Taking advantage of a second chance

Obed Silva, who was shot and paralyzed during a liquor store robbery, laughs with his mother, Marcela Mendoza. He now teaches writing at Cypress College. (Michael Robinson Chavez / Los Angeles Times)

Before this week, the last time I’d seen Obed Silva was in an immigration court in downtown L.A. On that day, he rolled his wheelchair to the witness box and explained to a judge why he shouldn’t be deported.

That was in 2009. 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. It was the errors of his youth — as a teenager he shot and wounded a man at an O.C. party — that led to the deportation proceeding.

Professors at his alma mater, Cal State L.A., testified in immigration court on his behalf. After I told his story in this column, even a conservative talk-show host said he deserved to stay in the U.S. And in December, the government agreed to stop the deportation proceedings against him.

After nearly four years of court dates and adjournments, Silva’s final appearance before a judge lasted only a few minutes, he recalled. “Next thing I knew, the judge said, ‘You’re free to go.’”

This week Silva and I met again, at his mother’s home in Buena Park. I’d come to see what he was doing with his second chance.

He’s teaching writing at Cypress College and tackling his own painful story in a book. Much of his manuscript is about another man born in Mexico, a heavy drinker who was deported many years ago, and who isn’t missed on this side of the border:

Obed’s father, the late Juan Silva.

Juan Silva was, as Obed writes, “an alcoholic, a drug-addict and a wife beater.” Juan Silva, aged 48 at his death, was one of those fraught men who live hard and leave a lifetime of wreckage in their wake.

“I came to this country to run away from him,” Obed’s mother, Marcela Mendoza, told me. Juan Silva was, by Mendoza’s account, obsessed with the family that had escaped him. Soon after they left, he followed them northward.

Sober, Juan Silva could be charming and generous. Once he showed up in L.A. and showered his small son with expensive presents. Another time he forcibly took Obed from his mother and then returned the boy a week later, admitting he was unable to take care of him.

“He’d become desperate when I got away from him,” his mother said.

Silva was not yet in grammar school when his father was arrested in Texas — for drug dealing, the family suspects — and deported from the U.S.

Once a talented painter, Juan Silva slowly drank himself to death back in Mexico, one 32-ounce bottle of Carta Blanca beer at a time, indulging in an alcoholic’s sense of his own grandiosity. Here in California, his son Obed was nearly getting himself killed on the streets of the O.C., armed and in search of the “glory” of a street “warrior.”

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