Page 6


Where the Ox Does Not Plow: A Mexican American Ballad By Manuel Pena University of New Mexico Press 233 pages, $24.95 Il m ike many Mexican Americans from South Texas, Manuel Peiria’s family survived hard times working as migrant agricultural laborers. What makes Pefia’s story singular is that after becoming the first member of his immediate family to continue school past eighth grade, he went on to earn a doctorate in anthropology from the University of Texas at Austin and join the humanities faculty at California State University at Fresno. Pena, now retired, calls his new book, Where the Ox Does Not Plow, an autobiographical ethnography. It’s a deeply personal departure from his academic works on Mexican-American musical styles. Rather than a linear autobiographical narrative, the book presents 26 episodes along Pena’s journey from cotton picker to distinguished scholar, with an eye out all the while for the larger cultural significance of his biographical particularities. His observational and descriptive powers are remarkable, and employed in the service of tales that range from wrenching to humorous. Peria’s writing here is lyrical, elegant and evocative, conveying history through storytelling, and making tangible the smell of the earth, the ache of overworked muscles, the fierceness of thunderstorms. The odd simile delights, as when he describes “slender palm trees that swayed like hula dancers:’ Pena was born in Weslaco, near McAllen, in 1942, and for most of his youth his family drifted, working as hired hands or sharecroppers. They eventually settled in California, where Pena has lived most of his adult life. Pena blames his family’s itinerancy on his father’s alcoholism and a severe 1947 ice storm that disrupted the economy of the Rio Grande Valley, and decades later his memories of racial prejudice and economic deprivation remain raw. As an admittedly sensitive child attracted to schoolwork and stability, the disruptions of the migrant life frustrated him deeply. The power of weather in steering the Penas’ course is a frequent theme. In one story, Pella recalls playing farmer in the dirt as a child, fetching water from a pump to pour on the miniature plots, willing the imaginary rain to save his family’s parched crops. If the weather required adjustments, so did Anglo culture. In “The Taco and the Sandwich,” Pena remembers his mortification on the first day of school when his fellow Mexican students mocked him for bringing a taco for lunch. He tells his mother he wants to eat “comida Americana,” requiring his father to drive seven miles to buy bread and bologna. Thus did Pella develop an early “vague notion of the difference between things American and the exclusively Mexican world I had known until yesterday.” As a professor, Pena liked to tell his folklore students, “I may look Mexican to you, but, believe me, I’m as American as Taco Bell.” In “Heavenly Saturday,” Pena describes arduous 10-hour days of picking cotton and stuffing it into the 50-pound bag he draggeda smaller-than-standard bag made especially for him by his father, in consideration of his tender years. It was on Saturdays that the family relished the luxury of a cabin heater to warm bath water with which to remove the work week’s “five-day layer of grime’ On one occasion, after enjoying a Spanish charro and his brother tried to buy hamburgers at a walk-up food stand, only to have the owner tell them, “We don’t serve Mexicans here” Noting that the local economy must surely have benefited from the migrants’ cash, Pena reflects, “For the remainder of our lives, our attitude toward male gringo strangers would be colored by that brief but tense encounter.” Cultural misunderstandings cut both ways, and as a child Pena harassed yellowjackets with his nigasura, or slingshot, unaware of the term’s racist origins. In “Over my Dead Body,” Perla tells of his fifth-grade teacher’s diatribe against integration after the 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education. He uses this anecdote as a springboard for discussing race relations and the variations on prejudice he observed on his family’s travels. Although some farmers employed both brown and black workers, Peria noticed that when the weekend came the kids socialized separately. “Mexicans absorbed Anglo prejudices,” Pena observes. “To put it bluntly, the Mexicans thought of the African Americans as slackers who generally possessed a low level of thrift, intelligence, and motivation.” In contrast, or at least clarification, a later vignette called “California Dreamin'” describes competition in California orchards from fuerenos, or illegal Mexican laborers, and his brother’s angry demand that they not work so fast. The foreman noted their failure to match the pace of the other workers and laid them off. Furious, his brother declared, REVIEW A Bimusical Mind BY SARAH WIMER 24 THE TEXAS OBSERVER FEBRUARY 20, 2009