Living up the Street

by Gary Soto
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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 686

Living up the Street has appeal for young adult readers because it recounts with honesty the common trials of growing up: sibling rivalry, the first encounters with death, failure in sports and love, and working for a pittance. Although the emphasis on violence, verbal cruelty, competition, and general nastiness may seem to make the book more suitable for a stereotypical young boy, any reader can profit from the clear evocation of working-class life.

What is immediately apparent in the book is the importance of work and its terrible consequences. In the first two essays, Soto immediately links the violence of the neighborhood and his own family with the brutality and emptiness of his family’s jobs. In Soto’s youth, nearly everyone in his family—including his grandmother, who stands at a conveyer belt for twenty years, and his pet dog, who walks with the security guard—works at the Sun-Maid raisin factory. His father loses his life there because of an injury to his neck. For middle-class readers, Sun-Maid raisins are simply one more snack food, but for Soto, who looks beneath the glossy surface of commercial life, the company is a place of despair. When he describes his mother’s remarriage, Soto tells the reader little about his stepfather except that he drinks and packs books into cardboard boxes for fifteen years until the company leaves town. Even when the children of the neighborhood play, they are unable to leave the world of work: They wrestle and throw stones in an alley right “across from the broom factory and its brutal ‘whack’ of straw being tied into brooms.”

Soto never tries to explain away the causes of poverty and hardship or to provide an economic theory that justifies suffering. He simply examines his own personal and familial experiences, suggesting the truth about some forms of manual labor. In “One Last Time,” Soto describes his experiences chopping cotton and picking grapes in the fields around Fresno, work that his grandmother and mother also did before him. In the fields, Soto notices that the wind whips dust into his face, his ankles hurt, and his arms ache. The fellow workers, almost dehumanized, look like a “clot of men, women, or kids” or are “brown as the clods under our feet.” The rising sun, because of its beauty, seems “unbelievable, like something not of this world”; this world, Soto suggests, is made of money and pain. When, in “Black Hair,” he finally escapes the world of agricultural laborers, he ends up at Valley Tire Company where he discovers “there was something worse than field work, and I was doing it.”

In some ways, these very powerful descriptions of work are undercut by Soto’s refusal to discuss, in any significant way, his parallel career. After finishing Living up the Street, a reader would have difficulty believing that this Chicano field worker, thief, and tire mender graduated magna cum laude from the California State University at Fresno, received a Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing from the University of California at Irvine, and worked as a professor in the departments of English and Chicano studies at the University of California at Berkeley. The reader finds out near the end of the collection, in “Getting By,” that Soto has published a prize-winning collection of poems, but the author never reveals the intellectual labor, or the devotion to language that produced this poetry. Soto seems to suggest in his anecdotal history that experiences alone make a writer, when it is clear from his educational background and current profession that he places a very strong emphasis on learning and study. Perhaps Soto is misrepresenting himself when he emphasizes his fieldwork over his coursework, but the power of the book cannot be denied. He is a poet and essayist who is true—perhaps too true—to his working-class roots. Young adults from minority or working-class backgrounds might see similarities between their lives and Soto’s, but they will not be able to fathom how he made that transition from grape picker and cotton cutter to successful poet and tenured professor.

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