Last reviewed: June 2017
American poet, children's and young-adult author, and professor
April 12, 1952
Gary Soto, who has been called one of the finest natural talents among Mexican American writers, was born on April 12, 1952, to Manuel and Angie (Trevino) Soto. Although his parents were born in the United States, Soto’s grandfather, Frank Soto, immigrated there to escape economic and political instability in Mexico. Soto’s parents and grandparents were members of the working class. Every day, the Soto family would join other Mexican American families from their barrio in Fresno and travel to the lush San Joaquin Valley to pick grapes and oranges. At a young age, Gary experienced the grimness of working in mind-deadening, physically exhausting labor, picking cotton in the fields, collecting aluminum cans, all to help his family survive. The lushness of the valley juxtaposed with the backbreaking labor his family had to endure because of their poverty would figure prominently in Soto’s poetry and fiction.
When Soto was five years old, tragedy struck his family; Manuel Soto died as a result of a factory accident at the age of twenty-seven. The father’s death left Soto’s mother to raise him, his older brother, Rick, and his younger sister, Debra. Manuel’s death created financial and emotional hardships for the family. They never discussed his death, never dealt with their individual or communal grief. The silence created an emotional chasm for Gary. The effects of Soto’s father’s death have become a key issue in Soto’s writings as he attempts to reconcile his love for his father and his feelings of abandonment with the numbing effects of silence. Gary Soto
Soto grew up in a Catholic family and attended Catholic and private schools. However, his family never stressed the importance of obtaining an education or had books in the house or encouraged him to read. His mother and father left high school to get married when they were eighteen. Even though Soto received no encouragement at home to work hard in school, he did graduate from high school in 1970 and enrolled in Fresno City College to avoid the draft.
A key event occurred in Soto’s life after enrolling in college. While browsing through the college library, he discovered a collection of poems titled The New American Poetry. After reading several of the poems, he immediately began writing poetry and discovered his poetic voice. He had found his niche.
Seeking the companionship and intellectualism of other writers, Soto transferred to California State University, Fresno, and enrolled in Philip Levine’s creative writing class. This decision was life-altering. From 1972 to 1973, Levine nurtured and encouraged Soto’s talent as a poet. As he created more poetry under the tutelage of Levine, Soto began to discover his own sense of aloneness, a feeling of being alienated from two cultures, his own because of his education and the Anglo world, which both encouraged and rejected him. Through his writings, he delves into the theme of alienation and learns that it is a human, universal emotion that is not particular to him.
In 1974, Soto graduated magna cum laude from California State University, Fresno. In 1975 he married Carolyn Oda, a native of Fresno and the daughter of Japanese-American farmers who had been imprisoned in internment camps during World War II. At first, his family opposed their marriage, hoping he would marry a good Mexican American girl. Soto discusses their initial reaction and eventual consent in one of his prose memoirs, Small Faces. Five years after they were married, Carolyn gave birth to their daughter, Mariko.
Soto earned a master’s degree in creative writing from the University of California (UC), Irvine in 1976. He then became writer-in-residence at San Diego State University but left to become a lecturer in the Chicano studies department at UC Berkeley. There, in 1977 he received an associate professorship in both Chicano studies and English. He taught in the English department for about a decade, deciding in 1992 to pursue his writing career full-time. Seven years later, in 1999, Soto moved to UC Riverside, where he became a distinguished professor of creative writing. By 2008, he had left teaching again.
While fulfilling his teaching responsibilities, Soto continued to write poetry. In 1977 his first volume of poetry, The Elements of San Joaquin, a book he dedicated in part to his grandmother, was published and earned several literary awards. In this volume, Soto gives voice to the grim, impoverished, violent, and soul-deadening world of his childhood: a world that was often filled with human suffering caused by his family’s poverty and their inability to become upwardly mobile. He conveys his feelings by using a street as a major motif. Although the street implies movement and a journey, Soto uses the street to imply a dead-end existence on the mean streets of his neighborhood.
In his next two volumes of poetry, The Tale of Sunlight and Where Sparrows Work Hard, Soto seems to have exorcised his demons because he tempers his social commentary on the poverty his family endured and instead focuses on the human suffering poverty causes. The street motif still exists in these works, but it is used to show that mobility is possible. Creatively, 1985 proved to be a very important year for Soto: He published his fourth volume of poetry, Black Hair, in which he fondly remembers his family and friends. He also attempted a new genre, autobiographical prose, when his Living up the Street: Narrative Recollections was published and earned for him an American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation. In this memoir and the one that immediately followed it, Small Faces, Soto vividly re-creates the racially mixed, laboring-class neighborhood in which he was raised, the struggles his family endured to provide the children with a safe environment, and the central dilemma of a life continually lived on the margins as a product of two cultures.
After writing volumes of poems and autobiographical memoirs, Soto also ventured into children’s literature with the publication of Baseball in April, and Other Stories. It immediately earned critical recognition, including the Best Book for Young Adults award from the American Library Association. The eleven short stories focus on Mexican American boys and girls and their fears, aspirations, angst, and desires as they enter adolescence. In this collection and his other fiction for children and young adults, such as Jesse, Taking Sides, and Pacific Crossing, Soto depicts real-life situations. Soto has written stories for children of many ages, from picture books to young-adult novels, and in a variety of genres, including novels, short fiction, poetry, and drama. Even though his writings are set in ethnic neighborhoods, the conflicts and situations in which he places his characters are universal. To depict these situations, he uses a quiet, often humorous and empathetic tone.
Soto’s consistent attention to his craft has earned him the respect of critics and readers. His numerous awards and fellowships—which include a 1979 Guggenheim Fellowship in creative arts, a 1999 PEN Center USA literary award for children's and young adult literature, and nomination for a Pulitzer Prize—attest to his literary genius and his versatility. Gary Soto is a gifted writer who transcends the particular he knew and re-creates a universalized world that touches all of his readers.