Educator, musician, anthropologist was ‘as American as Taco Bell’

Former Fresno State professor Dr. Manuel Peña talked about his book ‘Where the Ox Does Not Plow’ in 2008.
Former Fresno State professor Dr. Manuel Peña talked about his book ‘Where the Ox Does Not Plow’ in 2008. Vida en el Valle

Dr. Manuel Peña – the son of Mexican-American sharecroppers toiling in the Río Grande Valley and who in turn became migrant farmworkers grew up to embrace his love of music and education – led a full life that included teaching, writing and playing music.

The 76-year-old former professor at Fresno State died March 9 at the age of 76. Funeral services were scheduled for March 20.

“Dr. Peña was an untiring guerrillero and advocate of La Raza Studies, Chicano/a student rights and student service programs,” said Eddie Varela, president of El Concilio de Fresno, Inc. “He was a friend to students and colleagues, and always had time to share good stories and advice.”

Peña was born Sept. 4, 1942 in Westlaco, Texas.

In his 2008 book ‘Where the Ox Does Not Plow,’ which he described as a Mexican American ballad, Peña wrote about his upbringing in the Río Grande Valley, the family’s travels to north Texas and elsewhere in search of work in the cotton fields, his start as a musician with the 1950s’ group The Rocking Kings (later becoming Los Matadors) and his eventual journey to California to be closer to his sweetheart María, who eventually became his wife.

Book Where the oz does not plow
BOOK: Where the Ox Does Not Plow by Manuel Pena Vida Staff Photo

The book title refers to the desire to find work or an occupation where an ox does not plow, in other words, not in the fields.

About his thoughts during the turbulent Chicano Movement of the 1960s and 70s, Peña wrote: “But I was also a good American, and I mastered English, even as I retained my flawless command of Spanish, and I pulled myself up by my guarache straps and became educated.

“And I learned to appreciate Beethoven and Strauss (Richard, s’il vous plait!), and I read TRB’s liberal views and argued with my intellectual friends that all human activities are reducible to a struggle between the ego and the id. Can these f--kers (Chicanos) do that?

“And they had the gall to question my identity and my commitment.”

Peña played the trumpet with Mariachi de la Tierra and often performed for farmworker leader César E. Chávez. Peña also joined Beto García and the GGs as they played up and down the Valley, in between working in the fields.

Peña graduated from Fresno State in 1967 with a bachelor’s degree in music and in 1975 with a master’s degree in English. He was recruited by Dr. Alex Saragoza to teach Chicano Studies at Fresno State (1981-2004). At the university, he formed the student vocal ensemble La Comparsa and the student mariachi group El Mariachi Anahuac de Fresno State.

He even taught a course on ‘Star Trek and the Humanities’ at Fresno State.

An authority on Mexican American music, with an emphasis on the conjunto style played in Texas, he wrote three books about music: ‘The Texas-Mexican Conjunto,’ ‘The Mexican American Orquesta,’ and ‘Música Tejana.’

His most recent book, ‘American Mythologies,’ in 2012, looked at 11 myths that form part of today’s American mythologies.

During his research, he also interviewed various musicians, including Little Joe.

Peña was a leading proponent of the Tejano Music Festivals that were organized by Radio Bilingüe in the 1990s.

Peña is survived by his wife, María; sons Daniel Peña and Isaac Peña; daughter Elsa Wolf; brother Frank Peña; and, sisters Imelda Rodríguez and Elia Flórez.

A funeral mass will be held at 11 a.m. March 20 at Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Clovis.

Contributions in Peña’s memory may be made to Hinds Hospice.