Abel Silvas is descended from California Native American, Spanish-Californio, Mexican-American and Anglo forebears, but he started out all ours, born and growing up here in Otay.
Abel recalled his childhood playing in the Otay River bottom. He called it “a cool hangout” with a “trickle of water” that the seven Silvas kids and their friends dammed and constructed “makeshift rafts” to float on.
He spent countless hours riding his bike all through Chula Vista, with trips lasting up to four hours. Athletic Abel played on the Chula Vista Pop Warner football team for five years.
He expected to attend Castle Park High like his older siblings. Instead, because of a boundary change, he found himself attending a different school. Disappointed, he requested and got a transfer, ostensibly to continue his interest in the electronics classes available at Castle Park.
Due to school district regulations, Abel was ineligible to play football for one full year after transferring, so he warmed the bench that year, and played varsity football in his junior and senior year. During all of this though, Abel and his cousin were the class clowns.
Abel’s next goal was Southwestern College where he wanted to study to become a comedian. He discovered all the other football players were bigger than him, so he quit that sport. Our young man chose an even tougher physical challenge – he took up ballet.
Backing up here, to grade school again: Abel also played the violin in the All-District Orchestra. Participating in a talent show, he played “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” and made a mistake, so started over. He messed up again, began over. And again. He never, in fact, finished his piece, but the audience was howling with laughter and young Abel reveled in it.
In fifth grade he did comic strip readings of “Peanuts” and “Blondie,” with the same results: The audience laughed all the way through.
However, repeating this performance with a third strip, the audience was unresponsive. Abel was crushed. A friend enlightened him, pointing out that the last time Abel wasn’t trembling with terror.
Abel realized it wasn’t so much the verbal part of his skits, it was the actual physical presentation that the audiences perceived as comical. “So that’s how I found the art of comedy,” he said.
Forward again, to Southwestern, where Abel enrolled in a multitude of theater classes. His teacher, Bill Virchis, gave a reoccurring assignment to write five-minute routines. After they were graded, Abel tested his work at the Comedy Store in La Jolla in front of a live audience as a stand-up comedian.
“But, ballet?” I persisted.
“Oh, yes … I fell in love with the arts.” He took numerous classes in theater and dance, and became fascinated by pantomime.
At this time Abel’s brother was in Europe, and Abel joined him in Paris. Perceiving an opportunity, he introduced himself to the world famous pantomime artist Marcel Marceau. He even was accepted into Marceau’s program, but did not complete it as a severe attack of homesickness resulted in Abel’s abandoning Paris for home. Paris hadn’t impressed him; he thought it was a lot like Tijuana.
He returned to the Chula Vista Ballet Society and stand-up comedy.
Now Abel’s star was rising. Marcel Marceau began a school of mime at the University of Michigan and accepted Abel as one of his first students. Abel went to Hollywood to work in commercials, sitcoms, plays and stand-up. He managed to continue dancing at a ballet company in North Hampton in Massachusetts, studied acting in New York and completed his studies with Marceau.
Abel needed to develop a stage persona for his one-man show, and credits Marceau with helping him with this. When Marceau told him to put all his talents and attributes together — combining mime, comedy, acting and dance with his heritage — Abel remembered the teasing he’d received when he told his classmates he was a Native American.
The kids had denied he could be an Indian because of Abel’s shock of curls. They taunted, “What buffalo do you hunt? Can you speak Indian?”
His father taught him about his ancestry and Abel studied his heritage. He traced out his complicated family tree and decided that the most important game he’d ever hunted was grunion. Running Grunion became Abel’s character as a Native American comedian.
Running Grunion does shows in Native American garb combining local history, comedy and social justice issues. He charms his audience — particularly children — into participating with him while teaching them history and Indian cultural values with gentle humor.