Gary Soto’s first work, The Elements of San Joaquin, encompasses themes ranging from his experience working in the fields of San Joaquin as a youth to the death of his father. These events in his life played an immense role in shaping his politically activity as well as beginning his career as a Chican@ poet and author. His birth on April 12, 1952 in Fresno, California placed him in both the right time and place for participation in the Civil Rights movement that fought for increased rights for Chican@ field workers. Though his poetry resonates with his own biography it rings true for the Chican@ movement in its struggles against harsh living conditions and dependency on agricultural work for sustenance. The poem from which this publication takes its name, “The Elements of San Joaquin” opens the work with a sequence of poems details the relationship of worker to the land. César Chávez, a crucial political rights activist, receives a dedication at the poem’s beginning and marks “Elements” as a work written both to acknowledge hardship and provide a voice to those whose struggles the movement represented. Soto uses natural imagery in “Elements,” but his physically limiting perspective on the human body turns the rich earth into a barren field. In this way, Soto uses the relationship between man and nature to display the negative, and ultimately defining, characteristics imposed on Chican@ workers by an oppressive system of agricultural exploitation.
Soto’s dedication of “The Elements of San Joaquin” to César Chávez immediately imbues the words that follow with a tone of struggle and strife. Many works of American literature, especially those with a Transcendentalist background such as Whitman, Emerson, and Thoreau, present the merging of man with nature as return to innocence. This acceptance of the natural world, for them, holds great beauty and bolsters the spirit and strength of an individual. Soto, on the other hand, portrays the roughness of working in the dirt and in no way does this soil refresh the soul. This sequence begins with “Field,” and in its opening lines the speaker states, “The wind sprays pale dirt into my mouth/The small, almost invisible scars/On my hands” (3). The tone in this passage feels passive because seemingly all the speaker must do is close his mouth to avoid the dirt. This spray of dirt, however, pervades the atmosphere of the poem and cannot be resisted. The wind causes the landscape to change gradually over time, but the dirt it kicks up stings the speaker’s hands. It leaves miniscule scars and cuts, apparent to the speaker, but hidden from the observer. These scars represent both the physical pain induced by the worker’s labor as well as the pain of working soil that does not yield its fruits to laborers. The images of soil that produces only suffering, hands that bear the brunt of difficult labor, and wind that changes the land all point toward the difficulty of progress in an oppressive environment.
This environment, that of both the farm and society, leave physical and emotional scars that come to define the laborers on every level of their existence. “Field” concludes the first section of “Elements” by establishing this connection between man and land in terms of their physical makeup and social value. In the introduction to Gary Soto: New and Selected Poems, Soto explains that, “By the summer of 1973, after my fear of writing poorly had disappeared, I knew my pulse was timed to the heart of this valley” (Soto 2). His personal experience with the valley allowed him to craft these works because of the intimate relationship he held with the physical essence of the land he tended. Instead of reaping the rewards of this fertile earth, however, the speaker in “Elements” becomes reduced to a tool, a means of production, which sees no benefit from his labors. The speaker bemoans, “Already I am becoming the Valley,/A soil that sprouts nothing./For any of us” (12). This subject, like the land on which he works, becomes a domesticated product under the control of others. The imagery used to demonstrate the physically detrimental effects of farming on the human body and mind go one step further to illuminate the ways in which the workers have become the farm. The land on a farm is neither wild nor free. Whereas agricultural lands receive large amounts of care and nutrition in order to produce in a limited way, the workers receive little in return for their efforts.
Just as the wilderness becomes domesticated within a farm, the speaker in “Elements” grows distant from nature’s freedom as he works in the fields. Soto’s nature imagery remains prevalent in every sequence of “Elements,” but instead of invoking nature it begins to evolve into a representation of an urban setting. As the seasons changes and the farms no longer need workers nature fades and the struggle of urban survival begins. The speaker laments that:
When autumn rains flatten sycamore leaves,
The tiny volcanoes of dirt/Ants raised around their holes,
I should be out of work. (63)
The metaphor as man as valley continues as the earth hibernates and restores itself. A strict contrast is drawn between the earth’s rejuvenation and the worker’s autumn because of their continued need for sustenance. The sequence turns “Rain” as the speaker parallels an ant and transitions to a residence. The image of a man working like an ant, without and individual identity and living in a hole in the dirt, illustrates poor living and social conditions. The speaker is out of work for the season and returns again to the dirt from which nothing grows. Autumn and winter see no production from the earth and the worker loses his defining purpose. In these months the laborer faces the harshness of winter, but he never loses the dirt engrained in his existence. The dirt and the seasons become physically defining factors in the worker’s life, routine, and survival.
Another way in which Soto addresses the very physical implications of the relationship between man and earth presents itself in the descriptions he uses for his speaker. He defines the speaker in terms of discreet physical elements, such as hands or a face, but never as a whole person. This choice of worlds removes the sense of the individual and makes the speaker a more universally applicable image. Conversely, the speaker also becomes an entity defined by the function of its parts. Soto uses the pieces of the body related to either vital functions, such as the lungs, mouth, and belly, or parts used in order to complete work. Soto demonstrates this connection in “Field” when the speaker says:
After a day in the grape fields near Rolinda
A fine silt, washed by sweat,
Has settled into the lines
On my wrists and palms. (9)
Again, Soto compares the speaker to the fields he works, but the defining characteristic in this description is the pattern of the field on his wrists and palms. Through the oppressive agricultural system the workers become reduced to cogs functioning in a larger machine. They have only a functional purpose defined by others even while they must also fill their stomachs. The most unique part of a person’s physical identity, their fingerprints, becomes filled with dirt. When the work erases a person’s physical identity and reduces them to a simple means. Additionally, the speaker becomes limited to a single, menial function that ignores the fertility implied in the soil imagery.
This fertility of the individual also comes to play as the speaker struggles against the wind and soil while he attempts to make his voice heard. The opening line of the poem fills the speaker’s mouth with dirt. While this prevents him from speaking and causes pain, it also implies a richness of voice and a continuing struggle to express himself. The invocation of Chávez implies that this work speaks not only of the tragedy of oppression, but also the struggle to break free of the system. The wind, which represents change, moves the soil around and allows for new possibilities to manifest. In “Harvest,” the speaker collects the fruits of his labor for use by others, but also makes progress for himself. The worker makes progress when he says, “A wind crossed my face, moving the dust/And a portion of my voice a step closer to a new year” (74). Though his tone falls just short of hopeful, the speaker voice is carried forward to a new future where his cries are at least heard. Though no physical progress occurs the portion of his voice that escapes heralds a change in the way the workers interact with the rest of the world. Without this voice neither hope for a better future nor individual expression between people exists.
The relationship between man and earth finally evolves into the relationship between the producers and consumers. The final section, “Daybreak,” does not resolves the conflict between those who cannot see the suffering of the laborers, but an expression of this invisible problem. The voice that carries in “Harvest” has not yet matured, but the sunrise brings these grievances into the light of day. The speaker explains to the audience:
…the tears the onions raise
Do not begin in your eyes but in ours,
In the salt blown
From one blister into another. (107)
This selection links the laborers to those who consume the final product, but it is a blind connection. Neither group has direct contact with the other, but the pain experienced is a universal human emotion. Were the consumers put in the same position as the workers, they would feel the same discomfort. The tears shed by the eyes represent the same salt stinging the blisters. Even though the eyes cannot see the pain, Soto implies that if they could know of this suffering that they would react in the same manner. Despite the harmful effects of using only parts of the body to describe the worker, Soto’s use of eyes in this passage demonstrate a potential for empathy among different people. The bitter tone here, however, also shows that the change will be difficult, but that the struggle has potential for success. In a way, it also warns that those who consume can also feel pain in the same way as the laborers and that resentment will not disappear with change.
While “The Elements of San Joaquin” begins with a passive tone, it gains momentum through the sequence and builds to a moment where the speaker becomes more than a tool. His voice, inclusive of the pain and frustration with his situation become clear. “Elements” expresses the voice of one in the middle of a hard battle against oppression. It does not necessarily demonstrate the possibility of a perfect future, but it does show the tangible progress of a growing voice. Beyond the dirt that erases the speaker’s identity lies the fertile soil of a group of people who are no longer content to accept their harsh lives. “Elements” acknowledges the failings of an oppressive agricultural system on those it exploits and takes the first step toward establishing rights for the Chican@ workers. It also demonstrates the devastating ways in which a people with great potential can become so simplified that they lose their personhood. Soto’s use of discrete parts of the human body allows the speaker to exist as an individual, the universal human being, and those blind to their oppressive behavior. His use of soil and farmland bind humanity with the earth, and in doing so Soto demonstrates the power of voice to catalyze change like the wind can change a landscape. This change comes gradually and with an incredible amount of labor. “The Elements of San Joaquin” is the sum of an oppressed people, obscured by dirt, which now have the voice to begin growing.
Gary Soto continues to voice his opinion as a political activist and has continued his writing career. He has also expanded in other works of literature, such as novels, and continues to publish his work. In this interview Soto discusses the large variety of audiences he addresses across the large selection of genres within which he works. Soto also maintains a website containing a photo gallery chronicling his life as well as his email address if any readers are interested in contacting him. It also contains a section titled, "What's Up" where he posts new poems and his take on current events or articles. Finally, here is a brief reading of a poem entitled, "Ode To Obama" that demonstrates his continued interest in politics and reform through the medium of poetry.