Gary Soto was born and raised in Fresno, California. One of the first Chicano writers nominated for the Pulitzer Prize, his poetry reflects the pain and poverty of Mexican American laborers in California’s Central Valley
Soto writes from experience. He grew up in a migrant laborer household, and when he was five years old, his father was killed in a work-related accident. As a young man, Soto, too, worked in the fields and factories around Fresno.
Soto studied at Fresno City College, where he initially majored in geography. He wanted to study maps because “he liked seeing the world in print,” but he switched his major to poetry after reading Edward Field’s poem “Unwanted.” He recognized Field’s feelings of social alienation and realized that it was something he, too, wanted to explore in his own writing.
In 1974, Soto graduated magna cum laude from California State University, Fresno, where he studied with the acclaimed poet Philip Levine. Soto earned his master of fine arts degree three years later, from the University of California (UC) at Irvine. After obtaining his degree, he took a teaching job in the English and Chicano studies departments of the University of California at Berkeley.
Soto’s literary talents were apparent very early. He won a string of awards in the mid-1970s, while he was still a student. In 1978, his second book of poetry, The Tale ofSunlight, was nomi¬ nated for the prestigious Pulitzer Prize as well as the National Book Award.
After Soto joined the faculty at UC Berkeley, he continued to write and win criti¬ cal acclaim. In all, he has published more than one dozen books of poetry, fiction, and nonfic¬ tion, and he has won numerous honors, including the Nation Discovery Prize and a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship.
Throughout his work, Soto describes the misery and despair of Mexican American laborers. His style is sometimes lyrical and sometimes gritty, with an ironic and disdainful view of the American Dream.Soto says, “I write because there is pain in my life, our family, and those living in the San Joaquin Valley.
I write because those I work and live among can’t write. I only have to think of the black factory worker I worked with in Los Angeles or the toothless farm laborer I hoed beside in the fields outside of Fresno. They are everything.”
Soto has said his ultimate goal is to be known as a writer who appeals to readers across the spectrum. He has continued to teach in Berkeley, and he divides his time between there and Fresno.