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  • Manuel Heriberto Peña (1942–2019)
  • Pat Jasper

The fields of folklore, ethnomusicology, and anthropology mourn the loss of colleague Manuel Heriberto Peña on March 9, 2019, in Clovis, California. After a sudden onset of illness in late 2018 and resulting hospitalization, Manuel passed away at home in the company of family. [End Page 352] Retired from Fresno State University in 2004, Manuel had contributed to the university and to Chicano Studies, and in his honor, the university flew 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 deter him in any way.

Instead, it propelled him. Countering his father's dire assertion, "¿A donde va el buey que no are?" [Where can the ox go where he won't have to plow?]—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 master's degree from Fresno State University, before earning his PhD at the University of Texas at Austin in 1981, following the completion of his award-winning dissertation.

Manuel entered the now-dismantled UT Austin Folklore program in the Fall of 1977. He 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 Américo 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 a cut-up, finding nicknames for his fellow students in the small program and continuing to use them as all matured in age and stature in the field.

In addition to Paredes, Manuel worked closely with noted ethnomusicologist Gerard Béhague and with Richard Bauman, director of the UT Austin Folklore program at that time. The remarkable work Manuel was doing as he crafted his dissertation, exploring and investi gating 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 (University of Texas Press, 1985) 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, University of Texas Press, 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 were absolutely necessary—and a much neglected approach at that time.

Throughout his teaching career, Peña enjoyed visiting professorships across the country. He spent time at the University of Houston; the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor; the University of California, Berkeley; and the University of Texas–Pan American. In addition to scores of articles, reviews, and liner notes, he went on to author The Mexican American Orquesta: Music, Culture, and the Dialectic of Conflict (University of Texas Press, 1999); Música Tejana: The Cultural Economy of Artistic Transformation (Texas A&M University Press, 1999); Where the Ox Does Not Plow: A Mexican American Ballad (University of New Mexico Press, 2008); and American Mythologies: Semiological Sketches (Routledge, 2012).

Like his mentor Paredes, Manuel was a scholar of the music but an extraordinary performer as well. He played guitar and trumpet and...


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