“For years I thought my sister was La Llorona”: Gary Soto rocks the Puente Annual 9th Grade Student Leadership Conference

Saturday, October 13 2012, yours truly was invited to present at the Annual 9th Grade Student Leadership Puente Project Conference held at Saint Mary’s College where five hundred students hailing from San Jose, Salinas, and Union City and other Bay Area and central coast students listened to keynote speaker Gary Soto and attended workshops on everything from College Student Panels, STEM, Law Panel, Youth Service, and Medical and Health Sciences Panel.”

In the Soda Center where they were welcomed to the campus these high school freshman couldn’t keep still in their seats and why should they? The Executive Director Frank Garcia of the Puente Project spoke before the keynote address and advised everyone can choose their paths. “Take control of your destiny. I thought I’d be a farm worker all my life” he shared because that’s what his parents were. Explaining the purpose and mission of Puente, the California-wide project works in conjunction with 61 colleges, 34 high schools and includes 14,000 students, all “who are making decisions about what kind of path they will take. Adelante, move forward!” he ended his presentation and introduced National Book Award winner, writer and poet Gary Soto.

As he was came onto the stage, the students cheered, yelled his name, and shouted that they’d read many of his books. It was the welcoming of a much deserved hero.

He greeted the packed Soda Center by first showing the different ways of saying hello, “If you’re from China or Japon, you bow,” he demonstrated. “If you’re from the U.S. you give a handshake, and if you’re from Richmond or Hayward you have a nod and say, ‘hey.'”

Soto rocked the crowd with his stories. He spoke of a difficult youth, of not getting along with his mother and step-father, and of running away from home in Fresno. He hitchhiked around Los Angeles in 1968 when “you could just stick your thumb out” and end up at Santa Monica Beach. In 1976, he and his brother graduated from high school.

Filled with funny and heartbreaking stories. Soto has been writing for 35 years, and confessed that he had so much fun in the 9th grade he was there for two years. Throughout the keynote address Soto scrolled through his 9th grade memories, which included noticing how the trees around his neighborhood were carved with love markings: Pedro con Consuela, Pedro con Laura, Pedro con Dolores. Soto didn’t have a girlfriend yet, so he carved for himself: Chorizo con Huevos and Huevos con Weenies. He also spoke of how for years he thought La Llorona was his sister. They kids, teachers, and staff were all howling in stitches.

Soto moved through three different genres he’s mastered, starting with his poem:


The first time I walked
With a girl, I was twelve,
Cold, and weighted down
With two oranges in my jacket.
December. Frost cracking
Beneath my steps, my breath
Before me, then gone,
As I walked toward
Her house, the one whose
Porch light burned yellow
Night and day, in any weather.
A dog barked at me, until
She came out pulling
At her gloves, face bright
With rouge. I smiled,

Read entire poem here

Soto spoke of mocoso babies and how 9th grade was a pivotal time. He read from both a novel and a play recently penned after spending time interviewing undocumented youth, and though he said he wasn’t a statesman, nor was he in politics, he still believed that those undocumented, here to work and live, should have driver’s licenses if they’re going to be on the roads.

Ending with the meaning of “puente” Soto listed all that bridges stand for: something scary living under them, civilization, super structure, something you have to pay a toll to cross, uniting peoples, and a cross roads for those on a journey.

After the keynote address, yours truly facilitated two back-t0-back writing workshops titled “Power of Voice.” Initially, there was some confusion about the rooms, but the students were good sports and though they might have been expecting a workshop on “Teens and Technology” they were reacquainted with one of the oldest technologies, the pen and paper.

The first exercise borrowed from Janet Burroway’s Imaginative Writing: The Elements of Craft by Penguin’s Academic Series. We called this exercise, “Undoing a Cliché” where we listed as many clichés and over-used trite sayings as we could think of. Then we switched up the beginnings and endings, so we could take risks in our voice and startle our readers.

The students came up with startling images such as:

my feet are sicker than a dog

busy as a dog

busy as cats and dogs

Finally we ended with the an original prompt:

The Ant Who Wants to See the Moon Exercise #2

If you were a <FILL IN THE BLANK FROM THE BELOW> what kind would you be?

1.ice cream flavor: ____________________________________________
2. furniture: ____________________________________________
3. time of day: ____________________________________________
4. animal: ____________________________________________
5. sea creature: ____________________________________________
6. article of clothing: ____________________________________________
7. plant or tree: ____________________________________________
8. kitchen item: ____________________________________________
9. body of water: ____________________________________________
10. architectural structure: ____________________________________________
11. fruit or vegetable: ____________________________________________
12. book: ____________________________________________
13. game: ____________________________________________

Now choose one, circle it, and anthropomorphize or personify it. For example, if you chose a book, think of your book title as a real paperback copy and write from the point of view of that book: where has it been? Where did it come from, library, bookstore, or Amazon, etc? Who’s hands has it been in? What kind of reader does the book like? What kind of reader is the book afraid of and why? Describe a day in the life of that paperback book? Where does it live? Who does it see? What would it like to do that it can’t? What is the book’s one heart’s desire? What is the book’s greatest fear and why? Put your book in a scenario where the greatest fear or desire is at stake. Be sure to use all seven senses (taste, touch, smell, sight, sound, balance, time) and to depict time, place, setting, other characters, appearance, weather, year, day of the week, hour, etc. In essence, tell a story about your chosen subject!

I had thirty students in my first workshop and forty in my second, and they wrote their own cuentos anthropomorphizing a kitchen table who fell in unrequited love with a chandelier, and a lake who dreamed of being an ocean.

"Shyness is nice and shyness can stop you"

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