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Teaching Jesse by Gary Soto: Challenges, Ideas, and Resources

Jesse by Gary Soto is best described by the book jacket:

"Their future clouded by the Vietnam War and the lifetime of labor in the fields that seems the only road open to Mexican Americans, Jesse and his brother, Abel, search for hope and salvation through education. Jesse Leaves home and high school to join his older brother at the community college, and the two try to support themselves and to find meaning in their dubious classes and a wavering social and political climate. Their innocence, their good faith, their valiant struggles to grow and to understand life and love are both comic and memorable. Gary Soto's talent for vivid detail and his loving view of the Mexican-American community bring this poignant story of a boy's coming of age--and coming of awareness--to life."

Through Jesse, readers see the spirit, drive, and social conditions of the Chicano. This story speaks to the importance of education, religion, hard work, and family, all themes prevalent in Hispanic literature.

Challenge: Making the Connection

At first read, Jesse can be one of those books where when finished, you put it down and think, “that was good.” You know it was entertaining and you liked it, but may not take it any further than that. This is what many of our students may think as well. They will probably like the story but not see the rationale in reading it, nor will they feel a special connection to the text. (This will depend, of course, on student background and experience.) You may even get “Why do we have to read this?”

Most teachers are not fully satisfied with this level of response from their students and therefore I want to help us all find ways to more deeply connect students with this text. First, students need to understand the historical and social background of the text; this includes looking closely at the time period, setting, the Chicano culture, and the author himself. Teachers also need to help our students really “see” Jesse as more than just the main character of the story. Finally, teachers need to help students explore Soto’s use of Spanish in the book.

Contextualizing Historically

It’s important for students to connect with the text historically! In fact, this text can be considered at as an example of historical fiction. In an interview with Scholastic (many great resources here), Soto recounts that much of what Jesse or his brother Abel experiences in the book, he actually did in real life. Furthermore, it wasn’t just Soto; many Mexican-Americans encounter the same struggles and hold the same ideals as the characters in the book. Not only do Jesse and Abel thinking and growing through their struggles at work, school, home, and socially, they’ve got the shadow of the Vietnam War following them as well. These contexts need to be discussed in the classroom as major themes of the time.


  • Brainstorm what students know about the Vietnam War: Doing so will give you a feel for what they already know and what more they need to learn. Have them focus on not only the war itself, but also how people at home reacted to the war. This will inevitably lead to a discussion on protests. Help students see that protesting was a sure sign of the time, linking to the protests/strikes in the book.
  • Journaling: I use journaling in my class often as a way for students to react and get their thoughts together. There are many avenues this book can take you with journaling. One way to use this as a starter point before reading the book is a prompt asking students how they feel about working and going to school, or living on their own, etc. Try to get them to think about some of the things Jesse experiences at such a young age.
  • Study/Research the Setting, United Farm Workers and the Chicano Activists: There is something to be said about sending students off with a research topic to gather information and share that info with the class. Students will need to familiarize themselves with heroes like Cesar Chavez, Che Guevara, and others. Encourage them to discover what was happening in the California area at the time of the book and what the Farm Workers’ Union was doing. Look for pictures, media and other interactive sources to represent this.

Connecting with Jesse to see Chicano values


  • Body Biography: Have students do a body biography of Jesse. This will help them understand with what he struggles and what he values. He represents more than just a teenage boy. Discuss how he resembles many of the Chicano values that come up in this literature: family, importance of education, hard work, racism, etc. Hopefully, this leads into a valuable discussion that dismisses many of the stereotypes that may exist about Mexican-Americans. This is also very effective for the visual learners.
  • Invite the characters "to dinner": In other words, put students into groups and assign character roles. Even use the minor characters. Give them a worthy situation and see if they can effectively react as their assigned character. Make sure each group has a chance to go with a different situation. Allow students to give feedback to each other on how they did and follow with a worthy discussion like "Jesse wouldn't say that because..." or "So-and-So did a great job with how Abel would..."
  • Jesse is such a good person: With my students, I’d want to talk about how Jesse is a genuinely good person. He is always polite and reserved. He has many opportunities to act out and chooses not to. It may even be worthwhile to keep a table of these instances, and link it to the body biography. This discussion, too, may help extinguish any stereotypes that exist.

Emphasizing the Importance of Soto's use of Spanish


  • Hand out a Glossary: If you scroll down on the previously mentioned Scholastic website you can find the Spanish words used in the book defined. Hand this out to students before they read so they can consult it as they go. After reading, have students highlight on the list some of the most important words in the novel. Then, discuss why they chose those words. More importantly, begin a dialog on why Soto chose to use Spanish and not English in these instances. For example, why “huelga” instead of “stirke” or why “Viva la Raza!” instead of “Long live the Mexicans!”? How or would the impact on the reader be different if these phrases had been in English?
  • Examine other Texts: Pairing Jesse with some Chicano short stories or poems that use Spanish will help students understand the importance of language to culture. See the rest of the offerings on this teaching Chicano Literature home site as well.
  • Bring in Current Issues: The idea of making English a must-speak in the United States is very prevalent today. Have students think about this and develop their own opinion. Hold this discussion after reading other Chicano texts. If you feel like students have a tight grasp on the importance of the Spanish language in this culture, give them the opportunity to write letters to the editor of the newspaper or to their local state representatives. This also gives students the chance to write persuasively.

Challenge: Understanding the Figurative Language

There is no doubt Soto is a gifted writer who knows how to use his rhetorical strategies. Students may need guidance with the figurative language in the book to really understand what Soto means. Further, using him as a model, students are opened up to writing with style and creating a voice. They may start with clichés (e.g. raining like cats and dogs), but that’s okay. Help them move up.


  • Find key phrases: Look at key phrases that use figurative language and discuss what Soto means in each phrase. Of course, you will need to gage how much your students know definition-wise of certain terms (e.g. metaphor, simile, etc.). The aforementioned Scholastic website offers a pre-made list you can use to create a handout or an overhead.
  • Use in their own writing: Have students practice modeling Soto’s figurative language in their own writing. Show them the difference between saying it plain and dressing it up. I refer to this as “showing vs. telling.” Bring in some other examples of Soto’s too. For example, in my classroom we read a short story called “The Talk” and discuss the use of hyperbole. Much of Soto’s poetry is also available online to use.

Additional Resources For...

Teaching Gary Soto
"Gary Soto: An Annotated Bibliography"
"Gary Soto: A Teacher Resource File"
Gary Soto at WebEnglishTeacher Lesson plans for several works
Teaching the Chicano Culture
"Celebrate Hispanic Heritage" is a site that offers interactive learning and lesson plans
"Understanding Hispanic/Latino Culture and History Through the Use of Children's Literature" by Jean Sutherland
Avenue 50 Studio-- museum dedicated to art by those of Central American descent

Current Language Debates
U.S. English, Inc looks at why English should be the sole language in the U.S.
"The English Only Movement"
"English Only Movement: Its Consequences on the Education of Language Minority Children" ERIC Digests article
"English-Only Movement" Wikipedia article that gives much history and many helpful links to other resources
The Migrant Experience
"The Migrant Experience"
by Nicole Ziegler