May 26, 2019

A memoir to inspire

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When Manuel Peña was a boy, his father asked him, “Where can you send an ox where he does not have to plow?” Peña replied, “This ox is different; this ox will find a place where he does not have to plow.”

Peña 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. “I wanted to prove that a Mexican like me could actually make it in this Anglo-dominated society,” 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.

Peña’s recent book, “Where the Ox Does Not Plow,” weaves historical and cultural issues into accounts of his life. Peña, who speaks today as part of the College of Arts & Humanities lecture series, refers to his memoir as an “autoethnography” 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, “The book will make you laugh out loud and bring tears to your eyes.”

The Peña family lived in Texas long before it was part of the United States. “We didn’t come to them, they came to us,” Peña said. Still, the family faced discrimination and often felt shameful of their culture. “We didn’t want to be Mexican,” he said. “We [said we] were Latin American — or better yet, Spanish.”

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, “We don’t serve Mexicans here. Now get the hell away. Beat it!”

In another chapter, called “The Taco and the Sandwich,” Peña shares his first school experience, where he was laughed at for bringing tacos for lunch. The other students were Mexican, too, but “it wasn’t cool to have tacos at school,” 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. “The book is a witness and a reminder to us to recognize and respect the humanity of all people,” she said.

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Peña was the first and only member of his family to attend college. He earned a double bachelor’s degree in music and English and a master’s in English, both from Fresno State. He earned a doctorate in anthropology from the University of Texas, Austin.

Peña, 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 “conjunto,” an accordion-based style of band music popular among working-class Mexican Americans. “When I became a born-again Chicano, I said, ‘Hey, those are part of my roots,’” he said.

Peña was encouraged to write his memoir by English professor emeritus Eugene Zumwalt, who was Peña’s nonfiction writing professor at Fresno State. Zumwalt kept telling him, “You gotta write that book,” Peña said.

Peña’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, “I thought, ‘How delicious it must feel to go over our life that way.’” Her own memoir, “Naked in the Promise Land,” was published in 2003.

Peña wants his readers to gain a sense of the indestructible optimism of the human sprit. He hopes that readers see and understand people’s triumphs despite many obstacles, and also enjoy his writing about identity.

Printed on his book’s jacket is a line Peña used to address his folklore class: “I may look Mexican to you, but believe me, I’m as American as Taco Bell.”

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