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Widely regarded as one of the foremost living Chicano writers, Gary Soto has expressed himself successfully in a number of genres, most notably poetry and the essay. His writing uses distinct details and concrete imagery to evoke emotions that are universally felt and understood. Though essentially Chicano, his writing has overcome the boundaries of cultural classification and earned a place for itself in the American literary canon.
Biographical and Historical Context
Mexican American Identity in California
The son of American-born parents of Mexican background, Soto was born on April 12, 1952, in Fresno, California. He grew up in the broad, flat San Joaquin Valley in Central California, one of the nation s most productive agricultural regions and the site of the 1933 cotton strike, which according to historian Ramdn Chacdn, ”paralyzed cotton farming operations . . . and threatened to destroy the state’s cotton crop valued at more than $50,000,000.” Seventy-five percent of the striking workers in 1933 were Mexican, part of an extensive Chicano community into which Soto was born almost twenty years later.
Soto was also born only nine years after a key turning point in the history of Mexicans and people of Mexican descent in the U.S.: the Zoot Suit Riots, in which young Mexican Americans living in Los Angeles rioted to demonstrate their power and their independence as a social group. The culture in which Soto was raised had a newfound sense of itself, a unique identity that would come, in the 1960s, to be known as Chicano.
Although he grew up in a Spanish-speaking community, Soto was never formally taught Spanish and has suggested in interviews that the language was not the most important aspect of the San Joaquin laborer culture he inherited. ”Assimilation was looked upon as something for kids to go through,” he says, pointing to the fact that much of the culture he grew up in he was expected to forget. What impressed him most deeply, however, and what has since found expression in his writing, was ”the culture of poverty” through which he developed an essential understanding of people and their relations.
”A Human Pain”
In 1970, Soto began attending Fresno City College, where he majored in geography ”for no articulate reason except that I liked maps,” he has stated. He soon gave up geography, however, and decided to pursue poetry instead, moved by the poem ”Unwanted” by Edward Field. In Field’s poem, Soto saw his own alienation from society described and saw that a sense of alienation was not unique to him, but rather that ”it was . . . a human pain.” This sense of universality—the concept that all people, regardless of their ethnicity, suffer similar emotions—would become a key component of Soto’s own writing.
The Power of the Written Word
In 1972 and 1973, at California State University, Fresno, Soto studied with poet Philip Levine, under whose guidance Soto learned the concrete linguistic tools for shaping language into poetry. Levine, whose poetry often illuminates the lives of the working class, became a mentor to Soto and provided him with an example of a man who had made poetry his career.
In 1974, Soto graduated magna cum laude from California State University. He married Carolyn Oda on May 24, 1975. In 1976, he earned an MFA in creative writing from the University of California, Irvine, spending that year as a visiting writer at San Diego State University. In 1977, he began teaching at the University of California, Berkeley, where he remained as an associate professor in both the English and Chicano studies departments until 1993.
Discovering the power of the written word and disciplining his talents and energy have allowed Soto to accomplish much in a short span of time. Since his first poetry publication in 1977, The Elements of San Joaquin, Soto has kept up a steady stream of publications. His attention to craft and subject matter has taken his poetry into the pages of such well-known periodicals and journals as the Paris Review, the Nation, American Poetry Review, and The New Yorker.
Testing Himself Beginning in 1985, after earning considerable acclaim for his poetry, Soto composed and published three autobiographical prose works: Living Up the Street: Narrative Recollections (1985), Small Faces (1986) and Lesser Evils: Ten Quartets (1988). When asked to speak about what prompted the move from poetry to prose, Soto replied in an unpublished 1988 interview that his motivation was curiosity: ”I was testing myself.” In a lecture at a University of New Mexico symposium, ”Reconstructing The Canon: Chicano Writers and Critics,” Soto argued that essayists leave behind poetic license and in ”plain, direct, unadorned” style construct scenes that are exciting to read.
This emphasis on plainness and directness has been a tenet both of Soto’s poetry and of his prose work throughout his career. Speaking of his prose, he states, ”I made a conscious effort not to tell anything but just present the stories … just show not tell.” Living Up the Street was a critical success, earning Soto the American Book Award in 1985.
A New Focus Soto has turned his talents to several other genres as well, most notably children’s and young adult literature, which he continues to compose today. His popular works for young adults include the short story collections Petty Crimes (1998), Help Wanted (2005), and Facts of Life (2008), which feature Hispanic adolescents coping with typical teen struggles. Perhaps this emphasis on young readers is his way of addressing many of the injustices he experienced in his youth: on his personal Web site, Soto urges young people ”to build our intellectual capital … [to] put down our electronic toys and read.”
Works in Literary Context
Soto is one of America’s most honored writers of Chicano poetry, or poetry written by the American-born or early-immigrated children of Latin American parents. The definition of the term Chicano has changed over generations, and today it is largely a political term, suggesting that Chicano writers work not only with poetry, but also with politics. One of the difficulties some Chicano artists face is learning how to integrate the two—art and politics—without allowing one to overwhelm the other.
Chicano literature has evolved due to a need for the expression of ideas and perspectives that had not previously appeared in American literature. The literary movement has sometimes been criticized for, as Jose Antonio Villarreal puts it, its willingness ”to settle for anything” as its participants rush to commit to paper the ideas and emotions that were long suppressed. Recent Chicano critics, however, have striven to create a set of standards by which the artistic merits of Chicano literary work can be measured.
Soto’s work is notable for its ability to transcend social barriers. For example, though the characters in his short stories for young adults are primarily Hispanic, they often deal with the same sorts of problems as any other kids, such as the loss of a parent to cancer. While thoroughly Chicano, his writing has gone beyond the limits of the political movement to create art that is universally felt and acknowledged.
Works in Critical Context
Soto has earned the respect of critics and reviewers of his work because he represents his experience in a manner that, through simple and direct diction, contains glimpses of the universal. From the well-crafted and gritty lines of The Elements of San Joaquin, to the direct prose style and ironic humor of Lesser Evils, Soto, in the words of Ramirez, ”portrays his characters and their patterns of behavior in such a vivid, concrete, sensorial, convincing manner that the Chicano condition becomes one of the forms of the human condition.”
Living Up the Street
Soto’s Living Up the Street is filled with stories of mischief from childhood, adventures of adolescence, and the trials of adulthood, all represented in Soto’s manner of ”show not tell.” The book has been widely acclaimed, winning a Before Columbus Book Award. Geoffrey Dunn, writing in the San Francisco Review of Books, states: ”Soto’s poetic prose goes right to the core of Chicano experience.” A reviewer for Booklist declares, ”Poet Gary Soto’s first prose work is a pleasure to read.”
Some critics of his autobiographical works, however, expressed concern that Soto’s wife, Carolyn, did not appear as any more than a conventional figure; typical was Paredes, who states in the Rocky Mountain Review of Language and Literature:
As he depicts them, the roles are wholly conventional. … It is perhaps too much to say that Soto’s portrayals of his wife and daughter are offensive but it is significant that his imagination, so finely tuned in other circumstances to the diversity and nuance of behavior, should perform unremarkably here.
The Elements of San Joaquin
Soto’s first book of poetry, The Elements of San Joaquin, was widely praised for its particular portrayals of disintegration and decay that led to universal meaning. Writing in Discurso Literario, Patricia de la Fuente notes: ”[The] gradual erosion of energy is most consistently revealed on the intimate, individual level, where the very essence of the human condition is undergoing a pervasive disintegration.” De la Fuente is also referring to the decay of the ”elements” referenced in the book’s title, which Julian Olivares has called ”icons that refer to his own cultural context.” As Olivares remarks in his 1990 essay in Latin American Literary Review, ”With regard to his personal vision, Soto often selects from his view of the street negative signs. . . . Gutters, sewers, cans and broken bottles . . . the world of the outsider.” These elements are necessary guideposts to all who come to Soto’s poetry without a full understanding of the culture it represents, and their presence in his writing has made it successful among a diverse audience.
- Chacon, Ramon. ”Labor Unrest and Industrialized Agriculture in California: The Case of the 1933 San Joaquin Valley Cotton Strike.” En Aquel Entonces: Readings in Mexican-American History. Edited by Manuel G. Gonzales and Cynthia M. Gonzales. Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 2000.
- Kanellos, Nicolas. ”Chicano Literature.” Hispanic American Almanac. Edited by Sonia G. Benson. Third ed. Detroit: Gale, 2003.
- ”Soto, Gary (1952-).” Hispanic American Almanac. Edited by Sonia G. Benson. Third ed. Detroit: Gale, 2003.
- Bradley, Jerry. ”Review of The Elements of San Joaquin.” Western American Literature (Spring 1979): 92-93.
- De la Fuentes, Patricia. ”Entropy in the Poetry of Gary Soto: The Dialectics of Violence. Discurso Literario, Vol. 5, No. 1 (Autumn 1987): 111-120.
- Dunn, Geoffrey. ”A Review of Living Up the Street: Narrative Recollections. San Francisco Review of Books (Summer 1986): 11.
- Olivares, Julian. ”The Streets of Gary Soto.” Latin American Literary Review, Vol. XVIII, No. 35 (January-June 1990): 32-9.
- Paredes, Raymund A. ”Recent Chicano Fiction. Rocky Mountain Review Vol. 41, no. 1-2 (1987) 126-128.
- ”Dolores Huerta.” National Women’s Hall of Fame: Women of the Hall. Accessed November 11, 2008, from http://www.greatwomen.org/women.php? action=viewone&id=81.
- The Official Gary Soto Web Site. Accessed November 11, 2008, from http://www.garysoto.com/index.html.
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