When the opportunity to hold a microphone during a Gary Soto interview came up, I leapt at it. Soto, the world-renowned (and I can say that: world-renowned), Fresno-born, Mexican-American author headlines the second annual LitHop literary festival on April 29.
We met Soto in the hall outside his museum in Fresno City College’s old administration building. Soto drives down from his home in Berkeley regularly to conduct tours there. He introduces visitors to his books, poems, awards, photos, and keepsakes from his childhood. He points out the places he proposed to young women, was rejected, and later found poetry.
Fresno City College Professor Juan Luis Guzmán conducted much of the formal interview we recorded. However, I must say, Soto and I shot the breeze for bit before Guzmán arrived. And I was a bit star struck.
Star struck doesn’t quite say it. I mean, how do you tell someone you’ve just met that you’re about 30 years old and you’ve been reading their work since you were five?
When I was in kindergarten, Clovis Unified School District placed a ban on Gary Soto’s book Chato’s Kitchen. I remember sitting next to my mom while she argued with the librarian and someone who I can only guess was our principal. She had bought me a copy of the book and disagreed with them labeling this story about cats, mice, and dog as “gang-related.” The restriction on the book didn’t last long, but, I should say, I am forever skeptical of cats in Pendletons and wiener dogs in UFW berets.
My mom kept buying me his books. Soto was Fresno’s guy. More than that, he was Mexican, a Chicano.
His book covers had little Brown boys on them that looked like me. He wrote stories about places in Fresno I knew. Books like: Baseball in April, Boys at Work, Summer on Wheels, and The Pool Party were favorites when I was the same age as the characters. I grew up in his books.
When Soto turned Pool Party into a film in ’93, my older cousins were extras during the climactic party scene. We had the VHS and would fast forward it to the frame where my cousin Jandro could be seen in the background jumping into the pool.
What sets Soto apart from most any writer is that he can be read at every stage of our education. Few writers of any stature can make this claim. In high school I remember coming across his memoir Living Up the Street. At Fresno City College, I read Elements of San Joaquin. It was during a time when I was just coming into my own as a poet. In that book, I found lines like this one from the title poem; I recalled my own experience working in the valley’s heat, swinging a hoe, stacking boxes in a packinghouse, and banging nails on the roof of a shed:
After a day in the grape fields near Rolinda
A fine silt, washed by sweat,
Has settled into the lines
On my wrists and palms.
Already I am becoming the valley,
A soil that sprouts nothing
For any of us.
I carried that with me to UC Berkeley, where we read from his other books like Black Hair and Where Sparrows Work Hard in my English courses. In his texts I was able to find home in a place that felt so far from it. In a world where Latinx/Chicanx authors are marginalized or banned outright from classrooms, Soto rises to the top. He has created for us a library of texts on the Fresno experience.
Gary Soto will be reading at Fresno City College’s Old Administration Building (OAB) Auditorium Saturday, April 29 at 7pm. For more information please visit the Lithop’s website.
Joseph Rios was born and raised in Clovis, CA. He is the author Shadowboxing: Poems and Impersonations (Omnidawn, 2017). Joseph’s poems have appeared in or are forthcoming from: The Los Angeles Review, Southern Humanities Review, Huizache, BorderSenses, and Hector Tobar’s blog for the Los Angeles Times. Rios has been featured on radio programs such as, Nuestra Palabra (Houston), Words on a Wire (El Paso), Raza Chronicles (Berkeley), and Pakatelas (Fresno). He is a recipient of the John K Walsh residency fellowship from the University of Notre Dame and a finalist for the Willow Books Literature Award. He is a Macondo and Canto Mundo fellow. He studied literature at the University of California, Berkeley and Fresno City College. He is the founder of Doña Helen’s, a poet’s residency at his grandparents’ longtime home in the San Joaquin Valley. Recently, he was the guest editor of bozalta, a journal of art, literature, scholarship, and activism. He lives in Los Angeles.