Peña, Manuel. Where the Ox Does Not Plow: A Mexican American Ballad. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2008. 233 pages. $19.95 hardcover.
Where the Ox Does Not Plow by Manuel Peña is a narrative ethnography written in first person. It consists of first-hand accounts of basic human experiences, such as childhood tales, written portraits of family members, and love stories, as they relate to the Mexican born Manuel Peña.
Although there is no thesis to Peña’s book, it does use different methods, such as extended metaphor and the separation of strophes and chorus, in order to convey the overall messages of identity, education, and family. Peña also uses citation of his own published papers and articles in order to legitimize the book with research.
Organized into 26 separate corresponding narratives divided into two strophes and a chorus, the book is a primary source on how Peña’s, as well as other Mexican Americans’, identity was perceived not only by society around him, but also by himself. This is accomplished in the unfolding of stories from his own memory, as well as small additions from family stories. The book begins in the first strophe with his first remembrance of being sick and other early childhood stories. The second strophe is dedicated to his young adult life and describes the poverty of his childhood as his family struggled to survive by going on campañas, or trips to find work as sharecroppers, cotton pickers, and other temporary labor-intensive jobs, and how the identity as a poor farm worker affected him. Finally, in the Chorus, the book delves into his late adulthood as a professor, but, unlike the two strophe section, the overwhelming theme in this portion of the book is centered on chronological romantic encounters.
In choosing to write the book as a fiction-like story, Peña excludes any formal academic thesis. In doing so, he runs the risk of failing to get his true message to his audience since they are left to interpret the book on their own without his direction. Yet, the extended metaphor of the ox at the plow could work as a disguised thesis, successfully guiding the reader through the two strophes, giving a sense and purpose to the book.
The format of is also stylistic risk. In the two strophes, many of the stories, each contained in a chapter, are not chronological and appear to be written as completely separate, almost unconnected pieces of a greater whole. This is not necessarily a poor choice. Time, however, and therefore some of the context of each chapter, becomes slightly lost as the stories jump back and forth in chronological order. It becomes difficult to keep track of when in Peña’s life a certain story occurred. The importance of the story can be compromised in losing context.
The separation of the strophes from the chorus goes a long way in signifying some of the meanings throughout the book. The two strophes contain mostly stories of Peña’s childhood and young adult life, the time in which he was most unsure about his identity and still working toward a life unlike that of his father’s. The Chorus, however, contains love stories in a chronological order, effectively showing the overarching theme of love in everyday life. The word, “chorus,” paired with the love stories suggest that love repeats within a life.
Though it reads much the same as a fictional novel, Manuel Peña’s book is a great ethnographic portrait of a Mexican-American family. Though it was written in what could become a biased form, Peña delivers his family’s story in a sincere and candid manner. He does not even omit the less desirable details such as his father’s alcoholism or adultery, keeping an unapologetic tone as he presents all he can about himself, his family, and their identity.
Peña’s book could potentially reach a broad audience. It has a lot of value in terms of anthropology, folkloristics, and even ethnomusicology, as it describes each specifically as it relates to Mexican Americans and the Peña family. While it could be used as a very detailed and specific case study in the academic world, it could also appeal to the average reader as a genuinely interesting and engaging novel.
With a background in writing and anthropology, Peña contributes considerably to the folkloric community with his book. The organization and style of the book are quite different from a typical ethnography paper, possibly working against him in sections where context and content is lost or obscured by time leaps. Overall, however, Peña has successfully accomplished writing an intriguing book that, if not furthers the case, reinforces the troubles and hardships of racial identity in America.