New animal control officer overcomes obstacles

At an age when many teen-agers struggle to the next video game level, Tomas Silva literally walked his way to a better life when he was 14.

Silva, the Kingman Police Department's newest animal control officer, made his way to Kingman from Colima, Mexico, in 1980, leaving his parents and his eight brothers and sisters behind.

"It was tough," he said.

"It was scary.

I was just a little kid.

But I took a chance."

Silva, now 37, said he knew he would be relegated to a life of working long hours for little pay if he stayed in Colima, a city about 330 miles south of Puerto Vallarta.

From the age of 12, when he wasn't in school, he welded doorframes.

When he decided to head north, he envisioned making enough money in the United States to return home to go to school without worrying about working.

"I was looking for a better future," he said.

"I also did not like the corruption of the government."

Silva said it was common for police to throw people in jail or take their vehicles if they did not pay officers.

He and a friend hitchhiked most of the way to Nogales.

At the border, he and his friend went their separate ways.

Silva was caught and deported eight times trying to cross the border near Nogales.

On the ninth try, he went through one of numerous holes in the fence that marked the border between Mexico and America, and a border patrol officer stopped him.

But the officer had seen him before and knew where to find him so he ignored the youth for the time being, pursuing countless other illegal immigrants.

Heading north, Silva walked for three days to Tucson, avoiding border patrol officers and sleeping under railroad bridges.

Near a ranch, he used his shirt to strain mucky water in a small stream.

Starving, he managed to kill a chicken with a rock and ate the bird raw.

'The things people do to survive is incredible," he said.

It was winter.

Silva wore three layers of clothes, throwing off a layer when it became torn or too dirty.

Near Tucson, he hitched a ride with an American who spoke Spanish.

When he asked where Silva was going, Silva shrugged and asked where the driver was headed, thinking they were headed to California.

But the driver said Kingman, a town Silva had never heard of.

The driver stopped to eat in Phoenix and Silva was astonished at the abundance of a steak dinner with rolls and vegetables.

Silva had never seen so much food in one sitting.

"The first thing I notice about this country is that it is so clean," he said.

In Kingman, the man offered the boy a place to stay just behind Kingman Regional Medical Center and offered him some clothes.

The clothing from the 6-foot-something American did not exactly fit the short youth.

The man also got him a job with a Hispanic man who owned an upholstery shop.

Silva first worked odd jobs around the shop and then learned the upholstery trade, and he lived at the shop, which was along Airway Avenue.

For five years, Silva said, he did not leave the shop for fear of being deported.

During that time he also did not speak any English.

Finally, wanting to learn more and wanting to succeed, he started going to movies.

He also started learning English by watching Sesame Street and listening to the radio.

Within a year, he learned enough English to get his own place.

"It still wasn't enough," he said.

"I committed myself to learn to read and write, which I did."

He married a local woman who helped him take classes at Mohave Community College.

Through the years he got a work permit, then a red card, then a green card.

But he was still not satisfied.

He wanted to vote, to make a difference.

On March 4, 1994, he became an American citizen.

During an newspaper interview that year, he was asked what he wanted to be.

"I told the reporter, I wanted a career in law enforcement," Silva said.

That year, he opened an upholstery shop with another man, then succeeded on his own, working on cars, boats or furniture.

Several months later in 1999, he applied for a job with the city of Kingman and was hired for the maintenance department.

He installed lights and fixed drywall in city buildings.

Silva also rode with Kingman Police Department patrol officers.

But it was a ride-along with an animal control officer that piqued his interest.

This past September, with the retirement of Charlotte Candelaria, Silva applied for and took over her position as an animal control officer.

"This is my career now," Silva said.

"I learned something new every day with this job.

I enjoy being involved with people and I love animals.

I want to make sure people take care of their pets."

Under the guidance of Kingman's other animal control officer, Sandy Spruiell, Silva learned the tricks of the trade.

"Mainly she taught me how to talk to people," he said of Spruiell.

"I couldn't be any luckier with a trainer."

Silva still takes English and writing classes at MCC, partially because of the reports animal control officers have to write.

In his spare time, Silva enjoys taking his five children, ages 7 to 12, fishing at Lake Mead and other local lakes.

"My goal is to continue to go to school," Silva said.

"And to see my kids grow up to be good people."

Police Chief Larry Butler said he has known Silva for more than a decade and gladly gave him the job because of his work ethic.

"I'm pretty proud of him," Butler said.

"It shows that if you have a will to do something, you can do it."

Silva has not seen his own family, still in Mexico, since 1994.

He plans to visit them sometime this year.

Silva said some Americans are spoiled.

He once made an offer to a homeless man who stood on a corner seeking work for money.

Silva offered a job doing odd jobs around his house.

The man asked how much he would be paid.

When Silva said $10 an hour, the man balked and told him he made more standing on the corner asking for money.

He also smelled alcohol on the man's breath.

"If you set you mind to it, you can achieve anything," he said.

"People out there just take this country for granted."