Biography of Gary Soto

Gary Soto was born in Fresno, California on April 12, 1952. He was born into a working-class Mexican-American family. His father, Manuel Soto, died when Gary was five years old in an industrial accident. As Soto recounts in interviews, he spent most of his free time through high school working in farms in the San Joaquin Valley. He picked grapes and oranges, collected aluminum, and hoed cotton and beets. Everyone in his family was a field or factory worker. During Soto's childhood, the practice of real-estate "red-lining" was still legal in California, which meant that Soto lived in mostly-segregated Mexican-American neighborhoods. Eventually, Soto's mother remarried and they moved to a whiter neighborhood. Nevertheless, Soto recounts in an interview that he felt like "the likelihood of going beyond [poverty] was minuscule."

He was introduced to poetry at Fresno City College. As he recounts, he picked up an anthology of poetry almost by happenstance at a library. It was The New American Poetry, edited by Donald Allen. Soto was immediately drawn to the poetry world. About this important moment in his life, he says, "I thought, Wow, wow, wow. I wanted to do this thing." He transferred to California State University and started hanging out with a group of poets that would later be known as the Fresno School. In, 1974, Soto graduated magna cum laude from Cal State with a degree in English and then went on to get an MFA in poetry at the University of California, Irvine in 1976.

In 1976, Soto's first book of poems, The Elements of San Joaquin, won the United States Award of the International Poetry Forum. It was published by the University of Pittsburgh Press the following year. Critics praised Soto's work, as well as the two poetry collections that followed, The Tale of Sunlight (1978) and Where Sparrows Work Hard (1981). As Don Lee recounts in "About Gary Soto," critics valued Soto's unique voice, including his "frank, desolate portrait of migrant life, his short, enjambed lines and idiomatic diction, and his ability to shift from naturalism to magic realism, from the apocalyptic to the transcendent." In general, Soto tries to remain personal in his work—he does not often delve into explicit sociopolitical commentary. Instead, he focuses on solely individual experiences in the hopes of writing universal poems that can touch any reader. Despite this, there are several enduring motifs in Soto's work, including daily life, Chicano culture, and love. When it comes to writing the Mexican-American experience, he has noted, "as a writer, my duty is not to make people perfect, particularly Mexican Americans. I'm not a cheerleader. I'm one who provides portraits of people in the rush of life." Joyce Carol-Oats has praised Soto's poetry, noting that "Gary Soto's poems are fast, funny, heartening, and achingly believable, like Polaroid love letters, or snatches of music heard out of a passing car; patches of beauty like patches of sunlight; the very pulse of a light."

Over the years, Soto has published 15 collections of poetry. In addition to the ones mentioned above, he has published Black Hair (1985), Who Will Know Us? (1990), Home Course in Religion (1991), Neighborhood Odes (1992), Canto Familiar/Familiar Song (1994), New and Selected Poems (1995), Junior College (1997), A Natural Man (1999), One Kind of Faith (2003), A Simple Plan (2007), Partly Cloudy: Poems of Love and Longing (2009), and Sudden Loss of Dignity (2013). "Oranges" was first published in Black Hair in 1985 and is now widely recognized as the most anthologized poem in contemporary literature. New and Selected Poems was a 1995 National Book Award Finalist.

Soto has also published 21 young adult and children's books, including Baseball in April (1990) and, most recently, When Dad Came Back (2011). He has edited four poetry anthologies: Entrance: Four Latino Poets (1976), California Childhood (1988), Pieces of Heart (1993), and Afterlife (1999). He has published eight works of nonfiction/memoir, including Living Up the Street (1985), which won the American Book Award. Finally, he has written one play (Novio Boy: A Play) and one screenplay (The No-Guitar Blues).

Soto has won many awards throughout his long career. As noted above, The Elements of San Joaquin won the United States Award of the International Poetry Forum. The New York Times Book Review also honored the poetry collection by reprinting six of its poems. In 1999, Soto received the Hispanic Heritage Award for Literature, the Author-Illustrator Civil Rights Award from the National Education Association, and the PEN Center Best Book Award for Petty Crimes. He has also received the "Discovery"/The Nation Prize, the Bess Hokin Prize, the Levinson Award, the California Library Association's John and Patricia Beatty Award (twice), the silver medal from the Commonwealth Club of California, and the Thomâs Rivera Prize. Notably, he has received a fellowship from the Guggenheim Foundation and two separate fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts.

There is currently a Gary Soto Literary Museum at Fresno City College, and the library at Winchell Elementary School in Fresno was named after him.

Study Guides on Works by Gary Soto

"The No-Guitar Blues," written by Gary Soto, is a short story. It is about a boy named Fausto, who very much wants a guitar. He asks his parents, but they say that guitars are too expensive. He then tries to think of ways to get a guitar. After a...

Gary Soto's poem "Oranges" first appeared in his fifth collection of poetry, Black Hair, in 1985. The poem appeared a few years later in a collection of poetry geared towards young writers, A Fire in My Hands, in 1991. This collection of poetry...

A Summer Life by Gary Soto is a collection of 39 autobiographical essays in which Soto gives the readers a vivid description of his days in Fresno, California, as he grew from a young boy to a young adult. The book can be divided into three main...