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Using Marcel Marceau’s pantomime to greet the Kumeyaay

Rumors of my extinction

Silvas looks out over beach where Portola expedition first met Kumeyaay in 1769.
Silvas looks out over beach where Portola expedition first met Kumeyaay in 1769.

“I realized I was a comedian when I was 10 years old,” says Abel Silvas. “My dad wanted me to continue the tradition of our Mission Indians, and become a violinist. So he brought me a violin, and I was inducted into the all-district orchestra. Even though the only song I could play halfway through was ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.’

“I had to play the violin for the school talent show. I stood onstage. Couldn’t get it in tune. ‘Ee ee ee ee!’ Had to start again. And again. My mom felt bad for me. She comes backstage after, and she thought I’d be crying. But I had a big old smile. ‘Mom! Did you hear? They were laughing!’ And that’s when I started my stand-up career.”

He became class clown, and later wanted to study stand-up comedy at Southwestern College. “The counselor said ‘There is no stand-up comedy course, but we’ll put you in drama.’ And the professor said, ‘I will grade you if you will write five minutes of material and go to the La Jolla Comedy Store and deliver it at the Sunday night open mic.’ 

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“So I did that. And then the owner of the Comedy Store gave me a chance in Hollywood! So now I am a regular at the comedy store in Hollywood, opening up for Robin Williams, having good half-hours with Richard Pryor, Charlie Hill, and all these top comics. And then I go on the road.”

Oh, and in 1984, the world’s most famous mime, Marcel Marceau, took him under his wing. “He encouraged me to come up with a way to present Native American history in the form of pantomime,” he told the U-T. “One result was the ballet Running Grunion at the North-East American School of Dance in Massachusetts, where I danced and directed ballet pieces.” 

After years on the road, Silvas comes home. “I say, ‘I’m tired!’ And someone says, ‘Education!’ And I realized that there are more elementary schools than there are comedy clubs. So I took the curriculum. In 3rd, 4th, 5th grade they teach Native American history. But all I’d get is, ‘Did you guys hunt buffaloes?’ I’m like, ‘No! There are no buffaloes in Chula Vista. We hunted grunion.’ So I started a routine built around the ‘Running Grunion’ character.”

Just now, we’re talking by the beach in PB. Silvas lives nearby, as his family has for 250 years. He likes to think about the very first moment of meeting, Europeans with indigenous people, when his Spanish ancestors — he has family from both sides — arrived with the Portola expedition, and met up with Kumeyaay locals. “I know exactly when it happened: Friday, July 14th, 1769, at sunset. On this beach.”

And he quotes Father Juan Crespi, the priest on that expedition. “He wrote in his diary that the Kumeyaay greeted them in pantomime, and gave them grunion fish to eat. It started so well. It’s a pity things went downhill from there.”

Just now, Silvas has a more urgent job at hand: his main tribe — the Acjachemen people, also called Juaneños — is based around San Juan Capistrano. “Anthropologists [recently] wrote papers that unequivocally stated the Juaneños — that’s me! — are extinct.”

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Silvas looks out over beach where Portola expedition first met Kumeyaay in 1769.
Silvas looks out over beach where Portola expedition first met Kumeyaay in 1769.

“I realized I was a comedian when I was 10 years old,” says Abel Silvas. “My dad wanted me to continue the tradition of our Mission Indians, and become a violinist. So he brought me a violin, and I was inducted into the all-district orchestra. Even though the only song I could play halfway through was ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.’

“I had to play the violin for the school talent show. I stood onstage. Couldn’t get it in tune. ‘Ee ee ee ee!’ Had to start again. And again. My mom felt bad for me. She comes backstage after, and she thought I’d be crying. But I had a big old smile. ‘Mom! Did you hear? They were laughing!’ And that’s when I started my stand-up career.”

He became class clown, and later wanted to study stand-up comedy at Southwestern College. “The counselor said ‘There is no stand-up comedy course, but we’ll put you in drama.’ And the professor said, ‘I will grade you if you will write five minutes of material and go to the La Jolla Comedy Store and deliver it at the Sunday night open mic.’ 

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“So I did that. And then the owner of the Comedy Store gave me a chance in Hollywood! So now I am a regular at the comedy store in Hollywood, opening up for Robin Williams, having good half-hours with Richard Pryor, Charlie Hill, and all these top comics. And then I go on the road.”

Oh, and in 1984, the world’s most famous mime, Marcel Marceau, took him under his wing. “He encouraged me to come up with a way to present Native American history in the form of pantomime,” he told the U-T. “One result was the ballet Running Grunion at the North-East American School of Dance in Massachusetts, where I danced and directed ballet pieces.” 

After years on the road, Silvas comes home. “I say, ‘I’m tired!’ And someone says, ‘Education!’ And I realized that there are more elementary schools than there are comedy clubs. So I took the curriculum. In 3rd, 4th, 5th grade they teach Native American history. But all I’d get is, ‘Did you guys hunt buffaloes?’ I’m like, ‘No! There are no buffaloes in Chula Vista. We hunted grunion.’ So I started a routine built around the ‘Running Grunion’ character.”

Just now, we’re talking by the beach in PB. Silvas lives nearby, as his family has for 250 years. He likes to think about the very first moment of meeting, Europeans with indigenous people, when his Spanish ancestors — he has family from both sides — arrived with the Portola expedition, and met up with Kumeyaay locals. “I know exactly when it happened: Friday, July 14th, 1769, at sunset. On this beach.”

And he quotes Father Juan Crespi, the priest on that expedition. “He wrote in his diary that the Kumeyaay greeted them in pantomime, and gave them grunion fish to eat. It started so well. It’s a pity things went downhill from there.”

Just now, Silvas has a more urgent job at hand: his main tribe — the Acjachemen people, also called Juaneños — is based around San Juan Capistrano. “Anthropologists [recently] wrote papers that unequivocally stated the Juaneños — that’s me! — are extinct.”

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