Photo courtesy of manuelpena.com
When Manuel PeÃ±a was a boy, his father asked him, â€œWhere can you send an ox where he does not have to plow?â€ PeÃ±a replied, â€œThis ox is different; this ox will find a place where he does not have to plow.â€
PeÃ±a motivated himself to attend college because of a desire to do more than pick peaches. He wanted to show his father and the world that he had just as much merit as anyone else. â€œI wanted to prove that a Mexican like me could actually make it in this Anglo-dominated society,â€ he said.
By transforming himself from an impoverished migrant worker into a musician and university professor, he did exactly what he told his father he would.
PeÃ±aâ€™s recent book, â€œWhere the Ox Does Not Plow,â€ weaves historical and cultural issues into accounts of his life. PeÃ±a, who speaks today as part of the College of Arts & Humanities lecture series, refers to his memoir as an â€œautoethnographyâ€ because it is as much about his ethnicity and culture as it is about his life.
His colleague and friend Helene Joseph-Weil, a Fresno State professor of music and voice, said, â€œThe book will make you laugh out loud and bring tears to your eyes.â€
The PeÃ±a family lived in Texas long before it was part of the United States. â€œWe didnâ€™t come to them, they came to us,â€ PeÃ±a said. Still, the family faced discrimination and often felt shameful of their culture. â€œWe didnâ€™t want to be Mexican,â€ he said. â€œWe [said we] were Latin American â€” or better yet, Spanish.â€
In his book, he tells a story of the time he hung his head and ran away in shame after a man at a hamburger joint screamed at him, â€œWe donâ€™t serve Mexicans here. Now get the hell away. Beat it!â€
In another chapter, called â€œThe Taco and the Sandwich,â€ PeÃ±a shares his first school experience, where he was laughed at for bringing tacos for lunch. The other students were Mexican, too, but â€œit wasnâ€™t cool to have tacos at school,â€ he said. From then on, he insisted that his mother pack him bologna sandwiches on white bread.
Joseph-Weil said the book touches on themes like these that many people can relate to. â€œThe book is a witness and a reminder to us to recognize and respect the humanity of all people,â€ she said.
Photo courtesy of manuelpena.com
PeÃ±a was the first and only member of his family to attend college. He earned a double bachelorâ€™s degree in music and English and a masterâ€™s in English, both from Fresno State. He earned a doctorate in anthropology from the University of Texas, Austin.
PeÃ±a, professor emeritus of music at Fresno State, spent time teaching, researching and writing at multiple institutions. He was the first to compile a comprehensive study of the â€œconjunto,â€ an accordion-based style of band music popular among working-class Mexican Americans. â€œWhen I became a born-again Chicano, I said, â€˜Hey, those are part of my roots,â€™â€ he said.
PeÃ±a was encouraged to write his memoir by English professor emeritus Eugene Zumwalt, who was PeÃ±aâ€™s nonfiction writing professor at Fresno State. Zumwalt kept telling him, â€œYou gotta write that book,â€ PeÃ±a said.
PeÃ±aâ€™s memoir was an inspiration to Dr. Lillian Faderman, a critically acclaimed scholar and writer, to finish her own memoir. Faderman, a Fresno State professor emeritus of English, said, â€œI thought, â€˜How delicious it must feel to go over our life that way.â€™â€ Her own memoir, â€œNaked in the Promise Land,â€ was published in 2003.
PeÃ±a wants his readers to gain a sense of the indestructible optimism of the human sprit. He hopes that readers see and understand peopleâ€™s triumphs despite many obstacles, and also enjoy his writing about identity.
Printed on his bookâ€™s jacket is a line PeÃ±a used to address his folklore class: â€œI may look Mexican to you, but believe me, Iâ€™m as American as Taco Bell.â€