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Editor's note: Gary Soto is one of the recipients of the American Association of Community Colleges' 2012 Outstanding Alumni Award. They will be honored this week at the annual AACC convention in Orlando.
Gary Soto turned a childhood full of struggle into beautiful poetry, novels, children’s books and other literary work.
Born to working-class Mexican-American parents in California, Soto worked in the fields of the San Joaquin Valley and factories of Fresno even in his youth. His father passed away when he was only five, leading his family to struggle financially and leaving little time for schoolwork.
As a fan of the works of Robert Frost, Jules Verne, Ernest Hemingway, Thornton Wilder, Edgar Lee Masters and John Steinbeck, Soto had to overcome many obstacles in pursuit of an education. His family often regarded education as a waste of time, and he was not a model high school student. Nevertheless, Soto enrolled in college, discovered a passion for learning and earned his associate degree from Fresno City College (FCC).
“I enrolled in fall 1970 at Fresno City College and took the most basic classes in order to regroup,” Soto said. “After I discovered literature at City, I began to believe that I might be able to write. My poetry stems from what I feel is a creative duty to play with words and provide a canvas for my observations.”
Soto went on to earn his baccalaureate in English from California State University, Fresno, where he studied with poet Philip Levine. He then became the first Mexican-American to earn a master’s in fine arts degree in poetry from the University of California, Irvine, in 1976—paying for his education by washing cars, collecting cans, mowing lawns and working in the fields.
Soto was inspired to become a writer at FCC after a “broken heart” led him to explore the world of love poetry. It was then that he began to discover the poetry of Edward Field, W.S. Merwin, Charles Simic, James Wright and Pablo Neruda, as well as the novels of Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
Soto, who published his first book at age 25, has authored 35 books, including poetry collections for adults and children, picture books, memoirs, films, novels and plays. His writing is featured in over 48 textbooks, and he has edited several anthologies. His poem “Oranges” has been included in more poetry anthologies than any other contemporary poem and is featured in The Ten Best Love Poems alongside the works of great poets such as Elizabeth Barrett Browning.
Soto’s books have sold more than 3.5 million copies and have been published in five languages. He has captured the largest readership of Latino children and young adults in the country.
Soto sees his work as a means to portray the lives of Mexican-Americans and his poetry and stories often focus on the daily experiences of the people in his community. The community in turn has recognized him. The Winchell Elementary School in Fresno has named a library in his honor. In 2010, FCC opened the Gary Soto Literary Museum, dedicated to his life and work, and an accompanying educational center to encourage literacy. More than 10,000 students and tourists visit the museum every year.
Soto has remained committed to encouraging education and literacy for students in Fresno and throughout the U.S. He sees FCC as the place where he discovered a skill and career in writing, and where he was given the opportunity to pursue his dreams. He said he wants to give other students these opportunities.
At FCC, he is a frequent guest speaker at classes and workshops, where he encourages students to pursue their goals. Keenly aware that many community college students work and raise families and often struggle to make ends meet—something he can relate to—Soto frequently donates to his alma mater, funding scholarships for aspiring writers and contributing $300,000 to kick off fundraising to renovate the college’s Old Administration Building, which is listed on the National Historic Register.
Reflecting on his career, Soto said it was FCC that allowed him to make a fresh start and to set and achieve goals he once thought we unattainable.
“First, I became anonymous, meaning that I could start over without the immature atmosphere of high school,” he said of his experience at FCC. “I welcomed classes that were a mystery to me, classes such as Western civilization, music appreciation and Chicano studies. I began to grow, truly, in a setting that allowed me freedom.”
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