Issue 66 |
Spring 1995

About Gary Soto: A Profile


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 Chávez 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 I might 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."