Gary Soto was born on April 12, 1952, in Fresno, California. His parents were Mexican American, and Soto was born into not only a Chicano culture but also a culture of poverty. His father died in 1957, when Gary was only five years old; this created economic hardship for a family that was already having difficulties.
Soto went to school in the Fresno area, and he worked in the fields as an agricultural laborer and as a low-paid factory worker, the inevitable lot of so many in his situation. He entered Fresno City College in 1970; when he started college, he was a geography major, but he switched to English when he entered California State University, Fresno. At that institution, he studied under Philip Levine, a noted American poet. Levine taught him how to read a poem, and he helped Soto to form a style and develop his craft as a poet. Soto graduated magna cum laude from Fresno State in 1974, and he spent the next two years as a graduate student at the University of California, Irvine. He received an M.F.A. in creative writing from Irvine in 1976. He also published a number of poems in important journals and began making his reputation as a poet.
A poet needs to make a living, however, and Soto began to teach in the English and Chicano Studies departments at the University of California at Berkeley. In 1975, he married Carolyn Oda, whose father owned a small farm in the Fresno area. The couple had one daughter and settled in Northern California near the Berkeley campus, where Soto became an associate professor.
In 1974, Soto published his first book of poetry, The Elements of San Joaquin. It is an ambitious book that attempts to describe and classify the harsh world of migrant workers and other poor people in Central California. Those workers are portrayed as stoically...
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Soto has chosen as his subject the culture of poverty. He portrays that world without sentimentality; it is a hard and, at times, an inhuman one. Soto has described this world in detailed and memorable images and complex poetic structures. Of special importance to Soto are childhood and adolescence. In his view, childhood shapes people for good or ill. People who develop their imaginations may find a way out of a life of monotonous manual labor and find “the work that uses the mind,” which may make for a fuller life.
Gary Soto was born into a Chicano family in 1952 in Fresno, where, according to his essay “Being Mean,” his father and grandfather worked in blue-collar jobs at Sun-Maid Raisin, and his mother peeled potatoes at Reddi-Spud. Because of the family’s poverty, exacerbated by the father’s early death in a work-related accident, Soto was forced to earn money as an agricultural laborer in the San Joaquin Valley and at a tire-retread factory in Fresno. Soto’s work, especially his early poems, focuses primarily on this personal history. Although he never mentions it in his poems, Soto does have an impressive academic background: He was graduated magna cum laude from California State University at Fresno (1974), received a master...
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