Throwing off the yoke

  • The Pancho Pena family in 1912.

    Courtesy University of New Mexico Press

Where the Ox Does Not Plow: A Mexican American Ballad
Manuel Peña
235 pages, hardcover: $24.95.
University of New Mexico Press, 2008.

An alcoholic father, a patient, long-suffering mother, a history of anxiety and depression, and a blinding desire to escape a troubled childhood. If that sounds like every other memoir you've read in the past decade, you'd be partly right — but you'd also be missing something. Manuel Peña's story may sound familiar, but Peña is not your typical memoir protagonist. To begin with, Peña is Mexican-American.

At a time when we are conditioned to think of Mexican-Americans as immigrants, usually illegal ones, it is instructive to remember that not so long ago our Southwest belonged to Mexico. The border region has been inhabited for many generations by people who are both Mexican and American. In this "auto-ethnography," we learn the broader story of the people who lived on that border and the particular story of one young man who escaped.

Peña's parents were immigrants who followed the cotton harvest, living in shantytowns and often not sending their children to school until December because they were needed to help on the campaña. Peña recalls being ashamed of the tacos he carried to lunch at school, where everyone else ate bologna on Wonder bread.

As his parents crossed literal borders in traveling to the U.S. from Mexico, Peña crosses metaphorical borders. Some are obvious — the border between poverty and wealth, between tacos and sandwiches, between the cotton fields and the place "where the ox does not plow." But many are less obvious. In one scene, Peña stands at a classroom window, looking down at a Chicano rally. A classmate dismisses them as "communists." "What would she think," Peña wonders, "if I told her, ‘I know why they're demonstrating. I've slaved in your farmers' orchards and vineyards.' She could never understand. Even I can't understand what's going on anymore." 

Peña escaped to a life in academia, but, perhaps ironically, his ethnographic studies brought him back to the fields. His memoir brings us closer to an understanding of those who live and work in the place where the ox does plow.

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