Gary Soto 1952-
American poet, memoirist, short story writer, essayist, and editor.
Soto is recognized as one of America's best Chicano writers. Incorporating his working-class background and Hispanic culture into his poetry and prose, he addresses such social issues as discrimination, violence, and poverty. Commentators maintain that Soto's ability to transcend solely personal and local concerns has established him as a major contemporary author.
A third-generation Mexican American, Soto was born in Fresno, California, and raised in the San Joaquin Valley where, as a child, he worked as a farm laborer. Attending Fresno City College, Soto initially majored in geography before transferring to Fresno State, now California State University, in the early 1970s. Inspired by Donald Allen and Robert Creeley's anthology The New American Poetry, 1945-60, Soto began taking workshops with American poet Philip Levine, whose writings often depict the harsh realities of urban life. During this time he met several other noted authors, including Ernest Trejo and Christopher Buckley. Soto graduated magna cum laude in 1974 and earned a M.F.A. from the University of California at Irvine, publishing his first poetry collection, The Elements of San Joaquin, in 1977. He has since received numerous awards and fellowships: the Academy of Poets Prize in 1975, the United States Award from the International Poetry Forum in 1976, and the 1985 American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation for Living up the Street: Narrative Recollections. A finalist for the Lenore Marshall Poetry Award in 1979, he was also the first Chicano writer to be nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.
Much of Soto's poetry documents his upbringing and experiences as a Chicano in California's Central Valley. The Elements of San Joaquin, for example, focuses on Fresno in the 1950s, the agricultural community of San Joaquin, and the violence associated with barrio life. Furthermore, the harsh and desolate existence of farm life and the opportunities denied many Chicanos are recurring themes in his work. His short lines, detailed descriptions, and sentimental tone are characteristic of his poetry. In The Tale of Sunlight he utilizes a fictional narrator named Manuel Zaragosa to illustrate the vicissitudes of life, such as death, chance, and love. Where Sparrows Work Hard, Soto's next collection of poetry, again focuses on the landscape of poverty and despair. His 1990 collection, Who Will Know Us? explores the death of Soto's father and celebrates Americana, particularly the everyday rhythms of his native California.
Central to Soto's poetry is the importance of memory and childhood recollections. Critics often praise his incorporation of autobiographical events into his work, creating vivid and evocative images. His emphasis on topical themes important to the Chicano community—such as the frustration over discrimination and limited opportunities and the appreciation of Hispanic history and culture—is also a focus of critical commentary. Despite his ethnic consciousness, Soto has been lauded for his ability to address private concerns as well as universal issues. Commentators attribute his ability to avoid strict polemicization of Chicano concerns to the humor often present in his writing.