Gary Soto Museum Set to Open in OAB

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Tomas Kassahun
February 2, 2011
Filed under News

In 1972, Gary Soto had a total of $1.00 in his wallet. His diet consisted of  Ramen and Frijoles.

Today, Soto is a world renowned author and poet.  He is the author of 11 poetry collections for adults and  winner of several awards including the Human and Civil Right Award, the Literature Award from the Hispanic Heritage Foundation, and the PEN Center West Book Award for his young-adult short story collection “Petty Crimes”.

And now, an entire museum bears Gary Soto’s name at Fresno City College, where his love for writing was born. “My first publications were two poems in a 1972 spring issue of the Rampage,” said Soto. “We all must begin somewhere.”

Soto said he had approached Ned Doffoney, president of the college at the time, about the college providing space to showcase his writing memorabilia, including typewriters, manuscripts, first editions books, and his writing table.

He was able to convince the president that the 700 square feet of space could encourage others to read. The one room museum is located in the Old Administration Building and is expected to open in February.

“I specifically spell out in the museum how I was not by any means a stellar student,” Soto said.  “I mean, I graduated from Roosevelt High School with a 1.6 GPA.”  

Even with a 1.6 GPA however, Soto knew he had to pursue a college degree. Otherwise, he was destined to work on the farm for the rest of his life. Since Fresno State was out of the question, Soto enrolled at Fresno City College for one last effort to find the right path. He entered FCC as a geography major because of his desire to study maps. But that desire was shortly replaced when he discovered an array of contemporary poets on the shelves of FCC’s library. Among the poets he found were Edward Field, W.S. Merwin, Charles Simic, James Wright and Pablo Neruda. Soto was immediately hooked and decided to make writing his life.

Vanessa Cabrera, executive vice president of ASG and campus coordinator, was asked by Soto to be a docent in the museum. “I have been reading his books since I was young,” said Cabrera. “He is such a kind and sweet person. It is a great opportunity and honor to work with him,”  said Cabrera.

The museum was designed by Jonathan Hirabayashi of Oakland.  “It’s well ordered, handsome, and makes a sensible museum out of a small space,” said Soto.  Among the items in the museum are a baptismal gown, Soto’s first laptop which his wife bought for him, and his books which have been translated into Spanish, French, and Italian.

“I’m amazed that I kept a lot of things from my early writing career—manuscripts and typewriters—even though I tend not to be a collector of stuff,” said Soto.

Soto also takes pride in putting his hometown of Fresno on the national literary map. “I have used Fresno as the setting for most of my stories and poems, but I certainly am not alone in this,” said Soto. “Fresno has produced many fine writers, inspired by the place and its teachers of creative writing, so actually, we might say that Fresno has made the biggest contribution to literature rather than the opposite.”

Having grown up with little or no money, Soto relates to the circumstances of today’s students. “These times are much rougher than when I was growing up in the 1960s,” said Soto.

“True, back then, racism was more prevalent and division of labor was one-sided,” he said. “But the current students face major hardship from not enough money.  My advice to students is to hang in there, to invest in themselves by way of education.  Dividends will pay out in the long run.”

The museum is the latest effort by Soto to improve literacy. He has traveled to many states and has met with students of all ages with hopes of encouraging them to read and write.

Soto said he believes today’s electronic gadgetry has diminished young people’s desire to read. He hopes the museum will help restore that desire. “Often, there is fissure between one generation and the next.  Still, I would ask younger people or those returning to school to give literature — poems, novels, stories — another chance,” said Soto.

For Soto however, there is yet another factor which makes it hard for him to be optimistic about the future. He puts the responsibility of tomorrow on the governmental leaders of today who “control purse strings that affect college students.”

“Young people have every right to be suspicious of the older generation, especially those administrators in the UC system bringing down huge salaries and wanting even more massive retirement benefits,” Soto said.  “The greed is amazing.  They seem to raise tuition and raise their salaries.”

As for the museum, Soto has more plans to come. He hopes to add more physical features such as a guide system in which visitors use their cell phones to hear explanations of the displays. “I’d like to find a talented student who can make a virtual tour of the space for the web.  We are looking to sponsor some future programming or contests for young writers,” said Soto.

On Feb. 4, Soto will give two keynote addresses in the Old Administration Building. The first speech is at noon and the second is at 2:00 p.m. The campus community is invited.

In the next year, Soto plans to publish a book called 13, which is a collection of short stories as well as a picture book called Lucky Luis.

“Usually when we think of ‘museum’, we think of some place dedicated to a buried person, said Soto. “But I’m far from gone and far from finished writing.”

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