A one-act play in seven scenes, Gary Soto's Novio Boy is intended for junior high school and high school readers, performers, and audiences. Published by Harcourt in 1997, the play is set in a Mexican American neighborhood in Fresno, California, about two hundred miles north of Los Angeles. Soto suggests that this setting is adaptable to any region, as it is written in somewhat simple and colloquial English mixed with some Spanish. The novio of the work's title means "boyfriend" or "sweetheart" in Spanish. Novio Boy tells the story of ninth grader Rudy's first date with eleventh grader Patricia. The play focuses on his concern about what to say and how to behave during the date, obtaining the money to pay for the date, her anticipation, and his family's responses to this milestone in his social maturation. Mixed in with its treatment of typical teenage concerns are allusions to Chicano culture, referencing food, music, and radio programs.
Soto has also used the term Novio Boy for the name of a cat in his children's story, Chato and the Party Animals.
Gary Soto was born to working-class Chicano parents, or Americans of Mexican descent, Manuel and Angie Soto, in Fresno, California, on
April 12, 1952. Manuel, like his Mexican-born parents, was a field and factory worker. He was killed, at the age of twenty-seven, in a work-related accident when Soto was only five years old. Soto, too, labored in the California fields as a grape and orange picker. After he graduated from high school in 1970, Soto was convinced he would not be admitted to California State University, Fresno, so he enrolled at Fresno City College, where he studied geography. Soto encountered the poetry of the American poet Edward Field in his college library. Identifying with Field's work, especially with his descriptions of alienation, Soto found power in words to express feelings that seemed inexpressible. After this event, Soto decided to become a writer rather than a geographer. He then applied to and was accepted at California State University, Fresno. There, from 1972 to 1973, he studied creative writing under the American poet Philip Levine. In 1974 he graduated magna cum laude, and in 1975, he married Carolyn Oda, the daughter of Japanese American farmers, although his mother would have preferred that he marry a Mexican American. In 1976 he received an M.F.A. in creative writing from the University of California at Irvine. During the same year, Soto was a visiting writer at San Diego State University. In 1977 he began teaching as an associate professor in both English and Chicano Studies at the University of California, Berkeley.
In 1975 Soto won the Academy of American Poets Prize and the Discovery/Nation Prize. In 1976 he won both the United States Award of the International Poetry Forum and the University of California, Irvine's Chicano Contest Literary Prize. In 1978 Soto was awarded the Bess Hokin Prize by Poetry magazine. In the same year, Soto's The Tale of Sunlight was a finalist for the Lenore Marshall Poetry Award. In 1979 he was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship and spent a year writing in Mexico City, Mexico. Soto also received a National Education Association fellowship in 1981. In 1984 he received the Levinson Award from Poetry magazine. Living Up the Street: Narrative Recollections won the American Book Award in 1985. Soto's one-act play, Novio Boy, was published in 1997. In the spring of 1988, Soto was the Elliston Poet at the University of Cincinnati, Cincinnati, Ohio. Since his book of poetry, The Elements of San Joaquin, was published in 1977, Soto's poetry has been widely published in numerous journals, including Antaeus, Partisan Review, Paris Review, Poetry, Nation, American Poetry Review, North American Review, and the New Yorker. He has also published Baseball in April and numerous other stories for young readers.
The first scene of Novio Boy begins with the stage divided in half. Stage left, two boys, Rudy and Alex are hanging around in a backyard talking about girls. Stage right, two girls, Patricia Gomez and Alicia are sitting on a couch in a living room. Only the boys‧ section of the stage is lighted. Rudy begins talking about his upcoming date with Patricia, worrying that he will fail to impress her, because she is older than he. His friend Alex teases him, advising him to be honest and apologize to her for his physical appearance. Rudy retaliates, saying he is good-looking, that he looks like the actor Tom Cruise. Alex, more seriously, advises Rudy to make simple conversation with Patricia, asking her what her favorite color is. Most important, Alex has heard on a radio show, is to just keep talking. As the boys continue to talk, Rudy expresses his own disbelief that he is growing up and going on a date, when just a few days before, he and his cousin were playing with G.I. Joe action figures and Barbie dolls.
In addition to worrying about the impression he will make, Rudy is concerned about obtaining the money to pay for his date at a pricey steak house. Alex offers him a quarter and then shows him a love letter he recently received. He recounts his first date when he was nine years old and went to the playground with a girl, dressed up. Alex speaks of how another boy teased him when he saw him holding the girl's purse for her as she was drinking from a water fountain.
As the lights go down on Rudy and Alex, they come up on stage right, revealing Patricia, the girl with whom Rudy has a date, and her friend Alicia. The girls admire magazine pictures of handsome boys and gossip about Patricia's date with Rudy. Patricia tells Alicia how nice she thinks Rudy is, and the girls, like the boys, begin to contemplate how they are growing up, remembering how they played with Barbie dolls and G.I. Joe action figures. Alicia recalls how she got back at her brother after he used the head of her Barbie doll as a baseball by locking him out on the porch wearing just a pair of dirty underwear. The girls laugh, continue to look at the magazine, and talk about boys, tricks they play on their parents, and clothing. El Gato appears on the opposite side of the stage where Rudy and Alex sat before. El Gato is playing music, pattering, and announcing dedications. After a few minutes, the focus shifts back to the girls, who have been listening to the show. They think of calling in to his program but are too shy to do so. They ask each other to name the most important person they have ever talked to. They can only come up with advertising figures like the McDonald's clown and the San Diego Padres mascot, a man in a chicken suit. Then they reiterate their wish to call El Gato and ask him to play "Ninety-Six Tears," both girls' favorite song. Patricia says she cried exactly ninety tears once when a boy broke up with her, and the scene ends with both girls pretending to cry.
Rudy's mother is lifting weights to keep in shape. Rudy stands behind her, good-naturedly imitating her. He asks her about her first boyfriend, and she reminisces a bit. Rudy tells her he has a date and asks to borrow fifteen dollars from her. She balks at the amount and wonders if he is too young to go on a date. When he tells her the girl is older than he is, she is also taken aback. However, Rudy reminds his mother that his father is younger than her. She counters Rudy's argument by stating that she looks young. She challenges him to find wrinkles on her face and shows off her dark hair, admitting, though, that she colors it. Rudy's mother contemplates the idea of Rudy having a girlfriend and worries that soon he will leave her. She asks if the girl is nice. He says he thinks she is. His mother warns him to be "nice," like his father, whose virtues and business success she praises. Rudy's father now owns his own cement truck and is head of a crew of workers. She notes her job as a beautician and says that Rudy will be able to go to college.
When his mother leaves the room, Rudy does a few repetitions with her weights but quickly tires. His Uncle Juan enters with his guitar and, noticing that Rudy looks downcast, asks him why. Rudy denies he is troubled. Juan begins to play and sing a song but stops soon to ask him again what is wrong. Rudy explains he has a date but does not have the money to pay for it. Juan, an unemployed, aging hippie who plays his guitar on the street, tells Rudy not to worry about money. Rather, he emphasizes that it is important to make conversation on a date.
When Rudy's mother returns, Juan joins forces with Rudy to borrow some money from her. They flatter her, but she resists their blandishments and tells Juan he should find a real job. Juan surprises her by stating that he has a part-time job playing guitar and singing in a steak house. Rudy's mother softens and gives Rudy his birthday money a month early. As the scene ends, they smell something burning. It is the beans Rudy's mother is cooking, and she dashes into the kitchen.
The setting is the radio studio from which El Gato is broadcasting live. After dedicating a few songs to listeners, he introduces Mama Rosa, who gives advice about love, where to meet people, and how to concoct a love potion.
Juan is the next guest on the program. He publicizes his appearance at Steaks, Steaks, y Más Steaks, the same steak house that Rudy is planning to take Patricia to on their date. After some banter, Juan sings a song about a fight between tortillas and frijoles (beans) and their reconciliation. El Gato gives Juan coupons for a meal at a Cuban restaurant as payment for his appearance on the radio show and repeats the announcement of Juan's upcoming performance.
In the beauty parlor, Rudy's mother is doing Estela's hair. Estela gossips about a man she was interested in who turned out to be married. She says she wants her hair dyed red, laments the way she looks, and asks if Rudy's mother thinks "redheads have more fun."When Rudy's mother answers that one's attitude is more important than one's appearance, Estela misunderstands the word attitude and protests that she does not have an attitude, a joke that will continue throughout the play. When Rudy's mother states that her husband is a goodman, Estela complains about her "three … no, four" husbands. She concludes that she might flirt with Juan if he were not so lazy. The women hear El Gato speaking on the radio and turn the volume up.
On his radio program, El Gato talks about love and takes questions from callers. Estela calls in and asks him the same question she asked Rudy's mother—if being a redhead increases attractiveness. El Gato answers as Rudy's mother did, saying attitude trumps appearance. Again Estela balks, saying she has no attitude. El Gato explains that he means personality when he says attitude and suggests the "inner self" is more important than the outer appearance, but Estela dismisses his comments as "nonsense" and hangs up on him. Rudy's mother puts Estela under a hair dryer and takes the next customer, who happens to be Rudy's date, Patricia. This is Patricia's first visit to the salon. As they talk about what Patricia wants done with her hair, Patricia mentions her upcoming date with a nice boy. Rudy's mother realizes Patricia is speaking of Rudy; however, Patricia remains unaware that the beautician is Rudy's mother. When Patricia says that Rudy hardly ever speaks of his mother except to say she is strict, Rudy's mother becomes comically upset and a little jealous. The scene ends as Estela comes out from under the hair dryer as a redhead and shimmies excitedly upon seeing her new look.
In an attempt to make money for his date, Rudy sets up a stand with Alex and hopes to sell apples. They speak of finding money and how Alex once burned his baby brother. Alex plays with a G.I. Joe action figure, and Rudy comments that he would not go into the army because he does not like uniforms. Alex talks about his intention to play football. They realize that they have not sold any apples. An old man enters the scene, and the boys successfully sell him some apples. In the course of the transaction, they learn that the man is a widower. They talk about dating, and when the old man complains that his life is boring and that he never goes out on dates, they encourage him to go out to a restaurant. The idea seems to spark his interest. The scene ends with Rudy and Alex reflecting comically on the fragility of relationships with girls.
The climactic scene of the play, Rudy's date with Patricia in the steak house, brings nearly the whole cast together on stage. The scene begins with Juan playing his guitar and telling the waiter that he will "wow the crowd." The waiter remarks that the boss expects Juan to draw a crowd. Rudy and Patricia enter, and Rudy checks his wallet, observing the restaurant's elegant atmosphere. The waiter seats them. Patricia says that it is a "discriminating restaurant," and Rudy takes the word discriminating in its negative sense. Patricia, though, promises him that she does not mean that the restaurant discriminates against Latinos. She affectionately calls him silly when he says the cloth napkin looks like a diaper. Juan sings a song, and Patricia says she thinks he is very talented. Rudy, embarrassed that his uncle is there, says he is just ok. The waiter brings them menus. A "moo" sound comes from the kitchen, and Patricia notes that "the food's really fresh." Rudy compliments a cat pin Patricia is wearing, which leads to a conversation about her cat, called Novio Boy, meaning "sweetheart boy." She shows him a picture of the cat, whose ear was ripped off in a fight. Patricia compares the cat to Rudy; she says that "he's small but he's valiant." Rudy, however, states that he is "against fighting," because when he fights, he gets beaten up.
The waiter returns, and Patricia places a large order. To avoid spending too much money, Rudy orders only crackers and a diet soda, saying that he has to watch his weight, because he is wrestling. They continue to talk; he compliments her, and she tells him she is learning to drive a car. She also mentions that her mother is "overprotective"; does not like her dating boys; and thinks that she is at the library, not on a date. However, Patricia reassures Rudy that he will not get into trouble and how highly she (Patricia) thinks of him. As they are talking, the old man to whom Rudy and Alex sold apples enters the restaurant and stops when he sees Rudy. They shake hands, and the old man tells him he is taking Rudy and Alex's advice and is doing something. He compliments Patricia and asks if Rudy can fix him up with her mother, but Patricia tells him her mother is already married. The old man then asks Juan if he knows a certain song and takes a seat. Rudy tells Patricia how he knows him and at the same time her beeper goes off. (The play was written just a few years before cell phones became ubiquitous.) Patricia tells Rudy that Alicia is paging her, and she goes outside for a moment to call her.
While Patricia is on the phone, Rudy asks Juan why he is there. Juan tells him he has a job playing guitar and singing at the restaurant and then gives Rudy some money to pay for his meal. Juan then addresses the audience, talking about his various girlfriends. When Patricia returns, Juan plays a romantic song. The waiter brings their orders, Patricia's hamburger and fries and Rudy's crackers and diet soda. Patricia offers to share her food, and together they discover they both like their fries with mustard. Rudy compliments Patricia's hair, noting that his mother is a hair dresser. As Rudy reads prepared compliments from a hidden sheet of paper, Alex enters the restaurant. Slipping the waiter a dollar, he gets a table near Patricia and Rudy. The old man recognizes Alex as the boy who sold him apples along with Rudy and notes how nice Patricia is but that her mother is married. Patricia stands near Juan as he plays, and Rudy and Alex talk about how Rudy's date is going. Patricia returns, and Alex goes back to his table. As Rudy and Patricia continue to talk, Rudy notices that the restaurant is full of familiar people. At that moment, his mother and Estela enter the restaurant. Slowly, Rudy realizes that he is surrounded by people he knows, and they are watching him. Nevertheless, he dances with Patricia. She offers to teach him to drive and offers to split the bill. He declines her offer to help pay for the meal. She says that she will pay next time, indicating that they will have another date. When Patricia must go home, she kisses Rudy on the cheek.
After Patricia leaves the restaurant, Rudy confronts his mother, asking her why she is spying on him. She denies knowing that he was taking his date to the steak house, but Estela points out that Rudy's mother styled Patricia's hair. Juan says their presence at the restaurant shows they are all "watching out for" Rudy, but they should have given him more space. The old man strikes up a conversation with Estela, and they go for a walk with Juan. Left alone with Alex, Rudy decides that he will gather up all his toys and other signs of his childhood and sell them at a yard sale in order to pay back everyone who lent him money for the date, indicating his passage into adolescence and his developing sense of responsibility.
Alex is Rudy's good friend. He is described as "big" and "awkward." On his first date, when he was nine years old, Alex took a girl to the playground and was embarrassed when another boy saw him holding the girl's purse as she drank from a water fountain. He advises Rudy as to how to act on his date, even during the date, when he comes to the steak house where Rudy has taken Patricia and helps Rudy by giving him money to pay for the meal.
Alicia is Patricia's friend and confidant. Looking at a magazine, she giggles about the pictures of attractive boys and discusses Rudy with Patricia. She recalls the tricks she played on her parents when she was a kid and the fights she had with her brother. She is "scared" to call in to the celebrity radio disc jockey, El Gato.
El Gato is a radio disc jockey. His broadcast style is lively but not combative. He plays records, interviews guests, takes on-air phone calls, and engages in discussions about love and money. Many of the characters in the play listen to his show. His show is one of the focal points of the community in the play.
Estela is a customer in Rudy's mother's beauty shop. She is beginning to age and is distressed by it. She has her hair dyed red in the hope that she will feel more youthful and have more fun with red hair. She has been married three or four times and admits she is unclear about the number. There is a recurring joke based on her repeated misunderstanding of the word attitude. She is rough in her manner and a little slow in her understanding, but she is a warm person, nevertheless.
Juan is Rudy's uncle, an aging hippie and street musician who has finally obtained a part-time job singing and playing guitar at a steak house. He is a guest on El Gato's radio show, where he sings a song and advertises his performance at the restaurant. He acts more like a brother to Rudy than an uncle. Although he talks as though he is a man of experience, Juan is nearly as financially dependent on his sister (Rudy's mother) as Rudy is.
Mama Rosa gives advice about love, discusses astrology, and offers recipes for love potions. She appears on El Gato's radio show, which many of the characters in the play listen to for advice.
The old man is a widower who buys apples from Rudy and Alex. His life has been dull since his wife died. At Rudy and Alex's suggestion, the old man goes out to a restaurant, the same steak house where Rudy takes Patricia for their date. He meets Estela there and, along with Rudy's mother, goes on a walk.
Patricia is an eleventh-grade girl whom Rudy asks out on a date. Older and taller than Rudy, she is attractive and knows how to drive a car. Although she lies to her overprotective mother by saying she is going to the library rather than on a date with a boy, she is a good-natured, responsible girl. Patricia likes Rudy; she tells him she thinks he is brave and sensible and even imagines marrying him when she is an adult.
Rudy is a ninth-grader moving from childhood to adolescence. He works in the school cafeteria serving food and is nervous about his first date with Patricia, who finds him attractive. Rudy teases his mother when she becomes vain, but he is amiable and responsible. He is not a tough kid and states that he does not like to fight because he gets beaten up. At an age when he has both childhood and adolescent interests, Rudy decides at the end of the play to get rid of his childish toys.
Rudy's mother is a beautician. She keeps in shape by doing aerobic exercises with weights and dyes her hair to retain a youthful appearance. She tries to be stern when Rudy asks to borrow money from her but quickly softens. She is a responsible person who works hard, looks to rise socially and economically, and respects her husband, who is successful in business through hard work.
Age versus Maturity
Novio Boy is a coming-of-age story about the anxieties and ambitions that Rudy faces growing up, especially as he makes the effort to transition from childhood to adolescence. He asks Patricia out on a date, gathers the money to pay for the date by selling apples, faces his past by talking about the toys he has enjoyed playing with, and attempts to enter his future by divesting himself of them. His date with Patricia becomes a rite of passage not just because it is his first date but also because so many characters from his past participate in it by watching the date happen at the restaurant.
The difference between age and maturity is an implicit theme in Novio Boy. Initially, in the play, a younger boy asks an older girl out on a date, and then he worries about appearing immature. The older girl is also aware that she is going out with a younger boy, but she is not disturbed by this fact at all. Her affection for him is, nevertheless, tinged with that of a mature person for a naïve person. In contrasting scenes, Rudy and his friend Alex and Patricia and her friend Alicia recall their childhoods and remark on how immature or naïve they used to be. When the scene shifts to the adults in the play, concern for age is still at the forefront of conversation. Rudy's mother worries that she has wrinkles, and she dyes her gray hair. Both Estela and Juan are examples of adults who have not attained maturity; Estela does not have a mature understanding of relationships, and Juan cannot support himself financially. The old man listens to Rudy and Alex's advice and attempts to recover his youth by going out to a restaurant and socializing with women. The resolution of the play comes with Rudy's decision to get rid of his childhood toys after realizing that he is maturing and wants to grow up.
The importance of a community bound together by a common culture pervades Novio Boy. In the play, this entails a mixture of Mexican and American cultures. Therefore, the characters relate stories of experiences that seem typically American, like playing with action figures and dolls and listening to American music. They also share experiences that involve Chicano food and music. Perhaps the play's strongest social link is El Gato's radio program, as it facilitates community-wide conversation. Relationships between individuals, however, contribute most to the sense of a community and a common culture, as the friendships of Alex and Rudy or Patricia and Alicia show. The final convergence of most of the characters in the steak house, as Juan remarks, shows a common concern for Rudy's well-being.
TOPICS FOR FURTHER STUDY
- Novio Boy concerns a boy's first date. Write a short story narrating your first date, including the circumstances, anxiety, and excitement involved. How do you go about making the date and preparing for it? What expectations do you have? How does the date compare with your expectations?
- Rudy's mother is a beautician, and she is concerned about losing her youthful looks. She exercises and dyes her hair. Her friend, Estela, has similar concerns. Rudy, too, is aware of his age, since Patricia is two grades ahead of him in school. Prepare a questionnaire that asks respondents about their attitudes toward aging, whether they cosmetically alter or enhance their looks, what they look for in a partner physically, and the relative importance of attitude and looks and whether or not the two subjects are related. Present the survey to an equal number of males and females. Compile your data in a report, analyzing how males and females differ, if at all, in their responses.
- Nearly everyone listens to the radio in Novio Boy. In an essay of at least five hundred words, discuss the importance of radio in, and its effects on, American culture. You may extend the scope of your essay to other media as well.
- Novio Boy presents a rather comfortable picture of life for Mexican Americans in California. There have been, however, serious labor and economic struggles waged in California over the last fifty years by the United Farm Workers (UFW) Union, founded by Cesar Chavez (1927-1993) for the rights of farm and field workers. Research the UFW and Chavez and present an oral report on the issues the union confronted, the methods it employed in the fight for workers' rights in California, and its significance for the rest of the country. Conclude your report by outlining the challenges Mexican Americans face in the workforce today.
Soto challenges traditional gender stereotypes in Novio Boy. Throughout the play, women are shown in positions of authority and strength, and men are portrayed as dependent on and subordinate to women. Patricia, for example, thinks that she might become a soldier after graduation. Rudy, conversely, tells Alex he does not want to be a soldier, as he dislikes the uniforms. In addition, he does not like to fight, since he usually loses. When Rudy attempts to use his mother's weights, he quickly becomes winded. Alex recalls being teased when he was seen carrying a girl's purse for her as she drank from a water fountain in the park. Rudy's mother works out and shows off her muscles. His uncle, Juan, a usually unemployed street musician, is dependent upon Rudy's mother for his income. Estela is presented as being promiscuous in a way often attributed to males. Soto makes a point of having the waiter refer to the owner of the steak house as a female, reinforcing the role of women in authoritative positions in the play.
A dialect is a common speech shared by members of any particular social or cultural group. It includes slang and popular expressions and utilizes the straightforward sentence structure of everyday speech. The characters in Novio Boy use a dialect that blends English, Spanish, and slang. For example, the boys call each other "man," "bro," and "homes," and use expressions like "cool." The girls refer to each other as "girl" and use expressions like "cross my heart." Rudy's mother calls Rudy m'ijo, a term of endearment that comes from the Spanish mi hijo, meaning "my son;" and Estela mujer, meaning "woman" or "lady."
Throughout the play, Spanish words, phrases, and expressions are used alongside English ones. For example, when El Gato jokes about the best time to fall in love, he says, "Pues [well], I think it's the first of the month, when the cheque [check] comes in." Spanish figures so prominently in the dialect that there is a six-page glossary of Spanish words and expressions appended to the text to aid readers who are unfamiliar with the Spanish language. Through the mix of Spanish, English, and slang, Soto portrays Chicano culture linguistically.
Originating in Greek drama, stychomathia is a dialogue in short, alternating lines, like a game of catch between the actors. In Novio Boy, Soto renews the classical form when he uses it to present the quick and abbreviated back-and-forth that characterizes a great deal of colloquial conversation in the play. This stylistic device reinforces the playful tone of the work.
Chicano Literature in the Twentieth Century
Chicano literature is an English-language literature of a people whose heritage is a literature composed in Spanish. It is a literature written by Mexican Americans, native to the United States, whose cultural identity is often more fundamentally American than Mexican and who are dedicated to integrating their experience of the two cultures in literature. Chicano literature is rooted in the sense of a Mexican past and partly in the popular nineteenth-century Mexican ballads celebrating heroic deeds, called corridos. However, the literary genre often focuses on Mexican American life experiences in the United States.
Chicano literature experienced an upsurge and renewed popularity in the late 1960s and the 1970s when Chicano poets, such as Rodolfo Gonzales; Luis Alberto Urista, writing under the pen name of "Alurista"; Jimmy Santiago Baca; Lorna Dee Cervantes; and Leroy V. Quintana began to write consciously and proudly about their culture and their roles as artists in the culture. Such writing brought a sense of Mexican American culture and history to a people who found themselves, largely in the American Southwest, relegated to a socially inferior status. The social condition, a prominent subject of Chicano literature, is featured in José Antonio Villareal's novel Pocho, which analyzes the experiences of Mexican immigrants living in the United States during the Depression in the 1930s. Social issues were also the subject of the poetry and fiction of this generation of Chicano writers. Luis Valdez formed El Teatro Campesino and presented plays like Zoot Suit, performed by and for striking migrant workers during the labor struggles of the 1960s and 1970s led by Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta. Chicano authors also wrote about crises of faith, relationships with the land, and experiences of urban life.
During the late twentieth century, Chicano novelists produced a rich body of work, including Rudolfo Anaya's Bless Me, Ultima (1972), which won the Premio Quinto Sol National literary award; Sandra Cisneros's The House on Mango Street (1984), which won the American Book Award; Denise Chávez's The Last of the Menu Girls (1986); and Tomás Rivera's And the Earth Did Not Devour Him (1987).
1960s Advocacy for Mexican American Labor Rights
Novio Boy does not necessarily address social or economic issues critically, except as they appear in Juan's comic persona or Rudy's adolescent problem of earning money for his date. However, Soto emphasizes these subjects in several of his other works, especially relating to Mexican Americans' experiences in his home state of California, where Novio Boy is set. The history of many Mexican Americans, especially in California, is linked to agricultural work, exploitation by growers, and the labor struggle of Mexican American farm workers. In 1966 several farm worker unions joined together to conduct a series of strikes and formed the United Farm Workers of America (UFW) union. In an effort to educate the next generation of Americans about these struggles, Soto wrote a biography of Cesar Chavez, one of the leaders of UFW reform, for children. Titled Cesar Chavez: A Hero for Everyone and illustrated by Lori Lohstoeter (2003), the book reflects Soto's esteem for Chavez and analyzes his role as an advocate for Mexican American rights. Chavez, Dolores Huerta, and other UFW leaders based their effort on the principles and practices of nonviolent philosophies as defined and deployed by Mohandas Gandhi during the Indian movement for independence from England. They also incorporated the nonviolent philosophies of Bayard Rustin and Martin Luther King, Jr., used during the U.S. civil rights struggle for racial equality in the 1950s and early 1960s. In Cesar Chavez: A Hero for Everyone, Soto examines Chavez's modest background during the Depression and his important role as a farm worker, labor organizer, civil rights activist in obtaining Mexican American labor rights.
Gary Soto is most noted for his poetry, which takes a hard and unaffected look at the oppressive conditions under which many Mexican Americans live and labor. Julian Olivares, in a review for the Latin American Literary Review, states that Soto is "the most recognized Chicano poet in the American literary mainstream." Revista Chicano-Riqueña contributor Patricia de la Fuentes finds a kind of linguistic ambiguity that creates complexity and depth in Soto's poetry. La Fuentes identifies, for example, how Soto's use of the word strokes to describe the movement of the air in his poem "Wind," not only "accentuates the terror and aggression implicit in the action of the wind because it denotes hitting or striking a blow that wounds or destroys, an attack," but "also carries a denotation which is at odds with the implacable violence of the wind since it represents the diametrically opposite action of caressing, flattering, soothing."
Soto has also established himself as an author of books for children and adolescents. In these works—the greater part are short stories— and also in plays, such as Novio Boy, Soto portrays worlds free from the grim realities he describes in his poetry. Denise E. Agosto, a contributor to School Library Journal, calls Novio Boy "a hip, funny play" that "young actors should be able to perform … with or without adult assistance."
Heims is a freelance writer living in Paris and the author or editor of more than two dozen books on literary subjects. In the following essay, he examines how Soto's background and audience influence Novio Boy.
Whether knowledge of an author's life is relevant or useful in interpreting or understanding his or her work is a matter of considerable debate. During much of the twentieth century, a school of literary thought called New Criticism asserted that biography is extraneous to an interpretation of literature, that a reader need consider nothing but the text in front of her or him. It suggested that literature presents a paradox that must be identified; works should be approached as if they contain a puzzle or a code to be broken. A work like Gary Soto's Novio Boy, regarded as a piece of dramatic literature, poses a problem for such critics. Novio Boy is a straightforward story of a Chicano boy's first date. There are no weighty problems or tensions, no deep encounters with the self, others, morality, or society. At the end of the play, Rudy does decide to separate himself from his childhood by selling his old toys at a yard sale, but his approach to manhood still has a good deal of boyishness to it. Why not? He is still a boy. The play is a good-natured, gentle comedy, more like a situation comedy made for television than a drama for the theater. The challenges he faces are conventional, and the outcome is what is typically called "heartwarming." There is little to explain, no buried meaning to excavate.
Eventually, the rigors of New Criticism gave way to critical methods that do take into account biography, historical period, culture, and other elements New Critics might consider extraneous. They suggest that knowledge of the events of an author's life and culture do inform a reading of an author's work. Some also place emphasis on how readers bring meaning to a work. These more holistic approaches help further illuminate a seemingly uncomplicated work like Novio Boy.
Novio Boy is an introductory play to be performed by and for young audiences. It is intended for performance; it comes to life on the stage, not on the page. Novio Boy is more a community event—a school production, for example—than a literary event. It is the type of play that thrives when the audience knows the actors in everyday life and the actors are aware that they are performing for an audience that knows them outside their roles, recognizes them inside their roles, and is rooting for them. Novio Boy involves familiarity, good will, and a communal and educative purpose that can be found more in the performance than in the text of the play. It demands of its performers not necessarily that they show great skill as actors but simply that they endeavor to perform.
WHAT DO I READ NEXT?
- A Memory of Two Mondays, first published in 1956, is a one-act play by Arthur Miller. The play traces the maturing of a young man as he works in a warehouse in 1933 during the Great Depression, longing for a college education in a seemingly hopeless time.
- The Catcher in the Rye (1951), J. D. Salinger's only novel, traces the journey of Holden Caufield, a rebellious and angst-ridden teenager recently expelled from a college preparatory school. Holden explores an underground lifestyle in New York City and has a nervous breakdown, beginning a melancholy maturity.
- Giant (1952), by Edna Ferber, is an epic novel of family, culture, and class in Texas that focuses in part on the social status and challenges of Mexican American oil-field and farm laborers.
- Soon to Be a Major Motion Picture, published in 1979, is a cultural memoir by Abbie Hoffman, a leading social and political activist during the civil rights movement of the 1960s.
- Cesar Chavez: A Hero for Everyone, published in 2003 by Aladdin Books, is Soto's biography of the great Chicano labor organizer who, along with Dolores Huerta, led Mexican American workers through a successful strike against California grape and lettuce growers. Written for children, it sheds light on the values and Mexican American history that Soto wishes to impart to the next generation.
The resonance in Novio Boy comes not from within the play itself but precisely from external forces, brought from either the experience of its readers or the circumstances of its presentation. Rudy is a sympathetic character who is concerned about obtaining the money to pay for his first date. He is also worried how his date, Patricia, will perceive him, especially since she is two years older than he, a significant difference in adolescence. Young audience members can identify with Rudy as he goes on his first date, is self-conscious about his physical appearance, and struggles to assert independence from his mother. Novio Boy also addresses Rudy's relationship with his mother. She recognizes that she and her son are growing older and that her son is becoming less dependent on her.
Here is where knowledge of Soto's life becomes illuminating. Soto's father was killed in a work-related accident when Gary was only five years old, leaving him and his siblings to be raised in near poverty by their mother. Absent from Novio Boy are strong male figures, as they were from Soto's own childhood. In the play, though, the sting is removed and absence does not signify loss and deprivation, but a congenial exercise in refocusing. Although the cast of Novio Boy is balanced in terms of male and female characters—six males and five females, excluding the callers on El Gato's radio program, influential male figures seem to be missing from the play.
However, their absence is not presented as problematic. Rudy's father is absent from the action of the play, but he is not absent from Rudy's life. Rudy's mother mentions him as a model for Rudy. His father has succeeded in getting "his own cement truck" and becoming the boss "of his own crew." Rudy's mother, however, is presented not only as a strong character because of her presence in the action of the play but as a provider for her family. She works as a beautician and supports her brother, Juan. Rudy's mother's customer, Estela, adds a comic dimension to the absence of men in the play as she speaks of her "first three husbands." When asked by the old man if she is married, Estela answers "sometimes." The presence of three such transitory men, as Estela presents them, actually indicates the absence of a man of significance in her life. Juan, intended as a comedic figure is nevertheless a weak male figure, unable to provide for himself or hold a steady job. He is not a model for Rudy in this sense, although this issue is hardly emphasized. Rather, he is characterized as a source of affection and camaraderie for Rudy. Rudy himself is far from macho—he is winded by exercise, reluctant to fight, and disinterested in the military. Patricia, on the other hand, imagines the possibility of becoming a soldier. Nevertheless, she admires Rudy's dislike of fighting and is charmed by his romantic words. The absence of strong males in the community of the play is transformed into an absence not of men but of machismo (an exaggerated sense of masculinity).
Another important biographical fact about Soto is that he is an American of Mexican descent. He grew up as social, political, and economic issues in Mexican American communities took on national prominence. During this time, Dolores Huerta, Cesar Chavez, and other labor activists of the United Farm Workers of America (UFW) union were striving to end discrimination against and exploitation of Mexican American workers in the fields and factories of agricultural enterprises, particularly in California, where Soto was born and raised. Racial drama is not represented in this play about members of a Chicano community. Yet many Mexican Americans, including Soto, have experienced social struggles like exploitation, poverty, and discrimination. These issues formed the context of Soto's childhood and remain contemporary problems for numerous Mexican Americans. Significant themes of social adversity are evident in Soto's poetry and adult fiction. Rather than writing about social issues and confronting them dramatically and thematically in Novio Boy, however, Soto has made the work itself tacitly confront those issues by presenting an alternative reality, a reality as familiar and as tame as that depicted in a generic situation comedy for television. In the play, Soto dramatizes cultural assimilation. He does not depict experiences of oppression and exploitation. Instead, he celebrates the comfortable sense of being an included and accepted member of mainstream American culture.
Issues, thus, that might have defining importance for a Chicano audience, such as economic exploitation and social oppression, are not addressed in Novio Boy. Rather than analyzing the difficulties that beset many Mexican American communities, Soto presents in Novio Boy a young Mexican American dealing with adolescence as any other boy his age does. The Chicano reality that Soto depicts is as American as an after-school television special, and its language and setting are straightforward and familiar to young Mexican American students. Soto thereby enables students who read and perform NovioBoy to experience literature on an introductory, nonthreatening level.
Source: Neil Heims, Critical Essay on Novio Boy in Drama for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2009.
In the following interview, Soto answers questions about influences on his writing.
Award-winning author Gary Soto lives with his wife, Carolyn, in the hills above Berkeley, California, but his heart belongs to Fresno. Scope talked to Soto about his hometown, his Hispanic heritage, and how both influenced him as a writer.
SCOPE: Fresno, California, appears in a lot of your work. What was it like when you were a teen?
Gary Soto: Fresno these days is a much larger city, but when I was a boy, I recall Fresno as an agricultural town. Fruit hung everywhere, and the best way to get it was to pick what you wanted from trees that hung over fences. Plums were there—apricots, peaches, nectarines, grapes, and oranges. I liked walking around, especially in alleys, because I would always find some junky treasure worth my time. Fresno was an ideal place to shape a young writer's mind.
SCOPE: You've written in many genres—plays, novels, short stories, and poetry. Do you have a favorite kind of writing?
GS: I'm a poet at heart, and I think in all my other work—novels, short stories, and plays—there is evidence that I think like a poet. I'm a concise writer, I believe, and when I write, say, a novel like The Afterlife, I can't seem to write more than 190 pages.
SCOPE: How valuable is it to write from your own experience?
GS: Poetry is often about the self, meaning you—a person with an ordinary body, ordinary looks, and ordinary life. I realized this early on, and later carried it over into personal-essay writing. I had a set of experiences as a child, and I wanted to repeat them. It was a time that I could only call back by writing about it.
SCOPE: What aspects of your Mexican-American heritage make you most proud?
GS: Without doubt, I'm proud of individuals like Cesar Chavez, founder of the United Farm Workers of America. He was a man who witnessed unfair treatment of field workers and set about to improve their lot. ¡Qué viva Cesar Chavez!
SCOPE: How important is reading in the process of becoming a better writer?
GS: Poetry beckoned me while I was a student at Fresno City College. It said, "Hey, you, come on over here." "Here" was a campus library, and I went there in search of poetry, all because I was heartbroken—a girl I liked didn't return any affection.
SCOPE: Is there a book that changed your life?
GS: I recall reading John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath in tenth grade and thinking that I had encountered a truth about farm workers. I rooted for those poor Okies of The Grapes of Wrath. I realized the power of writing and that the poor can have their say, too. It was one of the best reading experiences I have ever had.
Source: Lisa Feder-Feitel, "¡Viva Soto!," in Scholastic Scope, Vol. 53, No. 3, October 4, 2004, p. 11.
In the following review, Ayres argues that, although the amount of Spanish in Novio Boy could pose a challenge for some student performers, it is nevertheless a "sweetheart of a play."
It's not Novio Boy, the cool cat from Soto's Chato's Kitchen, but Rudy and Alex from The Pool Party, who are featured in this seven-scene play. Rudy, now a ninth-grader, asks an "older woman," an eleventh-grader, out for his first date. In preparation, Rudy seeks advice from his best friend Alex, startles his mother with news of this recent development in his social activities, and asks his "Chicano loafer" and guitar-playing Uncle Juan for financing, but is somehow surprised when they all end up at the restaurant on the night of his big date. Soto's contemporary play is lighthearted and fun to read, but the liberal use of Spanish, which flavors and authenticates the dialogue, requires frequent trips to the extensive glossary at the end and may make the play difficult to perform for students not comfortable speaking Spanish. However, Novio Boy is, true to its title, a sweetheart of a play.
Source: Annie Ayres, Review of Novio Boy: A Play, in Booklist, Vol. 93, No. 16, April 15, 1997, p. 1425.
In the following interview, Soto talks with Rinn about his career, background, and reasons for writing works like Novio Boy that feature Mexican Americans.
Gary Soto, the poet, essayist, and fiction writer who has published short stories and novels about Mexican-American teenagers, believes that non-Hispanics have no business writing about this ethnic group. "I feel very strongly that those writing about Mexican Americans should be Mexican American," Soto told the Book Report. He doesn't think it's possible for someone who grew up in Philadelphia or a small-town in Georgia to know what life is like for a Latino youngster in Fresno.
As an American of Mexican origin living in California, Soto sets his stories in places he knows intimately, the neighborhoods of Fresno, the surrounding fields, and San Francisco. In doing that, he doesn't feel that's he's any more limited than other American regional writers. After all, Eudora Welty isn't criticized for sticking to her "turf," and he doesn't see why he should see it as a limitation, either.
He doesn't believe in censorship, Soto quickly added, but he truly questions the motivations of the many non-Hispanic writers who have recently published stories with Hispanic themes or main characters. Recently he addressed a group of children's-book professionals and used several picture books to make his point. Each one of the books portrayed Hispanic characters working in the fields and smiling. "I don't trust their observations. I don't trust their motivations," Soto said about the authors. Soto himself has worked as a laborer and so can say with some authority, "You can't write about field work in a picture book and have kids smiling." Instead, those writers should record the cancer rate in the San Joaquin Valley, where field workers inhale pesticides year after year, Soto suggested.
Even when Anglo writers discuss the hardships of the field workers, Soto dismisses their efforts. "Unauthentic tearjerkers" is the way he describes them. There's a saying, Soto added; no tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.
In contrast, Soto's stories are filled with the flavors of Mexican-American life and culture. He worked as a field laborer during his childhood summers. His first book for children, Baseball in April, is a collection of short stories that tell of Alfonso's desperation to borrow his brother's bicycle for his first date, Hector's grandfather's dreams of buying a house, Yollie's mother's decision to use money she was saving for college to buy her daughter new clothes.
The kids in Soto's stories dream of brand-new clothes for school instead of hand-me-downs, a real Barbie instead of a cheaper replica, going on expensive amusement-park rides instead of playing baseball in a dusty field. Their fathers work in factories and drink too much. Their mothers cook tortillas and frijoles and threaten their children with straps when they misbehave. Backbreaking work in the fields to make some extra money is always a real option. These are the Latino working poor, neither sentimentalized nor prettified. Children roam the streets unsupervised, do foolish, destructive things, and emerge unscathed. Soto has borrowed a phrase from Ezra Pound—the unkillable children of the poor—to describe them.
In the many letters from readers in response to his first collection of stories based on his own life, Living Up the Street, Soto picked up a sense of recognition and yearning for more. They heard what he was saying, he explained, and now he hears from young readers all the time, as well as meeting them in schools in California and the Southwest. Mexican-American kids invariably see themselves in the work, and sometimes they correct the Spanish words and phrases sprinkled throughout his writing. Chuckling, Soto defended his Spanish, and explained that regionalism accounts for the so-called errors.
After the publication of Living Up the Street in the mid 80s and another collection of short stories based on his youthful experiences, A Summer Life, Soto realized that Latino youngsters needed to see themselves and their lives validated in print. He wanted to put together a book of short stories specifically for children. Unfortunately, no major publishing houses were interested, citing the form and the limited audience as drawbacks. Traditionally, short stories have been difficult to sell, and in the mid 80s, the publishing industry was not yet aware of the growing market in the Latino community. When Harcourt Brace published Baseball in April and Other Stories in 1990, it received glowing reviews. It was chosen an ALA Best Book for Young Adults, a Horn Book Fanfare Selection, and a Judy Lopez Memorial Honor Book.
Once his "young adult" books began to sell well, Soto found himself pursued by other publishers. With an agent to represent him, he began to publish children's books regularly with several different major houses. Soto now devotes most of his time to children's literature, while continuing to write adult poetry.
The connection Latino teens feel to his work is mainly one of pride, Soto believes. Although Mexican Americans do not have an extensive literary tradition, Soto said, "One thing we do have is an incredible pride in who we are." According to Soto, Pocho, by Jose Villareal, published in 1959, was the first truly Mexican American novel. It was a coming of age story about second- and third-generation-out-of-Mexico Americans. Now in the 1990s, a real body of literature exists. The plethora of Latino writers now publishing is due to the maturation of the writers themselves and to the growth of the Hispanic audience. Many of the writers now being published by large houses have been around since the 1970s, Soto said, publishing in small presses. They have been honing their skills and getting to be better writers and business people.
Soto himself went to Fresno City College to avoid the draft in 1970. After completing the two-year curriculum, he transferred to California State University at Fresno. At this time, he was writing poetry while working different jobs and living at home. Although he had no idea what he wanted to do, he wrote down urban planner as a career goal. "It sounded good," he recalls. An experienced and skilled student by then, he went on to California State University at Irvine and earned a master's of fine arts degree in creative writing.
In an interview for the first volume of Speaking of Poets: Interviews with PoetsWho Write for Children and Young Adults (NCTE, 1993), Soto says he first became interested in writing poetry when he discovered the work of Allen Ginsberg and other poets of the "Beat" generation. By the mid 1970s, he began to receive recognition for his poetry, which appeared in magazines and was also published by the University of Pittsburgh Press.
After he received his master's degree, Soto lived in Mexico City for a while. He began teaching at the University of California, Berkeley in 1977. Soto was there until 1991, when he left to write full-time.
Soto's body of works includes children's picture and chapter books, novels for readers from middle grades to high school, poetry and essays for all ages, and film. He has made three short films for Spanish-speaking children, The Bike, Novio Boy, and Pool Party, which is based on his book. He has put aside filmmaking for theater, and is now searching for high school drama departments to perform his play Novio Boy, a young Mexican-American romance.
As one might expect, his books for children have been translated into Spanish, but his poetry and short stories are available in German, Italian, French, Estonian, and Yugoslavian as well.
Soto, who has just finished a novel about gang life in Fresno, knows a little about gangs from personal experience. Present-day Fresno, where he still has relatives, is a different city from the one where he grew up. "There's a lot of anger that comes up" from the street now. "A lot of race problems in that city." Playgrounds in Fresno are dangerous places today, in contrast to the relatively innocent spots they were in the 60s.
Although Soto's essays and stories are filled with scraps and squabbles, children suffer little more than bloody noses and wounded pride. The emotional fuel that drives Latino gang members today is the desire for revenge, Soto believes. He quoted another Latino writer and former gang member, Luis Rodriguez, who said "it's the power to bring people to their knees" that is so intoxicating. That appetite for power is peculiarly American, according to Soto. "Generosity won't get you anywhere. Ruthlessness will get you somewhere. Greed will get you somewhere," he said. In a society where intelligence and the arts are not valued, gang members represent frontier values. Adolescents are the purest believers in those values. "It's a time when you can prove yourself," Soto said, a time when family is not nearly as important as friends.
Soto remembers when he dreamed of physically overwhelming opponents, and his study of karate plays a central part in his novel set in Japan, Pacific Crossing, What first interested him in the martial art was "the mystery, the idea of destruction, of being able to beat up the kid across the street." Although he has friends who got hooked on the spiritual component of karate, Soto lost interest after a while. Even though his wife is of Japanese ancestry, the book was based on research rather than visiting the Asian country.
Soto pointed out that sticking to his own ethnic group in his writing doesn't prevent him from exploring the wider world. Pacific Crossing recounts the adventures of two Mexican-American boys who go on an exchange trip to Japan. The hero of that book, Lincoln Mendoza, is also the central character in an earlier book, Taking Sides. There, Linc and his divorced mother move to a quiet, predominantly white suburb of San Francisco.
Soto thinks often about his Latino readers, those children who need to see themselves and their lives in the books they read. "My big ambition is to provide high-level literature for Mexican-American kids." But that isn't enough to rescue many poor children from lives of disappointment and drudgery. "What they need more than anything is someone to be with them. They need to be loved more," Soto said. He teaches English at his church to Spanish speaking children, and he acknowledges it's a challenge. He participates in the Coalinga Huron House project, a six-week intensive academic program for young people from the Central Valley of California. That program has sent dozens of youngsters to college who, Soto is positive, would never have gone without intervention. These kinds of children "need a very strong curriculum outside the school," along with direction and supervision. They need books that reflect their lives, and nonfamilial adults who value them. "They need to feel part of something."
Source: Miriam Rinn, "Gary Soto," in Book Report, Vol. 14, No. 4, January-February 1996, p. 27.
In the following interview, Soto discusses his decision to become a writer and the critical reception of his work.
In one of his essays, Gary Soto writes that as a child, he had imagined he would "marry Mexican poor, work Mexican hours, and in the end die a Mexican death, broke and in despair." The statement might seem surprising, coming as it does from such a well-established writer. Considered one of the best Chicano poets of his time, Soto has published over twenty books, including seven volumes of poetry, the latest of which is New and Selected Poems (Chronicle Books). In addition to fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the NEA, and the California Arts Council, he has received the American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation, the Andrew Carnegie Medal from the American Library Association, and the Levinson Award from Poetry, among numerous other honors.
But it is a desperate fate that anyone who grew up with Soto would have predicted for him as well. Recently, Soto attended his junior high school reunion, and he was disheartened to learn how many of his childhood friends had ended up in prison or been killed. Yet no one seemed particularly shocked by the news. His own outcome as an author and a senior lecturer in Berkeley's English department provoked more disbelief. "No, that's gotta be somebody else, man," his classmates said. "You must be copying this stuff out of a book, Gary."
Soto was born in 1952 in Fresno, California, the center of the San Joaquin Valley's agricultural industry, and everyone in his family was a field or factory worker. His father packed boxes at the Sunmaid Raisin Company, and his mother peeled potatoes at Redi-Spuds. Soto himself picked grapes and oranges, collected aluminum, hoed cotton and beets—anything he could do to help out. Red-lining was still legal then, and they were confined to Mexican-American neighborhoods. When Soto was five, his father was killed in an industrial accident. His mother eventually remarried and moved the family to a mostly Anglo area of Fresno, but nonetheless, Soto could never envision a future absent of borderline poverty and violence. "The likelihood of going beyond that was minuscule," he says.
In turn, not much was expected of Soto—a wild, mischievous kid who got into his share of trouble at school. "One of the aspirations was that if we stayed out of prison, we would be fine. As long as we did that, there was a reason to be proud." What might have saved him, just as he was flirting with real danger, was a school program called the Cadets, a military club. Through it, he learned some discipline, although it could hardly be said that the drills improved his academics. Indeed, he finished high school with a D average.
It was somewhat of a miracle, then, that he didn't flunk out of Fresno City College, where he enrolled in 1970 to avoid the draft. Initially, he chose to study geography. "I figured I'd just look at maps, study some rivers, take multiple-choice tests, and that'd be that. Being semi-illiterate, I didn't want to be forced to write anything." He was, after all, a pocho, a Mexican American who was neither here nor there, who didn't belong to either culture, whose Spanish and English were both poor, whose family did not and does not, to this day, read books—not even Soto's work, although they are the first to boast about his accomplishments.
Thus, it took enormous faith—and perhaps a little arrogance—for Soto to believe he could write poetry after being introduced to it by happenstance. At a library, he picked up an anthology, The New American Poetry, edited by Donald Allen. The poems—by Edward Field, Gregory Corso, Kenneth Koch, Allen Ginsberg, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti—were lively, irreverent, and audacious, and Soto was hooked. "I thought, Wow, wow, wow. I wanted to do this thing." He transferred to California State University, took workshops with Philip Levine, and fell in with a group that would eventually be known as the Fresno School of poets, which included Leonard Adame, Omar Salinas, Ernesto Trejo, and Jon Veinberg.
In 1974, Soto graduated magna cum laude from Cal State with a degree in English, then received his M.F.A. from the University of California, Irvine, in 1976. The next year, Soto's first book of poems, The Elements of San Joaquin, was published by the University of Pittsburgh Press. Critics praised the book—as well as the volumes that followed, The Tale of Sunlight and Where Sparrows Work Hard—for Soto's frank, desolate portrait of migrant life, his short, enjambed lines and idiomatic diction, and his ability to shift from naturalism to magic realism, from the apocalyptic to the transcendent.
However, the reception to his work was not completely free of reproach. One of the respected veteranos of Chicano literature now, Soto was occasionally admonished in the seventies for not overtly addressing the socio-economic aspects of Mexican-American life. The movimiento—the movement begun by Cesar Chavez when he organized California food harvesters into the United Farm Workers—was still raging in the San Joaquin Valley, and the Vietnam War, though winding down, was still extant, and Chicano artists were being pressured to adopt the zeitgeist of cultural nationalism and anti-establishment rhetoric. "There were a lot of people who couldn't quite understand what I was doing," Soto recalls. "They'd say, ‘Hey, man, how come you're not talking about things that are political?’ I was really groping at the time, and if I had gotten lost in that, I don't think I would have recovered." Instinctively, he knew that the more personal he was in his work, concentrating solely on his individual experiences, the more universality he could attain.
If anything, Soto turned more and more inward as the years went by. He published three books of essays—narrative recollections," he called them—in the eighties: Living Up the Street, Small Faces, and Lesser Evils. Writing prose, he discovered a new freedom. "I felt I could be louder, more direct, also sloppier, whereas with poetry, I believed you had to control your statement, not be so obvious." The prose collections, which were almost strictly autobiographical, also presented something else that was different: a more mature, ironic, and humorous view of his childhood, finding celebrations of joy amid the hardships of growing up in the barrio.
Unexpectedly, he began receiving fan letters, one or two a week, from teenaged Mexican Americans, which convinced him to try writing for children and young adults. In 1990, he came out with Baseball in April, which won the Beatty Award and was recognized as the American Library Association's "Best Book for Young Adults." To date, 80,000 copies of Baseball in April have been sold. "I began to feel like I was doing something valuable," Soto says. "I thought Imight be able to make readers and writers out of this group of kids." He has continued writing—in addition to his literary work—short stories, poems, and novels for young adults and picture books for children, and he has amassed an extraordinary audience for them, selling over half a million copies of his books. He has also produced three short films for Mexican-American kids.
Yet paradoxically, Soto can't quite shake the insecurity of being a pocho from Fresno. He follows a comfortable daily routine at his house in Berkeley, writing in the morning, tackling correspondence in the afternoon, then working out (he has a black belt in tae kwon do and is now studying aikido); in the evening, he spends time with his wife of twenty years, Carolyn, whom he met in college, and their daughter, Mariko. By all measures, Soto should feel assured about his place in the world, but he still doubts his ability to write, still fears that his latest poem will be his last good one—anxieties exemplified by a game he used to play with his wife:
"I would be working on a book of poems, and I'd say to her, ‘Do you like this?’ and she would nod her head. I would decide, more or less, which poems to save by how many nods she gave me. But I'd be so nervous, waiting for her reaction. I'd think, Oh my God, maybe I'm a fraud, maybe this woman's going to call the Bureau of Consumer Fraud on me. I have to keep reminding myself that after all these books over all these years, I must be doing something right."
Source: Don Lee, "About Gary Soto," in Ploughshares, Vol. 21, No. 1, Spring 1995, p. 188.
Agosto, Denise E., "Novio Boy: A Play," School Library Journal, Vol. 43, No. 6, June 1997, p. 146.
La Fuentes, Patricia de, "Ambiguity in the Poetry of Gary Soto," Revista Chicano-Riqueña, Vol. XI, No. 2, Summer 1983, pp. 34-39.
Olivares, Julian, "The Streets of Gary Soto," Latin American Literary Review, Vol. XVIII, No. 35, January-June 1990, pp. 32-49.
Soto, Gary, Novio Boy, Harcourt, 1997.
Suarez, Virgil, "Hispanic American Literature: Divergence and Commonality," U.S. Department of State Web site, http://usinfo.state.gov/journals/itsv/0200/ijse/latino1.htm (accessed September 29, 2008).
Torres, Héctor Avalos, "Gary Soto," in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 82, Chicano Writers, First Series, edited by Francisco A. Lomelí and Carl R. Shirley, Gale Research, 1989, pp. 246-52.
Chavez, Ernesto, ¡Mi raza primero! (My People First): Nationalism, Identity, and Insurgency in the Chicano Movement in Los Angeles, 1966-1978, University of California Press, 2002.
In a study of the development of Chicano nationalism in Los Angeles, Chavez focuses on the collaborations and conflicts between several major Chicano political organizations in Los Angeles.
Duarte, Stella Pope, Let Their Spirits Dance: A Novel, HarperCollins, 2002.
In Let Their Spirits Dance, a Mexican American mother travels from Arizona to Washington, D.C., the site of the Vietnam War memorial, in search of the spirit of her son, who died in the war.
Gutiérrez, David G., Walls and Mirrors: Mexican Americans, Mexican Immigrants, and the Politics of Ethnicity, University of California Press, 1995.
Gutiérrez explores the effects of Mexican immigration on the cultural and political development of the American Southwest, particularly that of California.
Ramos, Manuel, Moony's Road to Hell, University of New Mexico Press, 2002.
Ramos is a lawyer and a teacher of Chicano studies in Denver, Colorado. He is also known as the founder of the Chicano mystery genre. Moony's Road to Hell is a detective novel about illegal immigration, murder, and the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service. The book is a noir thriller that incorporates social commentary.