Authors: Gary Soto

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2017

American poet, children's and young-adult author, and professor

April 12, 1952

Fresno, California

Biography

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

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(M. L. Martinelle)

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.

Author Works Poetry: The Elements of San Joaquin, 1977 The Tale of Sunlight, 1978 Where Sparrows Work Hard, 1981 Black Hair, 1985 Who Will Know Us?, 1990 Home Course in Religion, 1991 New and Selected Poems, 1995 A Natural Man, 1999 One Kind of Faith, 2003 Neighborhood Odes, 2005 Fire in My Hands, 2006 A Simple Plan, 2007 Partly Cloudy: Poems of Love and Longing, 2009 Human Nature, 2010 You Kiss by th' Book: New Poems from Shakespeare's Line, 2016 Long Fiction: Nickel and Dime, 2000 Poetry Lover, 2001 Amnesia in a Republican County, 2003 Accidental Love, 2006 Nonfiction: Living up the Street: Narrative Recollections, 1985 Small Faces, 1986 Lesser Evils: Ten Quartets, 1988 A Summer Life, 1991 The Effects of Knut Hamsun on a Fresno Boy, 2000 What Poets Are Like: Up and Down with the Writing Life, 2013 Why I Don't Write Children's Literature (and Other Stories), 2015 Meatballs for the People: Proverbs to Chew On, 2017 Children’s/Young Adult Literature: Baseball in April, and Other Stories, 1990 Taking Sides, 1991 Neighborhood Odes, 1992 (poetry) Pacific Crossing, 1992 The Skirt, 1992 Too Many Tamales, 1993 Local News, 1993 Crazy Weekend, 1994 Jesse, 1994 Boys at Work, 1995 Canto Familiar, 1995 (poetry) The Cat’s Meow, 1995 Chato’s Kitchen, 1995 Off and Running, 1996 Buried Onions, 1997 Novio Boy, 1997 (play) Petty Crimes, 1998 Big Bushy Mustache, 1998 Chato Throws a Pachanga, 1999 Chato and the Party Animals, 1999 Nerdlania, 1999 (play) Jesse De La Cruz: A Profile of a United Farm Worker, 2000 My Little Car, 2000 Body Parts in Rebellion: Hanging Out with Fernie and Me, 2002 (poetry) If the Shoe Fits, 2002 The Afterlife, 2003 Cesar Chavez: A Hero for Everyone, 2003 Worlds Apart: Traveling with Fernie and Me, 2005 (poetry) Marisol, 2005 Chato Goes Cruisin', 2005 Mercy on These Teenage Chimps, 2007 Lucky Luis, 2012 Short Fiction: Help Wanted: Stories, 2005 Petty Crimes, 2006 Facts of Life, 2008 Hey 13!, 2011 Edited Texts: California Childhood: Recollections and Stories of the Golden State, 1988 Pieces of the Heart: New Chicano Fiction, 1993 Bibliography Armour-Hileman, Vicki. Review of Where Sparrows Work Hard. Denver Quarterly 17 (Summer, 1982): 154-155. Armour-Hileman notes what many critics call attention to: the similarity between Soto and his teacher Philip Levine in subject matter, “a surrealistic bent,” and short, enjambed lines. She finds fault with the “inaccuracy of the images” in many of Soto’s poems and “their elliptical movement.” She does admire the poems in which Soto “becomes not an ethnic poet, but a poet who writes about human suffering.” His writing in the last third of this collection she considers a “great success.” Cooley, Peter. “Two Young Poets.” Parnassus 7 (Fall/Winter, 1979): 299-311. In this extremely laudatory examination of Soto’s two earliest collections, Cooley calls Soto “the most important voice among the young Chicano poets.” He praises Soto’s ability to re-create his lost world of San Joaquin with “an imaginative expansiveness.” This is a crucial essay for understanding the initial praise given to Soto and how his work seemed to speak for a generation of Chicanos. De La Fuente, Patricia. “Entropy in the Poetry of Gary Soto: The Dialectics of Violence.” Discurso Literario 5, no. 1 (Autumn, 1987): 111-120. De La Fuente examines the use of entropy and how it reinforces the structure of Soto’s poetry. Erben, Rudolf, and Ute Erben. “Popular Culture, Mass Media, and Chicano Identity in Gary Soto’s Living up the Street and Small Faces.” MELUS 17, no. 3 (Fall, 1991/1992): 43-52. The authors explore the conflict of dual consciousness and social problems that Soto examines. Mason, Michael Tomasek. “Poetry and Masculinity on the Anglo/Christian Border: Gary Soto, Robert Frost, and Robert Hass.” In The Calvinist Roots of the Modern Era, edited by Aliki Barnstone, Michael Tomasek Manson, and Carol J. Singley. Hanover: University Press of New England, 1997. Manson carefully traces the evolution of notions of masculinity, “machismo,” in Soto’s work. Olivares, Julian. “The Streets of Gary Soto.” Latin America Literary Review 18, no. 35 (January-June, 1990): 32-49. Olivares explores Soto’s ability to universalize the situations his characters face. Paredes, Raymund A. “The Childhood Worries, or Why I Became a Writer.” Iowa Review 25, no. 2 (Spring/Summer, 1995): 105-115. Soto recalls the formative influences later treated in his poetry and the initial motivations for expressing his experiences. Paredes, Raymund A. “Recent Chicano Writing.” Rocky Mountain Review 41, nos. 1/2 (1987): 124-129. Paredes admires Soto’s writing because “ethnic and class consciousness constitutes an essential part of his literary sensibility.” He faults Soto, however, for his portrayal of women: “As he depicts them, their roles are wholly conventional.” He does not find the portrayals of women to be totally offensive, but he chides the poet for “performing unremarkably” on this issue. Wojahn, David. Review of Black Hair, by Gary Soto. Poetry 146 (June, 1985): 171-173. In this review of Soto’s fourth collection, Wojahn accuses him of displaying the “brooding confusions of the pubescent mind” and thereby creating a book that is a “distinctly minor achievement.” Wojahn believes Soto’s abandonment of the surrealistic poetics and myth-making of his earlier books for “anecdotes of adolescence” was a mistake.

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