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Judge holds the fate of a gang member-turned-Cal State L.A. scholar

As a teen, he sought glory in crime but found only trouble. Then literature helped turn his life around, and like Don Quixote, he keeps getting back on the horse.

February 03, 2009|HECTOR TOBAR

Juan Obed Silva loves literature that is very old. "The Canterbury Tales," for instance, or the 14th century Middle English poem "Piers Plowman." Now he's reading "Don Quixote," which happens to be one of my favorite books.

When I told him that he's got a little bit of that old Spanish "knight" in him, at first he didn't see the connection.

Obed, as his friends know him, is a convicted felon. He used to be a gang member, and during that time, he stubbornly placed himself in the path of danger too many times to count. For many years now, he's been in a wheelchair -- a constant reminder of poor decisions deep in his past.

"One thing that I have in common with Don Quixote is that there's always a price to pay," he said once he thought about it. More than a decade ago, Obed was shot and paralyzed while stealing beer from a convenience store in Stanton. A few months later, he opened fire from his wheelchair and wounded a gang rival. His teenage behavior was so reckless, "he should be dead," says Victor Cueto, his Santa Ana attorney and friend.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday, February 04, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 26 words Type of Material: Correction
Tobar column: A column in Tuesday's California section about a former gang member turned scholar said Juan Obed Silva attended Cyprus College. He attended Cypress College.

Instead, Obed, who turns 30 today, chose to reinvent himself. He found redemption in the glory of book learning. In November, he earned his master's degree in English at Cal State L.A.

"He has the wisdom and maturity of a natural scholar," said Michael Calabrese, a professor of medieval English at Cal State L.A. "He's destined to be a professor one day."

It's a destiny that could be derailed in a federal courthouse next week. On Monday, Obed will face an immigration judge who will decide whether he should be deported to Mexico, the country he left as a baby, for shooting his rival, a crime he committed when he was a teenager.

Obed is a legal U.S. resident. But even a green card holder can be expelled from the U.S. for a crime committed a decade or two or three earlier.

It's one of the many ironies of Obed's life that the 1998 crime for which he may be forced to leave the United States also marks the beginning of his transformation from gang member to English scholar.

Obed and his friends had run into a rival gang at an Anaheim house party. One thing led to another, and he took a gun and opened fire, striking a rival in the leg.

The Orange County district attorney's office charged him with attempted murder. With several enhancements for being a gang member and using a firearm, he faced a sentence of 50 years or longer.

It took the prospect of a half-century in prison for Obed finally to see he'd been chasing windmills.

"Knowing that I was going to have to go to prison in a wheelchair -- it was agonizing," he said, remembering the day of his sentencing. "It's almost like you exist but in another dimension, where feelings can't touch you."

Then he was rescued, by the most unlikely people. The prosecutor withdrew some of the charges against him and the judge announced a dramatically reduced sentence: just five years of probation.

It was a decision attorney Cueto calls "miraculous" and a "once in a lifetime" event. The judge had been moved, in part, by a probation report that described Obed as a young man of artistic temperament and said Obed had reconciled with a former gang rival and given him shelter because he was homeless.

As Obed left the courtroom in shock, the deputy district attorney in the case approached him. "The reason that so many people love you," she told him, "is that you have a lot of love to give."

Obed still can't wrap his brain around the idea that a prosecutor who had been intent on locking him up for decades could say such a thing. But the words stuck.

"For five years I stayed clean," he said. "And that's when I started going to school."

When I wander the Cal State campus with Obed, he greets just about everyone with his wide, infectious grin. They all seem to know him. He leads a campus book club and is passing on what he knows about life and literature to a small group of young people who admire his unusual combination of street cred and scholarship.

I've met him several times to talk about writing. He's told me his life story. "Both you and Don Quixote really love books," I observed. "And both of you got swept up by the idea of adventure."

Don Quixote read so many romance novels, he tried to enter their fantasy world. He dressed up as a "knight errant" and headed out into the Spanish countryside in search of glory. But he ended up getting knocked off his horse too many times to count.

Obed was 12 years old when he heard his friends and relatives in Westminster talk about the escapades of the local gangsters. He imagined the adventures he would have as a neighborhood "warrior."

"You know, you hear people say they joined gangs because they didn't have family or love around them," he told me. "That wasn't me. I had love. I had family."

"It was the excitement, the thrill, the stories" that entranced him, he said. "The stuff they did was glorified. I wanted people to tell stories about me like they told about them."

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