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AFS Review: In Memoriam

Manuel Peña, 1942-2019

Wednesday, May 29, 2019   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Jessica Turner

By Pat Jasper —

The field of folklore, ethnomusicology and anthropology mourns the loss of colleague Manuel Heriberto Peña on March 9, 2019 in Clovis, California. After the sudden onset of illness in late 2018 and resulting hospitalization, Manuel passed away at home in the company of family. Retired from Fresno State University in 2004, Manuel’s contribution to the university and to Chicano Studies motivated the University to honor him by posting their national and state flags at half-staff the day of his memorial.


Manuel was a Texan, a Tejano by birth, and like many Texas-Mexican families of his generation, the Peñas moved around Texas following the agricultural harvests, eking out a living as farmworkers. He was born in Weslaco, Texas in 1942 and as the child of migrant workers and as one himself, he often did not enjoy a full year of schooling in his younger days. Yet that experience did not in deter him in any way.


Instead, it propelled him. Countering his father’s dire assertion that “A donde va el buey, no are?” – in other words, hard work, drudgery and poverty were the destiny of their people -- Manuel continued his schooling by acquiring a bachelor’s and a masters degree from Fresno State University, before completing his multi-award-winning Ph.D. at UT Austin in 1981.


Manuel entered the now dismantled University of Texas at Austin Folklore Program in Fall of 1977. Manuel came into folklore a tad older than most of his fellow students, with a fabulous young family making up a part of the picture, and an undeniable sense of mission. His passion for the manner in which folklore could offer a compelling and authoritative perspective on his community was palpable. And he came to work with the master himself, Don Americo Paredes.


In that setting, his more advanced training and more adult-like obligations gave Manuel an air of seriousness and he pursued his coursework accordingly. But he was also a trickster and cut-up, finding nicknames for his fellow student in the small program, continuing to use them as all matured in age and stature in the field.


In addition to Paredes, Manuel worked closely with noted ethnomusicologist Gerhard Behague and director of the Folklore Program at that time, Richard Bauman. The remarkable work Manuel was doing as he crafted his dissertation, exploring and investigating the working class roots of a style of music completely rooted in the Texas experience, wasn’t fully apparent to all.


The publication of that dissertation, which became his book The Texas-Mexican Conjunto: History of a Working Class Music made the importance of his work completely clear. In many ways, its revolutionary findings and insights echoed the groundbreaking work of his mentor Paredes (With His Pistol in His Hand: A Border Ballad and Its Hero, 1958). The two books mined the music of the Texas-Mexican experience to reflect its unique history but also to make the case that operating within a cultural community and interpreting that community from its own perspective and on its own terms was an absolutely necessary and much neglected approach at that time.


The young family he brought to Texas as a graduate student was headed up by him and his wife Maria. His sons Isaac and Daniel spent much of their youth in Austin. After finishing his coursework and teaching at UT Austin, Manuel returned to Fresno State University. Back in Fresno, the Peña’s welcomed a third child, Elsa, into their family.


Throughout his teaching career, Peña enjoyed visiting professorships across the country. He spent time at University of Houston, the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, UC Berkeley and the University of Texas Pan Am. He went on to author several more significant books, including The Mexican American Orquesta and Música Tejana.


Like his mentor Paredes, Manuel was a scholar of the music but an extraordinary performer as well. He played guitar and trumpet and sang, and as a teenager he performed in a trio called The Matadors. Later he joined many mariachi ensembles. Whether he sang at graduate student parties or for Chicano activist/icon Cesar Chavez, his extraordinary vocals filled the room and captivated listeners. For those who knew him well, this is the true Manuel. In fact, Manuel first met his beloved Maria at a gig, a quinceañera. She was 13 and he was 16. Five years later they would be married. To this day, she still hears that music in her head.

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