Gary Soto Biography


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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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(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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.


(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Gary Soto was born to American parents of Mexican heritage and grew up in the Spanish-speaking neighborhoods in and around Fresno, California. Soto’s father died when Soto was five years old; he and his siblings were reared by his mother and grandparents. After being graduated from high school in 1970, Soto attended the University of California at Irvine, where he later earned an M.F.A.

Soto’s life provides much of the material for his writing. He uses his cultural heritage and neighborhood traditions as the setting for stories and poems about growing up poor and Chicano. In The Elements of San Joaquin, his first book, he focuses on Fresno of the 1950’s. He chronicles the lives of migrant workers, of oppressed people caught in cycles of poverty and violence. In the later poetry collection, Who Will Know Us, Soto draws again on his life. In “That Girl,” for example, he is the young “Catholic boy” at the public library, while in “Another Time,” he is an adult reconsidering the death of his father.

Soto turns to prose with Living up the Street: Narrative Recollections, a volume of twenty-one autobiographical stories. His talent in this work is in the minute: Soto is concerned with the small event, with the everyday. In this book he explores racism through vignettes from his own life. Rather than tackle racism in the abstract, he instead offers the concrete: the fight after being called a “dirty Mexican,” the anger after an Anglo child wins a beauty contest. Soto also writes books for children and young adults. His matter-of-fact use of Spanish expressions as well as his references to the sights and sounds of the Latino community provide young readers with a sense of cultural identity.

Perhaps Soto’s greatest success is his ability to assert his ethnicity while demonstrating that the experiences of growing up are universal. His bittersweet stories remind his readers of their passages from childhood to adulthood, of their search for identities that began up the street.


(Poets and Poetry in America)

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 of fine arts degree in creative writing from the University of California, Irvine (1976), and has taught at the University of California, Berkeley, in the departments of English and Chicano studies. He has also been a distinguished professor of creative writing at the University of California, Riverside. Soto married Carolyn Oda, a Japanese American, in 1975, and they have one daughter, Mariko.