Jesse Discussion Guide
- Grades: 6–8
About this book
To the Teacher
Gary Soto grew up in Fresno, California, as part of a close Mexican-American community. Soto has kept it alive in his poetry, essays, and fiction. He says that writing about second- and third-generation Mexican-Americans is, to him, writing about "the particulars of the world."
In 1970, Soto attended Fresno City College. He wrote down that he wanted to be "an urban planner," because he thought it sounded good. But then he discovered the Beat poets — Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti — and decided to be a poet. He went on to earn an M.F.A. in creative writing at the University of California, Irvine. He was only twenty-four when he published his collection The Elements of San Joaquin, which won a major prize. In 1977 he was hired as part of the creative writing faculty at the University of California, Berkeley, where he taught until 1991, when he retired to write full-time. For young adults, Soto's contribution is the transferring of the skills he developed as a poet (an efficiency of language, powerful descriptions, and an eye for telling details) to the writing of fiction for young readers. He began with short stories about young teens, as in the highly acclaimed Baseball in April and Local News, and then moved on to novels, as in Summer on Wheels, Crazy Weekend, and Jesse, his first book for older teenage readers.
The story is set in Fresno during the early 1970s. Midway through his senior year, seventeen-year-old Jesse moves out of his home and drops out of high school to live with his older brother, Abel. The brothers enroll in Fresno City College, where Jesse studies art and Abel switches back and forth between majoring in Spanish and forestry. The boys each get $90 a month from social security because when they were just "small, twigs of flesh," their father had been killed in an industrial accident. Apart from the $90, they earn their money for food, rent, clothes, and tuition by going out on weekends as farm laborers and by scrounging things from alleys to sell at flea markets or recycling centers. The book takes Jesse through his first semester at community college, which includes making the hard decision of earning $16 as a weekend farm worker or participating in a César Chávez rally; taking his mother to an art showing, where he lies about which is his piece because she doesn't approve of the striking farm workers he has painted; vicariously living the tensions of an interracial romance through his brother's crush on the landlady's daughter; and experiencing a disappointing spring vacation. By the end of the year, Abel has been drafted and Jesse has moved to his landlady's garage because he can no longer afford the apartment rent. He sees a long, dreary summer ahead of him working in the fields, but because by now readers know Jesse and see what he has gone through, they feel confident that in August Jesse will be back at school ready for another year.
Soto creates powerful images while using simple words and a straightforward style. Encourage students to use Soto's writing as a model for their own paragraphs or short stories. Listed below are some good examples:
- At night, Mom leaned her fear on two pudgy elbows at the kitchen table… (p. 2).
- I thought of God almost every day, but when Abel and I went to chop cotton I thought of César Chávez (p. 10).
- I bought her a soda, the dollar bill coming back to me in change and a beautiful face to look at… (p. 40).
- I checked the Coke machine, running a finger in the slot where the change falls (p. 104).
- I liked alleys, especially in summer. And in this alley I came across a load of abandoned aluminum, whole strips from the countertop of a restaurant (p. 128).
- I checked my smile in the mirror, teeth square as Chiclets and almost as white. I scrubbed the twin rings on my neck… (p. 133).
Work with the whole class, or divide them into small groups, to devise alternative ways of communicating the information that Soto shares through these bits of figurative language:
- …we couldn't waste our money, grimy as it was with the juice of work (p. 17).
- The tortillas were still a little warm, like a baseball glove when you take it off and put it back on a few seconds later (p. 23).
- He lived in his car, a Dodge Dart pleated from all sorts of wrecks (p. 26).
- …I was seventeen. Twenty-three seemed far away, like another town (p. 34).
- Maybe when they were drafted, they would kill someone in Vietnam. Then, their lives would start and regret would follow them like a tattoo on their arms (p. 52).
- I looked down at the water fractured with moonlight, tires, and gutted lemons (p. 141).
- It was Luis and his white pants that were now catching some of the blood that ran as red as the night was black (p. 142).
- I had boredom splashing from the faucet and the sadness of my two pairs of shoes moored under my bed (p. 165).
Jesse is set twenty-five years ago. Encourage students to do some research to learn about the 1970s, the protests against the Vietnam War, the national grape boycott, and the strikes of the Farm Workers' Union. Students might also find information on some of the Hispanic heroes whose names appear in the book: Diego Rivera, César Chávez, Dolores Huerta, Che Guevara, and Pancho Villa.
Compare the media's "beautiful people" image of spring break to the one that Abel and Jesse had. Make a list of the differences and the similarities. Would they have been so disappointed if they hadn't had the media image in their heads?
Divide the class into three small groups. Ask one group to find at least six references to religion and to decide what the story says about Jesse and his religious beliefs. Ask another group to find several references to politics and to describe Jesse's relationship to the political protests of his time. Ask the third group to find references to money and to explain how Jesse and Abel managed their finances. Would they have other options today?
A Word About Spanish and English
Even teachers who do not know Spanish might want to use the bilingual aspects of Jesse to illustrate the way Spanish writers put their question marks and exclamation points both at the beginnings and endings of statements, or convey pronunciation through accent marks.
Many of the Spanish words are so common that readers do not need translations; e.g., adios, barrio, enchilada, folklórico, frijoles, loco, musica, nada, señor. Meanings for some of the less common words and phrases are given below.
abuela — grandmother; arroz — rice; ¡Ay, chihauhua! — an exclamation; ¡Ay, dios mio! — a stronger exclamation "My god!"; bigote — moustache; cabrón — goat; cara — face; carnal — friend, blood brother; ¡Chale! — No way!; chamacos — little kids; changes — monkeys; chingadasos — (a vulgarism); cholo — low rider; cochino — pig, dirty; comadre — good friend; ¡El pueblo unido, jamas sera vencido! — United people will never be defeated!; ¿entiendes? — (Do you) understand?; feo — ugly; gavachos — non-hispanics; gente, mi raza — Latino people; "Hasta el sabado, bro'." — "Until Saturday brother."; híjole — wow; ¡Huelga! — Strike!; huevos — eggs; la causa — the cause; los libros — the books; Mechistas — the Mexicans; mi'jo — my son (affectionate); ¡mira! — look; mole — sauce; mucho gusto — much pleasure; ¡No importa! — It doesn't matter!; órale — right on; pan dulce — sweet bread; puerco — pig; "Pues, ven con nosotros, bro'." — "Then, come with us, brother."; qué lastima — how awful; ¿Que paso? — What's happening?; raza — race; ¿Sabes? — Do you understand?; simón — yes (with emphasis); sinvergüenza — coward; vato — guy; viejo — old guy; ¡Viva la Raza! — Long live Mexicans!
An interview with Gary Soto
Who do you imagine as your readers for Jesse?
GS: I don't have a pat answer. I would think everyone could read it. It's a period piece set in the 1970s, which for today's young people makes it historical fiction. The Vietnam War is there as an evil shadow in the background, and it reignites the feelings of the Farm Workers' movement.
Because Jesse's story is set in the time when you were about his age; readers will want to know how much of it you lived.
GS: It isn't completely autobiographical, but neither is it fiction. I have a brother, and we both went to Fresno City College, where he studied art. I saw César Chávez and participated in protests — everybody did — but I was never a member of the Farm Workers' Union. Jesse and Abel's sad spring vacation wasn't experienced by my brother and me but by a couple of our friends. I took a speed-reading class; in fact, I have a poem about speed-reading that will soon come out in a collection entitled Junior College.
So few authors for young people include references to religion in their books. Did you realize that you were being different when you did this?
GS: No, I just had a biblical feeling about the story — not that Jesse is going to do in his brother like Cain did to Abel, but that Jesse is so good. He wants to do what's right. And all those dry, desert-like scenes reminded me of a biblical landscape.
Is there anything you especially want to say to readers?
GS: I hope they don't miss the comical elements of the story. Even though the end with the image of the rose and rose of cantaloupes is depressing, other parts of the story are almost tongue-in-cheek comedy.
Congratulations on a fine book and on bringing Latino/a themes into mainstream books for young readers.
GS: Yes, I feel good about this book because it is come of the strongest prose I've written. Also, no one can copy what I've done. Lots of people ware willing to do picture books with Latino/a themes, but no one can do a novel without living the emotions and the experiences.