Gary Soto (SOH-toh), who has been called one of the finest natural talents among Mexican American writers, was born on April 12, 1952, to Manuel and Angie (Trevino) Soto. Although his parents were born in the United States, Soto’s grandfather, Frank Soto, immigrated there to escape economic and political instability in Mexico. He met his future wife, Paola, in Fresno. Soto’s parents and grandparents were members of the working class. Every day, the Soto family would join other Mexican American families from their barrio in Fresno and travel to the lush San Joaquin Valley to pick grapes and oranges. At a young age, Gary experienced the grimness of working in mind-deadening, physically exhausting labor, picking cotton in the fields, collecting aluminum cans, all to help his family survive. The lushness of the valley juxtaposed with the backbreaking labor his family had to endure because of their poverty would figure prominently in Soto’s poetry and fiction.
When Soto was five years old, tragedy struck his family; Manuel Soto died as a result of a factory accident at the age of twenty-seven. The father’s death left Soto’s mother to raise him, his older brother, Rick, and his younger sister Debra. Manuel’s death created financial and emotional hardships for the family. They never discussed his death, never dealt with their individual or communal grief. The silence created an emotional chasm for Gary. The effects of Soto’s father’s death have become a key issue in Soto’s writings as he attempts to reconcile his love for his father and his feelings of abandonment with the numbing effects of silence.
Soto grew up in a Catholic family and attended Catholic and private schools. However, his family never stressed the importance of obtaining an education or had books in the house or encouraged him to read. His mother and father left high school to get married when they were eighteen. Even though Soto received no encouragement at home to work hard in school, he did graduate from high school in 1970 and enrolled in Fresno City College to avoid the draft.
A key event occurred in Soto’s life after enrolling in college. While browsing through the college library, he discovered a collection of poems titled The New American Poetry. After reading several of the poems, he immediately began writing poetry and discovered his poetic voice. He had found his niche.
Seeking the companionship and intellectualism of other writers, Soto transferred to California State University, Fresno, and enrolled in Philip Levine’s creative writing class. This decision was life-altering. From 1972 to 1973, Levine nurtured and encouraged Soto’s talent as a poet. As he created more poetry under the...
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