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: Author Gary Soto captivates audience at Southwest

BEHIND GRANDMA'S HOUSE':

April 26, 2001|By ANTHONY LONGORIA, Staff Writer

With his stories of "jackets the color of day-old guacamole" and childhood adventures "behind grandma's house," author Gary Soto spoke before an enthusiastic audience at the Southwest Performing Arts Theatre in El Centro on Wednesday night.

The evening began with a performance of a scene from "Nerdlandia," Soto's humorous play about adolescent angst. In it, Soto portrayed love-struck Joaquin and performed alongside drama students from Central Union High School.

"I've never done that," Soto conceded after the performance, of performing in one of his own plays.

His presentation was filled with anecdotes from his life, similar to the retrospective and witty writings for which he's most famous.

After reciting his most famous poem, "Oranges," Soto jumped into an explanation of why he writes.

"Writing starts from pain," Soto said, citing poverty in his early life and his ethnicity for reasons he began to write.

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He also spoke of "beat poets," Pablo Neruda, and his experiences as a farm worker, which have shaped his writing.

Soto also read his poems "Water Wheel," and "Behind Grandma's House," before introducing his special guest for the evening, 82-year-old Jessie De La Cruz.

De La Cruz is the subject of Soto's book "Jessie De La Cruz: A Profile of a Farm Worker."

"My life was very hard," De La Cruz told the audience as she described her life as a farm worker, which began when she was 4. After years of working in the fields, she later became heavily involved in the United Farm Workers' movement.

"Many blisters on our feet fighting for everybody," De La Cruz said as she described marches for the movement in which she participated. One such march took her from Coachella to Calexico.

After fielding questions from the audience, both Soto and De La Cruz were presented with plaques from Central Union High School District Superintendent Dick Fragale to honor their presentations.

"Cesar (Chavez) taught us another thing, clap in unity," an excited De La Cruz said as she led the group in an accelerating clap in unison that ended the evening.

Following the presentation, Soto and De La Cruz signed books and met with audience members in the theatre foyer, which was decorated with local students' art and poetry inspired by Soto's works.

Born and raised in Fresno, Soto is the author of numerous books and poetry collections, of which he has sold 1.3 million copies. He has a bachelor's degree from California State University, Fresno and a master of fine arts from the University of California, Irvine and is a distinguished professor at the University of California, Riverside. Soto resides in Berkeley with his family.

Staff Writer Anthony Longoria can be reached at 337-3452.

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