever, I believe, in my opinion.
RS: And so you’re teaching now in East L.A., right?
OS: That’s correct.
RS: What street, where is that?
OS: Ah, East L.A. College is actually in Monterey Park. It’s off the 60 Freeway and Atlantic.
RS: Yeah. But that 60 Freeway and Atlantic—I happen to go out there quite often now, and it’s a part of L.A. that most people don’t even know exists. They’ve heard, they go as far as Boyle Heights, you know, because it’s part of the legend of the city. But it’s really—but in your book, you actually extend this—I was really surprised, because I lived in Orange County for about 10 years—you actually found people that might live in East L.A. also living in Orange County. I mean, there’s been a breakdown—first of all, a lot of people work cleaning other people’s homes and everything. But you know, you—it’s really compelling to me that you, maybe you’re kind of a quintessential L.A. citizen, in a way. You know, when you think of what you’ve experienced, the different sides you’ve seen. And you know, I don’t know, maybe that’s a good point on which to end. But my feeling reading your book—you know, I’ve been close to the late Lawrence Ferlinghetti, I was very close to him. And he once wrote a very famous telegraph to Allen Ginsberg, after Ginsberg had sent him Howl. And he said, I greet you today on this launch of a fantastic career, or something like that. I feel like saying that to you.
OS: Oh, thank you. I appreciate that.
RS: I really do. This book—I thought, you know, OK, I’ll read it, and I’ll do something, and it’ll be mostly about immigration—no, it was about life. It was about life, and on every level. You know, your relation to your wife, your relation to your husband, your relation to your father, your relation to your culture. It is amazing that in your 42 years you’ve had this romp through, really, the whole life experience. So I greet you, and let me close on that, on the launch of what I expect to be an incredible writing career.
And so, OK, you heard it here. Go get the book. The book is called The Death of My Father the Pope, a memoir by Obed Silva. And I do want to tell people, just because it deals with a lot of important stuff doesn’t mean it’s not interesting. That’s the whole role of writing. You know, that’s what Professor Silva has been able to do here. He’s taken some really harsh worlds that we visit here, and he’s shown you the humanity. And there are, you know, positive, really impressive role models, obviously beginning with his mother. And it’s a story, really, of survival. Survival. And it’s also a story of things that can do us in that we all participate in, no matter our cultural, racial, gender background.
OS: That’s right.
RS: And I dare say, a little pitch for us teetotalers these days, alcohol—I’ve always, in my own personal experience, it’s an evil. Because it is socially condoned. And your book, I must say, if I was running AA or something, I’d make this required reading. But there it is. And so I want to thank you for doing this. I want to thank Christopher Ho at KCRW for posting these podcasts. Joshua Scheer, our executive producer, who got me to read this book and do this interview. Natasha Hakimi Zapata, who will write the introduction and is an editor here. Lucy Berbeo, who does the transcription. And the JWK Foundation in memory of writer Jean Stein for helping support these shows. See you next week with another edition of Scheer Intelligence.