I was born and raised in Fresno, California, and grew up in the barrio, which is a Spanish word for neighborhood. When I was younger I wanted to be a priest or a paleontologist, a scientist who studies fossils and dinosaur bones. We didn't have many books around when I was growing up, and no one really encouraged us to read. In fact, I never thought about being a writer when I was a kid.
After high school I went to the California State University at Fresno to study geology. One day I came across a book of poetry on a shelf in the college library. I read it, liked it, and began to write poems of my own. I enrolled in my first poetry-writing class in 1972. I was twenty years old at the time. That's when I decided to become a writer. I graduated from the university with a degree in English. I then went on to get a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing. I have been writing poetry, short stories, and novels for children and adults ever since.
A lot of my work seems autobiographical, because I write a lot about growing up as a Mexican American. It's important to me to create and share new stories about my heritage. It's a huge part of my life. If you read my poems and stories, you might wonder which things really happened to me. As a writer, I like to make things up, as long as the actions of the characters are believable. There are many different types of writers. Some people like to write things that are factual and historical. For me, the joy of being a writer is to take things I see and hear and then rearrange them. I like to tamper with reality and create new possibilities. In short, not all my work is autobiographical, but it could be.
To me the finest praise is when a reader says, I can see your stories. This is what I'm always working for, a story that becomes alive and meaningful in the reader's mind. That's why I write so much about growing up in the barrio. It allows me to use specific memories that are vivid for me. For example, in Neighborhood Odes, a collection of some of my poems, I describe and celebrate life in a Hispanic neighborhood. I use details, such as the names of people I knew and the foods they ate, to illustrate daily life in the community. I even include a list of Spanish words and phrases, with their English translations, at the back of the book.
Sometimes, I go to schools to meet my readers. I have played baseball and basketball with young people, sang songs, led a parade and even acted in skits. I do these things because I want to make sure kids get excited about reading. I figure if they meet me, they will be curious to read what I write. If that inspires them to read what other people write, all the better! I believe in literature and the depth it adds to all our lives.
Even though I write a lot about life in the barrio, I am really writing about the feelings and experiences of most American kids: having a pet, going to the park for a family cookout, running through a sprinkler on a hot day, and getting a bee sting! You may discover that you have had many of the same experiences and feelings as the characters in my stories and poems.
Gary Soto now lives with his wife and daughter in Berkeley, California. He is a Distinguished Professor at the University of California at Riverside.