The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 457

“Small Town with One Road” is a short poem in free verse, its thirty-three lines forming one stanza. The title suggests a quiet poem, and it is, presenting a reflective commentary on life within the valley as compared with a life beyond. The poem is written in the first person. The speaker is a father, and he and his daughter are contemplating their view of the valley, but the speaker is primarily addressing the reader.

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The first section of the poem is primarily descriptive, as Soto depicts the lives of Mexican American farm workers and their families in a hot, dry valley in central California. A road of black asphalt runs through the valley, a road that Soto later uses symbolically as a dividing line between the hard life in the valley and life beyond. “Kids could make it” across, he says, literally meaning that they could “leap barefoot” to the little store where they buy candy and snowcones. Before describing what could be considered the children’s bleak future, Soto reminds the reader that these children are like all children, eager to taste the sweetness of candy on their tongues. The lives of the children in the valley include “a dog for each hand,/ Cats, chickens in the yard.” At home, the children hear cooking in the kitchen and know they will be having beans for dinner, as they usually do: “Brown soup that’s muscle for field work.” The universality of the life of manual labor is underscored by the next two lines, “Okie or Mexican, Jew that got lost,/ It’s a hard life where the sun looks.” The poem is about all migrant workers, no matter what their heritage.

The poem shifts when the view changes from the fields to a life just beyond, one where the “cotton gin stands tall in the money dream.” The mill represents a more substantial amount of money, a true “paycheck for the wife.” The poem then shifts again; the last section of the poem is contemplative and personal. “We could go back,” the poet thinks. The phrase echoes the first words of the poem, “We could be here,” the full meaning of which now becomes clear: The poet has lived here before and is speaking of a life he knows personally. He muses, “I could lose my job,/ This easy one that’s only words”: He could then be working in the fields or performing other manual labor. As he and his daughter eat their snowcones along the roadside, he sees a young boy crossing the road, “ He’s like me,’/ I tell my daughter.” The poem ends on a hopeful note as the boy leaps “Across the road where riches/ Happen on a red tongue.”

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 509

Soto is a noted author who grew up in California, the son of working-class Mexican American parents; he experienced the rigors of working as a migrant laborer. Knowing two worlds as he does, his sparse language mirrors the world in which he grew up.

The poem’s sentence structure is powerful because it is direct. “We could be here,” Soto begins. Later, in parallel language, he thinks, “We could go back.” In between he explains and describes, using few poetic devices. The poem contains only one simile, an ironic one. Papa’s field “wavered like a mirage”—not like the oasis which might be envisioned by a straggler in the desert, but a world so intense that a fieldworker’s vision of it shimmers in the heat. The blur of the field becomes the blur of life, a kind of blindness that occurs when sights must be set on little beyond day-by-day existence.

Personification reinforces the connection that Soto feels with those on both sides of the highway. The highway is “big-eyed/ With rabbits that won’t get across,” an image of anyone trying to escape from the valley without “look[ing] both ways,” something the “brown kid” knows how to do at the end of the poem. He knows how to leave the “hard life where the sun looks.” The sun is personified; it does not merely shine but “looks” fiercely, the strength of the “look” making work in the field that much more tiresome and difficult. Soto writes of the cotton gin’s appeal, a means beyond the field to earn more money to change one’s life circumstances. “The cotton gin stands tall,” prompting the reader to envision someone with head erect, chin out, shoulders back—an image resonant with being proud of one’s industry and accomplishment.

It is noteworthy how this image contrasts with that of the fieldworkers, of the bean pickers as they bend over, day after day, to harvest. Nor is it like the image of the fruit pickers whose heads and shoulders are lost amid the branches of the fruit trees. For the fieldworker, gone is the clarity of figure and accomplishment that one may acquire by working in the mill.

Soto’s words are sparse because there is little in the valley that would inspire one to “wax poetic” about. Elaborate, extended metaphors comparing this limiting, physical world to a more complicated one would not work; this poem is about an uncomplicated lifestyle and people who strive to survive. Soto portrays life in the valley as one which is a struggle simply to endure from one day to the next. Yet with a single, one-syllable word Soto provides hope for all those in the valley, and especially for the children, who in their innocence “leap” across the road. The responsibilities and burdens of adulthood are not yet ones which they must shoulder, and Soto knows—from his own experience—that it is possible for children to leave the backbreaking life of their parents and “leap” to another kind of life.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 125

Blasingame, James. “Interview with Gary Soto.” Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy 47 (November, 2003): 266-267.

Bruce-Novoa, Juan. “Patricide and Resurrection: Gary Soto.” In Chicano Poetry: A Response to Chaos. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1982.

Candelaria, Cordelia. Chicano Poetry. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1986.

Cooley, Peter. “I Can Hear You Now.” Parnassus 8, no. 1 (1979): 297-311.

De la Fuentes, Patricia. “Mutability and Stasis: Images of Time in Gary Soto’s Black Hair.” American Review 16 (1988): 188-197.

Murphy, Patricia. “Inventing Lunacy: An Interview with Gary Soto.” Hayden’s Ferry Review 18 (Spring/Summer, 1996): 29-37.

Olivares, Julián. “The Streets of Gary Soto.” Latin American Literary Review 18 (January-June, 1990): 32-49.

Soto, Gary. “The Childhood Worries: Or, Why I Became a Writer.” Iowa Review 25 (Spring/Summer, 1995): 104-115.

Williamson, Alan. “In a Middle Style.” Poetry 135 (March, 1980): 348-354.

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