Manuel Heriberto Peña

Photo from the Arhoolie Foundation

Tejano, Folklore, Ethnomusicology

Manuel Heriberto Peña


Dr. Manuel Peña contributed significantly to Greater Mexican ethnomusicology, folklore and cultural studies. Using historical, folkloristic, and ethnographic data, he provided a rigorous Marxist analysis of socioeconomic class formation and its implication for Texas-Mexican musical styles and working- and middle-class aesthetics. 

Manuel Peña was born in Weslaco, Texas, in 1942, as the child of Texas Mexican migrant farm workers who followed the agricultural harvest starting in South Texas, and moving into the east-central Brazos Valley, and making their way to the vast cotton fields around the Lubbock area. By the time Peña entered high school, his family settled in Weslaco. Here he learned trombone and played guitar in a popular dance band led by Eugenio Gutiérrez whose orquesta played local gigs and community dances. He also played trumpet and sang in a trio called The Matadors and performed with several mariachi ensembles. 

Peña attended Pan American College in Edinburg, then Fresno State University in California, where he earned a BA in Music and English, and an MA in English, with distinction. In 1977, he entered the folklore program at the University of Texas at Austin, where he worked closely with Don Américo Paredes. His dissertation on accordion-based folk music was nominated for the Outstanding Dissertation Award, and he was selected as the Phi Kappa Phi Chancellor’s Postdoctoral Fellow at U.C. Berkeley (1982-83). His dissertation led to the monograph, The Texas-Mexican Conjunto: History of a Working Class Music, exploring folk and popular musical styles, regional aesthetics, and racialized class differences. It won the American Folklore Society Chicago Folklore prize. 

For Manuel Peña, Mexican folk and popular music in Texas demonstrated cultural distinctions made between música arabalera (vulgar music) and música buena (good music), lo jaitón (literally, “high-tone”) and lo ranchero (lower class). His subsequent publications include The Mexican American Orquesta: Music, Culture and the Dialectic of Conflict, which was recognized by the Border Librarians Association with an award for excellence, and Música Tejana: The Cultural Economy of Artistic Transformation, which extended his critical Marxism into political economy and postmodernism. 
Throughout his teaching career, Peña enjoyed visiting professorships, including at the University of Houston, the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, U.C. Berkeley, and the University of Texas Pan-American. Peña returned to his alma mater, the University of Texas at Austin, for four years, and he impressed upon his students the importance of academic genealogies which at U.T.-Austin “are as huge as Longhorns.” Manuel Peña ended his 25-year academic career as a tenured professor of music and Chicano Studies at Fresno State University, retiring in 2004. His main publications include:

The Texas-Mexican Conjunto: History of a Working Class Music (1985)

Música Tejana: The Cultural Economy of Artistic Transformation (1999)

The Mexican American Orquesta: Music, Culture and the Dialectic of Conflict (1999)

Peter J. García