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Gary Soto: Biography and Soto’s Poems Analysis

Gary Soto is a Chicano writer born in Fresco, California in 1952. Even as a child, he used to work as a farm laborer, which had a significant effect on his works resulting in their reflecting the whole reality of life. His works have taken this direction owing to the complicated life he had as an adolescent and an adult with his family struggling to find work and make their leaving without the father who Soto lost at the age of five.

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The majority of his poems are about his personal daily experiences and his life as a Mexican American. Five of Soto’s poems, namely, The Elements of San Joaquin, A Red Palm, The Tale of Sunlight, Mexicans Begin Jogging, and Oranges, have a common thread that recurs in all of them; this thread relates to different aspects of the Mexicans’ lives in America, namely, racial inequality, poverty, exploitation, and lack of job choices and is easily traced owing to rhetorical devices, such as metaphors and irony that Soto skillfully uses.

To begin with, The Elements of San Joaquin is one of Soto’s poems that reflect the exploitation that the Mexican Americans experienced at work. This poem is about the lives of the farmers in Fresno, an agricultural community in San Joaquin. It reflects how terrible the barrio life was for the Chicano and what earning the money used to cost them. The poet begins by describing the conditions in which people had to work in the fields: “The wind sprays pale dirt into my mouth/The small, almost invisible scars/On my hands./The pores in my throat and elbows/Have taken in a seed of dirt of their own” (Soto 6).

These lines show that the author admits how hard the work that he does is, but there is not even a sign of complaint, which means that he has appeased his destiny, just like a number of other people who work with him. Quite expressive is the metaphor that he uses when comparing himself with a valley, “a soil that sprouts nothing./For any of us” (Soto 6); this could be perceived as an expression of desperation, but, in reality, this is only a quiet resignation to his fate. Additionally, the word “nothing” occurs several (namely, three) times in this poem, which, however, points not at the negativeness, but at the uncertainty and the indefiniteness that the poet has about his future and the future of other people working at the farm.

Especially impressive are the lines “And tears the onions raise/Do not begin in your eyes but in ours” (Soto 10) for they have dual meaning; they may mean that it is not only the onion that makes the farmers cry but their hard labor under poor conditions that they have to bear because this is the only work that the country they live in may offer them. Therefore, The Elements of San Joaquin reveals how the Mexican Americans were exploited at farms for practically no payment and how difficult life was for them.

Another poem about the hard life of the Mexican Americans as farmers is A Red Palm. The title of the poem itself shows that it is hardly about anything positive or cheerful. This poem is a story about the life of farmers and it is one of those that describe Soto’s daily experiences. At this, however, the poet aims to show that farmers (under whom he means the Mexican Americans, like himself) are deprived of many things that workers should have and that they have to work hard in order not to let their families die from hunger: “You chop, step, and by the end of the first row,/You can buy one splendid fish for wife/And three sons.

Another row, another fish,/Until you have enough and move on to milk,/Bread, meat” (Soto 96). And again, just as in the case with The Elements of San Joaquin, this is not the author’s complaint; he just believes that such hard work is his only choice because, as a Mexican, he is not able to get a better job. Telling in detail how painful such work may be, the author uses a surreal image, namely the blister on his hand (Sharp, 2005).

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He refers to it as “a red sun on your palm,/The sore light you see when you first stir in bed (Soto 112); this powerful metaphor helps the author to vividly express how intolerable the work in the field may be. At the same time, seeing this “red sun” every morning presupposes that one cannot escape this work, which makes the situation even more intolerable, but which is an integral part of the life of a Mexican American farmer. This is also related to social and racial issues that Soto raises so often in his poems. In this way, A Red Palm reflects poverty and exploitation at work as an aspect of Mexican American people’s lives.

One more poem having a similar theme is The Tale of Sunlight which, however, is less tragic than The Elements of San Joaquin and A Red Palm. In the entire book, also titled The Tale of Sunlight, Soto resorts to the frequent use of storytelling techniques, as well as imagery that makes the poems more expressive (Blanchard and Falcetti 241). In this poem, for instance, Soto uses magical realism and a number of rhetorical devices, such as metaphors, to tell a story through the voice of a narrator, Manuel Zaragoza.

Though this does not lie on the surface, the theme of this poem is the hope that the author has when going through the hard times of discrimination and oppression. This hope is a mysterious triangle of sunlight that comes from nowhere because the door and the windows are closed. This light disintegrates everything it falls on. Quite powerful here is the image of the “pink stump” (Soto 42) that the author introduces into his narrative.

The matter-of-fact tone with which the author presents all the events accounts for his use of magical realism like, for instance, is a part where the red stump “entered the sunlight,/Snapped off/With a dry sneeze,/And fell to the floor/As a gift/To the ants” (Soto 42). This shows how hardened the narrator is by his life, which, on a larger scale, is related to the struggle of the author’s race and culture. Thus, The Tale of Sunlight, quite subtly, recurs the theme expressed in all the poems under consideration, namely the suffering from the Mexican Americans from racial inequality.

The two remaining poems, however, also bear the traits of the theme under consideration. One of them is Mexicans Begin Jogging that indirectly points at the issue of racial discrimination that was present in every aspect of the life of the poet. In this poem, again, the author offers one of his daily experiences for the readers’ consideration. He describes a day from his work at the factory, “In the fleck of rubber,/under the press/Of an oven yellow with flame” (Soto, “Mexicans Begin Jogging” 24).

The industrial job described in the poem is common for illegal immigrants for whose money earned at such factories are more than enough for living, unlike the Americans who are in pursuit of better jobs. However, if caught at this work by patrol, the Mexicans face the risk of being deported. In this poem, Soto also faces this risk and, though he states that he is an American and does not have to run from the patrol, he is accused of being a liar.

This is where the conflict of identity, not only racial discrimination, can be observed. Though Soto is an American in mind for he lived his life in this country, his soul is Mexican because he has been born in a Mexican family; however, his boss, a white man, is unlikely to understand the complexity of this situation, which is why Soto prefers simply escaping. The poem in which the character has to run only because he is non-white also raises the problem of dispossession which the Mexicans in America faced in the 20th century (Pérez-Torres 112).

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No matter how strange it may seem, but Soto resorts to using irony, which makes his poem somewhat comic. When jogging through the neighborhood as if from the patrol, Soto, impressed by the absurdity of the situation, yells “vivas” to the passers-by who look at him with astonishment. Therefore, this poem also supports the theme expressed by Soto in his other works because it is devoted to the issue of racial inequality.

And finally, Oranges is one more poem by Soto that relates to social aspects of the Mexicans’ life in America. This poem deals with the issue of poverty, though it is never directly discussed in the poem. The matter is that the poet grew up in Fresno and the poverty that he felt in this barrio was often depressing for him. This is the feeling that he has transferred to the poem where he, as a twelve-year-old boy, walks with a girl for the first time and does not have enough money for buying her a chocolate: “I fingered/A nickle in my pocket,/And when she lifted a chocolate/That cost a dime,/I didn’t say anything” (Soto, “Oranges” 10).

The author uses rhetoric devices (metaphors), such as “my breath before me” and “light in her eyes” to show the meaning of the situation for him and how the moment could have been spoiled by the fact that he did not have enough money. Thereby, Soto expresses the theme of poverty and social inequality in this poem.

In conclusion, all five poems by Soto are united by the theme of the complexity of the Mexicans’ lives in America. It cannot be stated that each poem presents a separate aspect of this life, discrimination, poverty, poor working conditions, violence, etc because they all are interrelated. Thus, when a poem is about poor working conditions, it inevitably involves discrimination and poverty, as well as poverty-related poems, entail the issue of racial inequality. The use of rhetoric devices makes Soto’s poems more expressive because metaphors help him transfer all the tragedy of the situations described, while irony turns some of his poems into comic ones.

Works Cited

Primary Sources

Soto, Gary. A Fire in My Hands: Poems. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

—. New and Selected Poems. Vancouver: Raincoast books, 1995.

—. Where Sparrows Work Hard. Pittsburg: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1981.

Secondary Sources

Blanchard, Mary L. and Falcetti, Cara. Poets for Young Adults: Their Lives and Works. New York: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2006.

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Pérez-Torres, Rafael. Movements in Chicano poetry: Against Myths, Against Margins. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Sharp, Michael D. Popular Contemporary Writers. New York: Marshall Cavendish, 2005.

Literary Criticism

Blanchard, Mary L. and Falcetti, Cara. Poets for Young Adults: Their Lives and Works. New York: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2006.

Pérez-Torres, Rafael. Movements in Chicano poetry: Against Myths, Against Margins. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Sharp, Michael D. Popular Contemporary Writers. New York: Marshall Cavendish, 2005.

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StudyCorgi. "Gary Soto: Biography and Soto’s Poems Analysis." November 22, 2021.


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StudyCorgi. (2021) 'Gary Soto: Biography and Soto’s Poems Analysis'. 22 November.

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