April 12, 1952 • Fresno, California
Gary Soto is a man who writes from experience. He grew up in one of the many barrios (poor Mexican American neighborhoods) of Fresno, California, and since the mid-1970s he has borrowed from that community to create an astonishing number of works. Soto, however, does not see himself as strictly a Chicano author. True, in his over twenty books of poetry and prose for adults and in over thirty books for younger readers, he focuses on the daily trials and tribulations of Spanish-speaking Americans. But, through crisp, clear imagery and his true-to-life characters, Soto connects with readers of all ages and backgrounds. As he explained in his Scholastic Booklist biography, "Even though I write a lot about life in the barrio, I am really writing about the feelings and experiences of most American kids." As a result, Soto is considered to be one of the most important contemporary authors in the United States.
Life in the barrio
Gary Soto was born on April 12, 1952, the second child of Manuel and Angie Soto. The family lived in Fresno, California, and like many Mexican Americans Soto's parents and grandparents worked as laborers in the surrounding San Joaquin Valley, the agricultural center of the state. Typical jobs included picking oranges, cotton, and grapes for very little pay, or working in the often dangerous packing houses of local businesses, such as the Sunmaid Raisin Company. When Soto was just five years old, his father was killed in an accident while working at Sunmaid. Manuel Soto's death had a devastating effect on his family, both emotionally and economically. Gary was hit particularly hard and spent years brooding over the accident. And Angie Soto was left with three small children to raise: oldest son Rick, middle child Gary, and Debra, the youngest.
After Manuel Soto's death, the family moved to a rough neighborhood in an industrial area of Fresno. To make ends meet, Angie Soto and the children's grandparents took what jobs they could find. As Gary and his siblings grew older they, too, worked in the fields and factories of Fresno. Regardless, the family struggled. Working left little time for school, and when Soto did go, he made very poor marks. While attending Roosevelt High School, he maintained a D average, and spent more time chasing girls than doing his homework. Soto received little encouragement from home to do better. As he explained in interviews, education was simply not part of their culture—the culture of poverty. "Our shelves were not lined with books," Soto told Quill editors, "they were lined with menudo." Menudo is a type of spicy Mexican soup.
"Of poetry or prose, I prefer poetry as part of my soul. I think like a poet, and behave like a poet."
Although Soto was not encouraged to read at home, he was exploring the world of books on his own at the school library. Some of his favorites were by American authors such as Ernest Hemingway
United Farm Workers of America
Gary Soto is the Young People Ambassador for the United Farm Workers of America (UFWA), which means that during his many visits to libraries and schools, he introduces kids to the legacy of the United Farm Workers organization. The UFWA is the largest organization of farm workers in the United States. Through bargaining agreements, contract negotiations, and other tactics, its members work to improve the wages and working conditions for all agricultural workers in America. This includes fighting for such basic rights as a living wage, access to clean drinking water and bathrooms, and safe working conditions.
The beginnings of the UFWA can be traced to the 1950s when the bracero program was in effect in the United States. Following World War II (1939–45), there was a shortage of field laborers in California and Texas where agriculture was a key industry. As a result, an agreement was made between Mexico and the United States, where U.S. growers were allowed to offer short-term work contracts to Mexicans. Eventually, growers became dependent on these seasonal laborers, who were willing to take on back-breaking work for little pay, work that most Americans were not willing to do. Because they were not citizens of the United States, because they usually spoke little English, and because they were not organized under a union, conditions for Mexican laborers were poor. Their temporary housing often lacked indoor plumbing, and children were often forced to work in the fields in order to help their family survive. By the mid-1960s, there were hundreds of thousands of laborers living and working in such substandard conditions.
In 1966, the National Farm Workers Organizing Committee (UFWOC) was founded by two leaders in the Mexican American community who had been fighting for labor rights for years, Cesar Chávez (1927–1993) and Dolores Huerta (1930–). Their first combined effort involved organizing Chicano and Filipino workers in the California grape-picker strike of 1965–66. After a bitter battle between growers and workers, the UFWOC secured contracts with two of the largest grape growers in California; the contracts included among other things, a promise to ban the use of harmful pesticides, access to washing facilities, and rest periods. This was first successful bargaining agreement between farm laborers and growers in the United States.
Since then the organization has continued to fight for the rights of workers in all types of agricultural industries, from grapes to lettuce, from strawberries to mushrooms. Today, according to the UFWA Web site, farm workers who are employed by companies that accept UFWA contracts enjoy decent pay, family medical care, pensions, and other similar benefits. Unfortunately, the site also reports that the majority of farm laborers in California and the rest of the country still do not enjoy these basic protections. This means that the battle continues, carried on by the next generation.
(1899–1961) and John Steinbeck (1902–1968). Soto was especially inspired by one book in particular, To Sir with Love, a novel written by E. R. Braithwaite (1920–) about a teacher who devotes himself to students at a school in the East End working-class district of London, England. Reading that novel prompted Soto to enroll at Fresno City College after graduation. He was not sure exactly what he would study in college, perhaps geography or paleontology (the study of fossils). Soto, however, was sure that he did not want to be a farm worker. And, although he loved to read, the thought of becoming a writer did not even cross his mind.
Poet of the people
But, once again, a chance encounter in the library would change Soto's course. When he was nineteen and in his second year at Fresno College, the young student discovered a collection of contemporary poetry. As Soto remarked to Quill, "I thought that poetry had to be about mountains and streams and birds and stuff." But one poet, Edward Field (1924–), was a native of New York and his poems, which were about "trash and smog," hit a chord. As Soto further explained, "Field wrote in a voice that was real common and I didn't know poetry could be like that." After Field, Soto stumbled upon the works of Chilean poet Pablo Neruda (1904–1973). "I was bitten." he commented in a "Between the Lines" interview, "I wanted to do this thing called writing poetry."
Soto transferred to California State University, Fresno, and in 1972 he took his very first poetry-writing class. From 1972 until 1973 he studied with noted Detroit, Michigan, poet Philip Levine (1928–), who was known for his poems about working-class people. Levine taught Soto not only how to take apart and analyze poems, but also about the nuts and bolts of writing his own poetry. In 1974, Soto graduated from Cal State with a bachelor's degree in English. The following year he began working on a master's degree in creative writing at the University of California, Irvine. That same year he married Carolyn Oda, the daughter of Japanese American farmers. The couple has one daughter, Mariko Heidi Soto. In 1977, with master's degree in hand, Soto began teaching Chicano studies at the University of California at Berkeley. He remained at the university until 1993, as an associate professor of both Chicano studies and English.
While still a student, Soto began publishing poems and winning prizes, and in 1977 he released his first book of poetry, called The Elements of San Joaquin. Most of the poems paint a bleak picture of Mexican American life in central California, and Soto received widespread praise for his vivid descriptions, which were sometimes disturbing, but always truthful. The young poet was immediately recognized as an emerging talent, and his following books of poetry further cemented his reputation and garnered him a countless number of prizes. In 1978, Soto released his second collection, The Tale of Sunlight, which was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, one of the highest honors in the United States given each year for achievement in journalism or literature. He was one of the first Mexican Americans to be so honored.
Soto the master storyteller
By 1985 Soto had produced four books of poetry and been published in numerous poetry magazines. That same year he branched out and published his first book of prose, called Living Up the Street: Narrative Recollections. Considering Soto's poems often had a storytelling feel to them, the jump to prose seemed natural. And, just as in his poetry, Soto mined his childhood memories of life in Fresno to fuel his work. Living Up the Street, was followed by three other collections of autobiographical essays: Small Faces (1986), Lesser Evils: Ten Quartets (1988), and A Summer Life (1990). In 2001, several of these essays, along with some new material, were compiled in a single volume called The Effects of Knut Hamsun on a Fresno Boy.
In all of his autobiographical works, readers are introduced to Soto's neighborhood through snapshot descriptions of family, friends, sights, sounds, and smells. In fact, Soto was praised for having a seemingly photographic memory of such ordinary things as "my grandmother sipp[ing] coffee and tearing jelly-red sweetness from a footprint-sized Danish" or a jacket that was the "color of day-old guacamole." In a 1988 BookPage interview, Soto explained his ability to write with such clarity: he grew up in a blighted area of South Fresno, and "these are the pictures I take with me when I write. They stir up the past, the memories that are so vivid."
Such clear recollections of his youth served Soto well in the 1990s when he turned to writing stories aimed specifically at young readers. Soto claimed, in his BookList biography, that he began writing for children because he wanted to "start Chicanos reading." He also wanted to remedy the fact that there were very few books available to young people that featured Mexican Americans. As Rudolfo Anaya remarked in World Literature Today, "Entire generations of Mexican American schoolchildren went through elementary school without ever having read a story about their culture and their communities." Soto set out to change all that in his first collection of stories for children, called Baseball in April, published in 1990.
Baseball features a different character in each of the eleven stories, but all are set in poorer districts of central California. In one story a young girl named Yollie laments the fact that she doesn't have a new dress to wear to the eighth-grade dance; in another, two young boys play baseball for the neighborhood Hobo team because they don't make the Little League team for the third year in a row. Although Soto writes the stories in English, he sprinkles Spanish expressions and phrases throughout, a trend he continued in future works. Sometimes he even includes a glossary of Spanish terms to help his non-Spanish speaking readers. And, although the stories have a distinct Latino flavor, they appeal to all types of children. As Diane Roback of Publisher's Weekly commented, "The conflicts and feelings expressed are universal."
Famous children's author
Soto was always a very prolific writer, but after he left teaching in 1993, his pace picked up even more. By the mid-1990s, he was producing as many as three children's books per year. In addition, he dabbled in all types of writing for young readers of all ages. There are books of poetry, including A Fire in My Hands (1991), Canto Familiar (1995), and Fearless Fernie (2002); picture books for very young children, such as Too Many Tamales (1992), If the Shoe Fits (2002), and the Chato the Cat tales; as well as chapter books for kids in middle school, which include The Skirt (1992), The Pool Party (1993), and Boys at Work (1995). Soto also writes young adult novels aimed at older teens. As Susan Marie Swanson wrote in a Riverbank Review profile, "A child could grow up on Soto's books."
Soto's poetry for children is much lighter in tone than his adult works; as he does in his autobiographical prose, he celebrates small moments from his childhood that can be understood by any young person growing up anywhere. For example, he writes about such everyday activities as running through a lawn sprinkler on a sunny, summer afternoon, going on a first date, or feeding the birds. Some of his middle school novels, such as Summer on Wheels (1995) are also lighter fare and show off the silly, quirky side of Soto. On the other hand, several of Soto's novels are hard-hitting, with characters facing some very tough issues. In Taking Sides (1991), for example, eighth-grader Lincoln Mendoza moves from his inner-city neighborhood to a suburb of Fresno that is predominantly Anglo, or white; as a result his loyalties for his old friends are challenged.
When Soto writes for older teens, the topics can be quite complex. One example is the novel Jesse (1994), which the author claims is his personal favorite, perhaps because, as Soto has revealed, it is the most autobiographical. The story takes place in the early 1960s and is set against the turbulent backdrop of the Vietnam War (1954–75) protests and the beginning of the United Farm Workers movement, an organization that was established to fight for the rights of farm laborers in California. Sixteen-year-old Jesse leaves home to escape an abusive father, but when he moves in with his older brother he ends up facing a host of other problems, including racism both at his new school and at work.
Soto further explores the pressure of growing up as a young Mexican American in 1997's Buried Onions, which chronicles the story of Eddie, a young man struggling to escape poverty and gang life by going to school and staying far away from his cholos, his gang friends. Soto picks up the story of gang life in the novel's sequel, The Afterlife, published in 2003. But, whereas Buried Onions was described by critics as bleak, Afterlife, was considered to be "filled with hope." An ironic comment, considering the main character, seventeen-year-old Chuy, is tragically killed on page two of the book by a knife-wielding stranger. In death, however, Chuy is given the opportunity to explore his life. The story is told from his ghostly perspective, as he roams the streets of the Fresno barrios and visits friends who mourn his passing and family members who seek to avenge his death. As Chuy's ghostly body begins to disappear, he realizes that his life, no matter how brief, was worth living.
Connects with readers
By the mid-2000s, Soto gave no indication that he was slowing down. He continued to publish books for both adults and children, and when not pursuing other interests such as reading, traveling, or gardening, he was at his desk writing for at least four to five hours per day. Soto also spent a good deal of time on the road, visiting schools and libraries in order to connect with fans of his books and would-be readers. In his Booklist biography, he describes playing basketball and baseball with young people who come to his readings, singing songs with them, and even acting in skits. "I do these things because I want to make sure kids get excited about reading," Soto explained.
In 2004 plans were in the works to make Buried Onions into a movie, with an expected release date of late 2005. As a result, publishers expect sales of Soto's books to soar even more. When asked by Quill why his books have such a universal appeal considering most focus on the specific community of Fresno, California, Soto replied: "I think we are all the same. We might change in dress, we might change in dance or music, we might change in skateboarding or little things like that. But basically, we have the same motive. We like to eat, we like to love, we like to enjoy our free time and friendship. Those things don't change, no matter what."
For More Information
"Gary Soto." Major Authors and Illustrators for Children and Young Adults. 2nd ed. Farmington Hills, MI: Gale Group, 2002.
Roback, Diane. "Review of Baseball in April. " Publisher's Weekly (March 30, 1990): p. 64.
Swanson, Susan Marie. "Gary Soto." Riverbank Review (Fall 1999): pp. 16–18.
Anaya, Rudolfo. "Gary Soto of the United States." World Literature Today (November 2002) http://www.ou.edu/worldlit/NSK/Soto.htm (accessed on August 10, 2004).
"Gary Soto Biography." Scholastic Books: Author Studies Homepage. http://www2.scholastic.com/teachers/authorsandbooks/authorstudies/authorhome.jhtml?authorID=89&collateralID=5285&displayName=Biography (accessed on August 10, 2004).
Gary Soto Web site. http://www.garysoto.com/ (accessed on August 10, 2004).
Pham, Thy and Camile Orillaneda. "Interview with Gary Soto." (May 7, 2003) Quill Web site http://mpnet.esuhsd.org/quill2003/132.pdf (accessed on August 10, 2004).
Soto, Gary. "Between the Lines: Interview with Gary Soto." (September 2003) Harcourt Trade Publishing Web site http://www.harcourtbooks.com/authorinterviews/bookinterview_Soto.asp (accessed on August 10, 2004).
United Farm Workers of America, AFL-CIO Web site. http://www.ufw.org/ (accessed on August 11, 2004).
Wilson, Etta. "Gary Soto: A Mexican-American Voice that Speaks for All." (May 1988) BookPage Web site http://www.bookpage.com/9805bp/gary_soto.html (accessed on August 10, 2004).
"Soto, Gary." UXL Newsmakers. . Encyclopedia.com. (October 20, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/general/culture-magazines/soto-gary
"Soto, Gary." UXL Newsmakers. . Retrieved October 20, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/general/culture-magazines/soto-gary
Soto, Gary: 1952—: Children's Author, Novelist, Poet
Gary Soto: 1952—: Children's author, novelist, poet
Hailed as one of the top Mexican-American writers in the United States, Gary Soto is also one of the most versatile. Winning awards and acclaim for his poetry in the years after he completed his education, Soto has also written short stories and autobiographical sketches. Almost single-handedly, he has striven to create a literature for young Mexican-American readers; as he turned to writing full time in the 1990s, he devoted his energies increasingly often to poetry, stories, and picture books for children and intermediate students. Much of Soto's writing is drawn on his recollections of growing up poor in California's agricultural Central Valley; many of his readers have the impression that he has an almost unbroken photographic memory of his entire childhood.
Soto is an extremely prolific writer, having created well over 60 books, plus numerous contributions to periodicals and several films, by the early 2000s. But literature was not even present in his childhood home. Soto was born on April 12, 1952, and grew up in Fresno, California, next to a junkyard and across the street from a pickle factory. His parents were Mexican-American laborers, and his father was killed in an industrial accident when Soto was five. His father's death had a long-lasting emotional impact on Soto, who in an interview with NEA Today attributed the detail of his childhood memories to his years of brooding over the accident. "I kept going over those events in my mind until I was in my 30s—thinking if we'd done this instead of that, everything would have been different."
Weak Student in High School
The impact was also economic, forcing Soto along with the rest of his family into whatever jobs they could get. Sometimes this meant migrant farm labor and its hazardous exposure to toxic chemicals. Soto was an indifferent student in high school, with a D grade average and a preference for spending his time as a novio —a lover boy—on the school playground. His family had little interaction with the world of education. "We had our own culture which was more like the culture of poverty," Soto said in an interview with the Dictionary of Literary Biography.
"I was a marginal kid," he told NEA Today. "I could have gone from the playground to prison or to college." One reason he enrolled in Fresno City College was that he was worried about being drafted and sent to fight in the Vietnam War; another was that he had begun to enjoy reading after coming across To Sir, with Love, a British story of an inspiring inner-city teacher who earns the devotion of troubled students. Soto moved on from community college to California State University at Fresno, intending at first to study geography but switching to creative writing after he read a poem about alienation called "Unwanted," by Edward Field.
At a Glance . . .
Born on April 12, 1952, in Fresno, CA; son of Manuel Soto and Angie Oftedal Soto; married Carolyn Sadako Oda, May 24, 1975; children: Mariko Heidi. Education: Fresno City College, two year degree; California State University at Fresno, BA, English, 1974; University of California at Irvine, MFA, 1976.
Career: Author, 1977–; University of California at Berkeley, lecturer in Chicano studies, 1977-81, assistant professor of English and Chicano studies, 1981-85, associate professor of English and Chicano studies, 1985-95.
Selected awards: American Academy of Poets prize, 1975; U.S. International Poetry Forum award, for The Elements of San Joaquin, 1977; Guggenheim fellowship, 1980; National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, 1981; Levinson award, Poetry magazine, 1984; Literature Award, Hispanic Heritage Foundation, 1999; Author-Illustrator Civil Rights Award, National Educational Association; PEN Center West Book Award, 1999.
Addresses: Home— 43 The Crescent, Berkeley, CA 94708; Website— www.garysoto.com.
Soto also encountered the works of California's stream-of-consciousness "Beat" poets such as Allen Ginsberg in college, but his most important influence was his teacher Philip Levine, a native of Detroit known for his poetry about working-class Americans. After receiving his bachelor's degree with high honors, Soto went on for a master of fine arts degree at the University of California's Irvine campus. He married Carolyn Oda, a Japanese American, in 1975 (the couple has one daughter), and finished his degree a year later. Soto taught at San Diego State University and in 1977 was hired as an assistant professor at the University of California's flagship campus in Berkeley, where he remained until 1993.
Depicted Central Valley in Poems
While still a student, Soto had begun publishing poetry in magazines and journals, and he started winning literary prizes as early as 1975. From the beginning, although he grew up in a Spanish-speaking household, he wrote mostly in English. Soto's first book of poetry, The Elements of San Joaquin, was published in 1977 and immediately attracted critical attention and praise; it differed in several respects from the bulk of Chicano poetry that had appeared up to that point. Soto presented poems depicting scenes and figures from the Central Valley of his youth. Although he did not shy away from representing the life of Mexican Americans as hard and hostile—his description of "men whose arms were bracelets of burns" was widely quoted—Soto avoided an explicitly political tone. His poetry was both personal and universal; some reviewers compared his imagery of the dusty, bleak Central Valley to the feeling conveyed by a classic poem of modern alienation, T. S. Eliot's "The Waste Land."
By 1985 Soto had published four books of poetry and contributed to several other volumes, and he ascended to the rank of associate professor in Berkeley's English and Chicano Studies departments that year. His poetry had always had a strong storytelling quality, and in the mid-1980s, he began writing prose stories and autobiographical vignettes. Two books of autobiographical writings, 1983's Small Faces and 1988's Lesser Evils, were collected in the 2000 volume The Effects of Knut Hamsun on a Fresno Boy, along with new material. Soto wrote evocatively about such painful incidents of childhood as schoolyard ridicule over an article of clothing, and from these recollections it was a short step to writing material for readers in the child and young adult age groups.
Soto, according to Booklist, hoped "to start Chicanos reading," and indeed when he started out, the selection of books set among Mexican Americans and aimed at young readers was very sparse. One of his first efforts was Baseball in April and Other Stories, set among teenagers in neighborhoods much like those where Soto himself had grown up. "His stories are moving, yet humorous and entertaining," noted the New York Times. "The best are also quite subtle. Unsentimental yet bittersweet, they chronicle the responses of young people to the difficulties they encounter."
Wrote Picture Books for Children
Over the course of the 1990s and early 2000s, Soto added to his body of literature for children, writing books of poetry, novels, and picture books in addition to short stories. One of his most popular picture books, Too Many Tamales, was the story of a girl named Maria who loses her mother's ring while helping to cook a family meal at Christmas time and tries to keep eating tamales until she finds it; others dealt with a cat named Chato. Though his material for young people was naturally lighter in tone than his writing for adults, it often touched on the sadness that comes with poverty. Soto continued to write poetry and prose for adults as well; his literary production, already high, only accelerated after he gave up teaching to write full time in the mid-1990s.
Far from relying on what he was already familiar with, Soto branched out into new forms and media. He wrote a biography of a California union organizer, Jessie de la Cruz: Profile of a United Farm Worker, scripted several short films, and wrote the libretto for an opera, Nerd-landia, that was staged by the Los Angeles Opera company. Numerous honors came Soto's way; his volume of New and Selected Poems, was named a finalist for both the National Book Award and the Los Angeles Times book award, and he became one of the youngest poets included in the prestigious Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry.
Soto did not slow down in the early 2000s, releasing the picture book If the Shoe Fits in 2002 as well as several other books. An inspiration to younger Mexican-American writers through the sheer quantity and range of his work, Soto held writers' meetings at his home in the Berkeley hills and often appeared at school assemblies. His young readers often asked him where he got the ideas for his stories. "I always tell them, 'From you,'" Soto told NEA Today. "You tell me a story, and I'll make it bigger." The Mexican-American experience, indeed, loomed larger in American literature as a result of his efforts.
The Elements of San Joaquin (poems), University of Pittsburgh Press, 1977.
The Tale of Sunlight (poems), University of Pittsburgh Press, 1978.
Living Up the Street: Narrative Recollections, Strawberry Hill Publishers, 1985.
Small Faces (prose memoirs), Arte Público, 1986.
Lesser Evils (memoirs and essays), Arte Público, 1988.
A Summer Life (autobiography), University Press of New England, 1990.
Baseball in April and Other Stories (short stories for young readers), Harcourt, 1990.
Too Many Tamales (picture book), Putnam, 1992.
The Cat's Meow (picture book), Scholastic, 1995.
New and Selected Poems, Chronicle Books, 1995.
Novio Boy (play), Harcourt, 1997.
Nerd-landia (play and opera libretto), 1999.
Jessie de la Cruz: Profile of a United Farm Worker (biography), Persea, 2000.
The Effects of Knut Hamson on a Fresno Boy: Recollections and Short Essays, Persea, 2000.
If the Shoe Fits (story for young readers), Putnam, 2002.
Shadow of the Plum: Poems, Cedar Hill Publications, 2002.
Authors and Artists for Young Adults, volume 37, Gale, 2000.
Dictionary of Hispanic Biography, Gale, 1996.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 82: Chicano Writers, First Series, Gale, 1989.
Booklist, November 1, 2000, p. 512.
Horn Book Magazine, July-August 2002, p. 451.
NEA Today, November 1992, p. 9.
New York Times, May 20, 1990, Section 7, p. 45.
San Diego Union-Tribune, April 21, 2002, p. E1.
San Francisco Chronicle, April 27, 2003.
"Gary Soto," Contemporary Authors Online, Gale, 2003; reproduced in Biography Resource Center, www.galenet.com/servlet/BioRC (May 23, 2003).
Gary Soto Official Website, www.garysoto.com (May 23, 2003).
—James M. Manheim
"Soto, Gary: 1952—: Children's Author, Novelist, Poet." Contemporary Hispanic Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. 20 Oct. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.
"Soto, Gary: 1952—: Children's Author, Novelist, Poet." Contemporary Hispanic Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (October 20, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/soto-gary-1952-childrens-author-novelist-poet
"Soto, Gary: 1952—: Children's Author, Novelist, Poet." Contemporary Hispanic Biography. . Retrieved October 20, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/soto-gary-1952-childrens-author-novelist-poet