By KENDRA SITTON | Uptown News
In talks ranging from three minutes at the Founder’s Day Festival to two hours over the phone, Abel Silvas owns his role as a storyteller sharing the history of California with a specific focus on the Indigenous peoples who did – and still do – live here.
Storyteller might be the easiest moniker to describe Silvas’ role, but it is far from encompassing all he does in the public square as a historian, comedian, dancer, teacher, activist and tribal leader. His educational act, Running Grunion, incorporates his past as a stand-up comedian who works the crowd with songs, a costume, props and even a full mime scene to share the history of his people. His act can be catered to multiple age groups, but currently his audience usually consists of third graders on a field trip to Agua Hedionda Lagoon in Carlsbad. As San Diego celebrates its 250th anniversary, he has performed at many events, including Fiesta Patrias, the Cabrillo Festival, the San Diego Chapter of the National Society Daughters of the American Revolution, and San Diego County Archaeological Society, to name a few.
“Each performance is different. It all depends on the crowd. It all depends on how I feel, but the theme is the same,” he explained. He said through it all he is a comedian who shares history. “I never thought I was funny, but when I talk about my history, people thought it was funny because they’d never heard this before.”
He initially created the character Running Grunion because elementary schools are required to teach students about Native Americans before and after contact with Europeans. However, when he began researching more history, he became passionate about more than education.
“I started finding injustice in all of this. Then I became an activist,” Silvas recounts.
After that, Silvas joined San Diego County Historic Site Board. He was a part of the city of San Diego’s Historical Resources Board for 13 years, until he claimed he was kicked off by Mayor Kevin Faulconer.
Silvas works as a Native American monitor on archaeological sites under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, or as he says, he “takes care of dead people.” He is able to rattle off the different places in San Diego where graves have literally been paved over — a handicapped parking spot in Hillcrest, a park in Mission Hills, a street in Old Town.
While his performances are always directed toward the public, the information he shares is deeply personal. Silvas explains he is a Juaneño, the name given by Father Junipero Serra to the Acjachemen Indigenous peoples of California who helped build the Mission of San Juan Capistrano. He recounts his childhood growing up in Old Town, cracks a joke about his grandfather, then talks about the founding of San Diego — a history inseparable from the history of his own family.
“First we were Native Americans, then we became Spaniards, then we became Mexicans, then we became United States of Americans — and we never moved from our house,” Silvas said in a phone interview.
His family has documented roots in many parts of California, including Old Town when it was the Kumeyaay village of Kosa’aay, as well as in San Francisco and Los Angeles. Abel’s great-great-great-great-great grandfather Miguel Silvas left an outpost in Sinaloa with other settlers from around the world and helped found San Francisco. In Rancho Santa Fe, the Silvas family was given a provisional grant for a piece of land there from the Mexican governor in 1831. Five years later, when a new governor came to power, the land was handed off to Juan Maria Osuna, who built an adobe that is still standing today, under the name Osuna 1. His grandmother Clara’s grandfather Librado Silvas built an adobe in Del Mar, just north of where his own grandfather, Manuel Silvas, built an adobe in Old Town. These pre-United States ancestors make up the California side of Silvas’ family.
Between his performances, Silvas has continued his advocacy. Silvas attended an Old Town Planners meeting where the group voted in favor of a plan to add a memorial to Presidio Park in honor of all the people buried in unmarked graves at the site. Silvas had already been tracing the history of those buried on the hill and has collected a list of hundreds of those buried there. He hopes to add those names to a memorial when funding is found. In an email, he described this work as “my baby for 25 years (literally, look at all the babies buried there).”
He was also integral in a now-stalled effort to get federal recognition for the Juaneño Band of Mission Indians (judges have repeatedly ruled against recognizing the tribe, which is based in Orange County). While federal recognition has failed to materialize, and with it tribal sovereignty, Silvas has continued to help govern the tribe and keep it together. More recently, he became the chair of the Old Town Band of Mission Indians to help preserve and protect the graves at the Presidio.
Silvas’ advocacy has grown from his family’s history and his own identity as an artist. “We observe society, and as artists, we reflect society,” he said.
— Kendra Sitton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.