Making the Ugly Beautiful: A Conversation with Obed Silva

By James PennerApril 4, 2022

Making the Ugly Beautiful: A Conversation with Obed Silva
WHEN I WALKED into Obed Silva’s living room on a quiet Sunday afternoon, I was immediately struck by the robust and colorful paintings that adorn his walls. Silva is a gifted artist who is fond of painting iconic figures: Frida Kahlo, Cesar Chavez, and the Virgin of Guadalupe. Silva’s collection of art also features paintings by other artists. An untitled painting by Fabian Debora, a Los Angeles–based muralist, caught my interest. The painting depicts a Mexican mother holding an infant wrapped in brightly colored swaddling clothes. The mother is positioned in the foreground, her face is filled with fear and remorse. In the background, a male figure, his face bearing the skeletal motif of Día de los Muertos, gyrates in pain as he is shot in the back. As I observed this painting, I slowly realized that it was a highly symbolic rendering of Silva’s own brush with death as a teenager. At the age of 17, he was shot in the back at a liquor store in Buena Park and remains partially paralyzed and confined to a wheelchair. Although Silva is represented in the painting, the central figure is the mother figure, whose look of utter desperation emphasizes the weight of her sorrow.

"Untitled" by Fabian Debora

Debora’s Untitled, which mythologizes Silva’s near-death experience, also conveys his own aesthetic credo: the desire to create art out of suffering and “to make the ugly beautiful.” For Silva, artistic expression is wedded to the act of transcending reality, especially its most brutal consequences. His first book, The Death of My Father the Pope, published last December by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, is similar to Debora’s painting in the sense that it is grounded in memory and lived experience. At the beginning of his memoir, Silva attends his father’s funeral in Chihuahua, Mexico, wrestling with the question of what he has inherited from the man.

Juan Jesús Silva, Obed’s father, was a precocious artist who began an apprenticeship with Aarón Piña Mora, one of Mexico’s great postwar muralists, in the 1970s. After working closely with Piña Mora for many months, he fell out with his master because he lacked discipline and commitment; once his apprenticeship ended, he embarked on a slow and gradual descent into chronic alcoholism. As an adult, Silva visited his father in Chihuahua many times, trying to persuade him to stop ruining his life; however, his protestations were in vain, his father dying from cirrhosis of the liver and hepatitis C at the age of 48. At the beginning of the memoir, the author is reluctant to attend the funeral, but his mother convinces him: “You need to heal, and you can’t do that unless you forgive your father. It’s the only way you’re ever going to close those wounds.” When the author finally views his father’s withering corpse in a Chihuahua funeral parlor, he experiences a torrent of unexpected emotions: loss, regret, disappointment, and love.

The author as a child, with his father Juan Jesús Silva.

The Death of My Father the Pope is a masterful examination of the weight of patrimony; throughout the memoir, Silva meditates on the question of what he has inherited from his father. Like his father, he possesses a talent for painting and drawing, yet he desperately wants to reject the undesirable aspects of his inheritance: his father’s penchant for abuse, alcoholism, and self-destruction. Silva clearly loves his father, yet he also has to get him out of his system by writing about their fraught relationship. For the author, his memoir becomes a cathartic act and the only way forward.

The final chapter of The Death of My Father the Pope is uniquely disturbing. Silva lays bare an astonishing family secret that stopped me in my tracks: I thought I was reading a book about a son mourning his father’s death, but the final chapter taught me otherwise. When I finished the book, I was convinced that I had read a Chicano classic that will continue to speak to many generations of readers. The theme that resonated the most for me was the narrative’s unflinching critique of toxic masculinity and its intergenerational effects. Silva deconstructs society’s understanding of “strength” by juxtaposing his father’s and mother’s moral characters. Silva notes, “This woman who’d raised me all on her own without asking for anything from my father — not a cent — was showing me what real strength looked like. It wasn’t in muscles or in violence or in superiority; it was in meekness and humility, in simply saying I forgive you and moving on.”

The cover of "The Death of My Father the Pope" features Juan Jesús Silva's painting of the author as a young boy.

As I sat down to interview the author in his Whittier home, I was most interested in the question of how Silva discovered literature. Silva told me the story of his literary education, which began while he was incarcerated in Juvenile Hall; his mother would bring him carefully chosen classics to read: Twain’s Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables. Silva devoured these books, often self-identifying with the outcast figures who go against the grain and run away from respectable society. After Twain and Hugo, Silva eventually gravitated toward Russian writers: Chekhov and Tolstoy, and especially Dostoyevsky. “The Russian writers don’t pull any punches,” he told me. “Mainly they tell it like it is. I haven’t encountered any other writers from any other country that do what the Russian writers do. They just get to the spirit of the human condition and they express it so well.” For Silva, Dostoyevsky resonated the most: “I just feel that man went through his own suffering when he was almost executed and went into exile. When I read Dostoyevsky, I made all those connections — I was being deported and I [faced death] and almost spent the rest of my life in prison.” 

Through the experience of personal tragedy, Silva discovered how the act of reading books can be a means of transcending past experiences and the cycles of gang violence that often enveloped him during his teenage years. Most of all, he cites the influence of his mother: “She is my hero — if not for her, I would be dead or in prison.” She never lost faith in her son and even mortgaged her home to cover his bail money. Her undying love for him will be the subject of the second volume of Silva’s memoirs, In the Hands of My Mother, which will also be published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux in the coming years. 


JAMES PENNER: I think it’s safe to say you’ve had a very dramatic life — being in a gang, getting shot, being partially paralyzed, being incarcerated. If these events had not happened, do you think you would have been a writer?

OBED SILVA: Definitely not. You know, I’ve had that question before, but it’s been phrased, “Do you regret what you’ve done?” And, of course, I do. You know, of course I do regret the things I’ve done, more so because of my mom, the misery and suffering I’ve put her through. Would I have become a writer? No, I don’t think so. Would I have become a painter? No, I don’t think so. Being in a wheelchair, I’m in pain every day. People don’t see it. My back and my body hurt. You know, every day I live with the pain. Do I wish I could walk? Absolutely. Who would want to be in a wheelchair all their life? Would I change it? Maybe I would because I want to walk. You know, I want to feel my legs. It’s a tough question: would I be here with the book? No, I don’t think so. Would I exchange the book for my legs? Probably, yeah. That’s why I don’t like that question because you can’t change what’s happened. You’ve got to live with it. I guess the proper answer for that is: “Try to make the ugly beautiful,” and I guess that’s what I try to do with the book. I try to make art out of it — out of the suffering.

When I was reading your memoir, it felt like a kind of extended confession in many respects. It reveals many private and intimate details. Do you find confession liberating? Is it liberating to put your pain and suffering on paper?

Yeah, I think so. I’ve never thought about it in those words, but I think so. Most people tend to hide their feelings, they hide who they really are. They hide behind a facade. I tend not to do that. Not purposefully. I think that’s just how I am. My mom is very frank. It is to the point that she could hurt you and she won’t realize that she’s hurt you. It’s because she’s telling you the truth. You ask her questions, she’s going to tell you the exact truth, whether you like it or not. And I think I’m like that in some ways, but different in the sense that I don’t take life or the issues that come with life too seriously. If I’m dying. I try to make light of it. I feel that it just comes natural to me to just lay it all out there. You know, people can judge and they can come to their own conclusions. Confession is liberating because now nobody can criticize you. They know who you are. They know what to expect. This is what you get. I’m not hiding anything. It’s all laid out there for you. And I feel that not confessing prevents a lot of people from living life to the fullest. They just keep all these secrets, and all of their emotions hidden from society. Yes, I think it is absolutely liberating.

Along those lines, were you ever worried about what you should disclose in your memoir? Were you worried that some family members or friends might not like what they read or how they are portrayed? 

You know, that’s probably my biggest concern even right now. And I even thought of shutting down my Facebook page because family members might be really angry. I didn’t hear this directly from Luis Rodriguez, but a friend of mine told me that Luis Rodriguez says, “When you write a book, you betray your tribe, or an author betrays his tribe” — something along those lines. And that really stuck with me. And today, that’s what helps me justify what I say in my book. You betray your tribe. And it’s true because you’re telling the truth and people are going to get hurt. But it’s the truth. I have no other way of putting it. I’ve got to tell the story the way I know the story. And by the same token, I also feel that I don’t only tell the truth about them. I also tell the truth about myself. I mean, the end of my memoir tells it all. I can only tell the truth — if people get upset about that, so be it.

Speaking of the issue of disclosure, your memoir also includes some pretty explicit activities: buying and snorting cocaine, hard drinking, an encounter with a Mexican prostitute. I feel these uncensored moments give the book honesty and authenticity. Some readers might not be so generous, however. How should a writer approach taboo and politically incorrect subjects?

Yes, there were some things I had to cut out of the book. You know, my greatest reader and mentor has been [Los Angeles–based novelist and journalist] Héctor Tobar. Héctor was the second person I showed the manuscript to after he wrote that profile on me in the Los Angeles Times when I was being deported. Hector said, “So, Obed, you really put everything out there,” and he’d always tell me, “Obed, what would ‘mature Obed’ say about this [particular scene]?” And that became very important to me. I thought to myself, “Mature Obed, who the fuck is that?” And he goes, “Okay. Think about it. This all happened when you were a young man. Would the man of today do that kind of thing?” “Probably. But I get it — right. Okay.” So, what would mature Obed say about the young Obed? For instance, the moment with the prostitute, right? Young Obed sees her as a “hooker,” but mature Obed sees her as a woman who has to do what she has to do in order to survive. Is there something wrong with that? Not to me. We all do things to survive, and that’s what she does to survive. How I describe things is something I worry about and it is something I take into consideration, but at the end of the day, it’s the truth that matters.

From Philip Roth to Alice Walker, many writers have been criticized for exposing the so-called “dirty laundry” of their respective communities. What do you say to readers who argue that you make Mexican Americans look bad because you write about alcoholism, domestic violence, drug abuse, etc.?

Well, I don’t think so. I am writing about myself. I don’t think I make Mexican Americans look bad. Shit, I wrote a book that should make Mexican Americans look good! Not only am I capable of writing a book, but I also put myself within a great community of writers — Dostoyevsky, Hugo, Tolstoy, Chekhov, Octavio Paz — all of them are in my book. And I did that purposefully. And I did it in a way to say, “Hey, I could, you know, throw hooks with the best of them, too. I’m not saying I’m on the level of this group, but I’m a scrapper and I can get in the ring with you.” I may lose, but I got in there. I understand where the question is coming from because I do critique Mexico. But alcoholism, I mean, what about Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes? And, you know, alcoholism isn’t just a problem that affects Mexicans. Alcoholism is universal. When I got my DUI and went to AA classes, most of the people I saw were white.

It just so happens that I am Mexican and my father as well, and, you know, the story takes place mostly in Mexico … I also think that “criticism is a form of love.” I mean, Héctor critiqued my book. You can do two things with criticism: you can take it and do nothing and just fold into yourself and cry. Or you can take that criticism and better yourself. And this is something I tell my students. If I didn’t I love my country, I wouldn’t criticize it. I love my homeland. Look at my belt buckle. I wear it everywhere. It’s the Mexican flag. I criticize myself because I want to be better.

I was really impressed by the overall tone of your memoir. It deals with emotional subject matter, yet it never feels overwritten or over the top. Was this an issue for you? Were you worried about being too emotional on the page? How do you approach the issue of finding a balance or an equilibrium when you are writing? 

I don’t know the answer. I just write. Like I tell my students in my creative writing class: write from the gut — write from the darkest, most fucking ugly part of yourself because that’s where all the strength in writing comes from. I also tell my students, if a book or a movie doesn’t make you cry, it probably wasn’t a good book, right? So, I don’t know if I’m over-emotional in there, or too sensitive. I think you have to be sensitive. I think you have to be emotional. It’s like in Octavia Butler’s book Parable of the Sower. The little girl has “hyperempathy”: it’s where her emotions are amplified and she feels everything around her. That’s the way I look at it: if you’re going to be a writer, you’ve got to feel, man, you’ve got to feel everything, you’ve got to feel the suffering, you’ve got to feel the happiness, you’ve got to feel it all and lay it all out in the book.

So, I understand you’re already working on the second volume of your memoir. Can you talk about how it will be different from the first volume?

Well, it’ll be different in the sense that this one is a redemption story. It’ll have a brighter ending. Well, actually, I don’t know if I can say at the end of my next book: “I am sober and my life is fantastic. Everything’s great.” I don’t know if I can do that, but I know it’s a redemption story in the sense that I’m an English professor, I’m a writer, I’m a painter. So, in that sense, it’s a redemption story. I’m not a gang member. I’m not committing violence. I’m not hurting people. And this volume is a story about my mother, really. I mean, the title of it is In the Hands of My Mother. She’s going to be the hero of the story. If not for her, I’d be dead or in prison. That’s it. And that’s what this book reveals. And it’s going to be an immigrant story. My mom was an immigrant. Her first job was picking celery and tomatoes in the fields in Irvine before Irvine was what it is now. Every time I drive past all those tall buildings, I think how it used to be fields — just vast fields of celery and tomatoes and strawberries. And now I see my family picking in those fields. I did, too — as a kid, they used to bring us as children. You know, we didn’t have babysitters. So, yeah, the immigrant story, a redemption story, a mother-son relationship story. So that’s how it would be different.

Do you ever imagine your father reading this book and what would his reaction be? Would he be proud of you?

Damn, James. That’s a good question, man. I think he would be happy. He’d be happy — as ugly as I paint him. I think he would grab me by the neck and give me a kiss. He’d say, “No te quiero, te amo!” “Quiero” means “like” and it’s also interchangeable with love in Spanish, but “te amo” means “I love you to death.” And he would often say that to us. He would be proud. I don’t think he would want me to change anything, not even the last chapter. Yeah, he would be happy — happy and drunk.


James Penner is the editor of Timothy Leary: The Harvard Years (2014) and the author of Pinks, Pansies, and Punks: The Rhetoric of Masculinity in American Literary Culture (2011).

LARB Contributor

James Penner is the editor of Timothy Leary: The Harvard Years (2014) and the author of Pinks, Pansies, and Punks: The Rhetoric of Masculinity in American Literary Culture (2011).


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