Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 743
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 enduring the hostility or indifference of the Anglo establishment. In 1975, Soto was awarded the Academy of American Poets Prize. In 1977, Poetry magazine, the most prestigious journal in the field of poetry, awarded Soto the Bess Hopkins Prize.
Soto’s second book of poetry, The Tale of Sunlight (1978), represented an expansion of his subject matter and vision. In 1979, he received a Guggenheim Fellowship, and he spent 1979 and 1980 in Mexico City, observing the culture and writing.
In 1981, Soto published Where Sparrows Work Hard. These poems are, for the most part, autobiographical pieces that give some distance to pure memoir by the use of irony, especially in the resolution of the poems’ structure.
Soto was granted a National Education Association Fellowship in 1981, and in 1984, he received the Levinson Award from Poetry magazine. Soto had become one of the most prolific and honored of the young poets of the period. In 1985, another book of his poems, Black Hair, was published. It again dealt with childhood experiences and male friendship, but it is filled with forebodings of death.
In 1988, Soto was named Elliston Poet at the University of Cincinnati, and he spent a year in residence there. In 1990, he published his fifth book of poetry, A Fire in My Hands, a compilation of poems from the earlier collections. Who Will Know Us? (1990) represented a new direction. Soto counterpoints his life as a professor with a wife and daughter in Northern California to his early life as a poor Mexican American child and worker. There are also a number of poems that deal with death, an important and recurrent theme in Soto’s work. Soto’s 1995 collection, New and Selected Poems, was a 1995 finalist for both the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and the National Book Award. In 1999, he won the Literature Award from the Hispanic Heritage Foundation, the Author-Illustrator Civil Rights Award from the National Education Association, and the PEN Center West Book Award for Petty Crimes (1998).
Soto wrote three collections of prose that portray the world of his childhood and adolescence. He won the American Book Award in 1985 for Living up the Street: Narrative Recollections. Small Faces (1986) is a book of short narratives that explore the world of the San Joaquin Valley in a less individual way than Soto’s poems do; it focuses on community and friendship as well as on adolescence. Lesser Evils (1988), Soto’s third collection of prose narratives, also deals with his early experiences. Soto saw his prose as having some of the same concentration and imagery as his poetry, but he said that his real achievement as a writer must be in poetry.
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