I, Juan de Pareja is the imagined autobiography of real-life painter Juan de Pareja. Juan was born a slave of mixed-race in seventeenth-century Spain and willed to master painter Diego Velasquez on the death of his mistress, becoming Velasquez’s assistant. He was later freed and became a respected painter in his own right (The Calling of St.Matthew is his most famous work, apparently on display at the Prado but I can’t get a link for it).
de Trevino’s rendition of Juan (or Juanico, the diminutive used for much of the book) presents him as a an open, good-hearted boy, a good Catholic, and an earnest servant with some self-awareness that he is different from Spanish servants. As a young man he becomes more aware of his situation as a slave. Although he does not actively rebel against “the system”, there is some feeling of injustice or unfairness in how he can be owned simply for being dark-skinned and born of a woman enslaved.
The best passages of the book come from Juan’s budding fascination with painting and his attempts to learn to paint as Velasquez does although the slavery laws forbid it. Juan’s awe at how Velasquez used light and dark in the paintings, how the colors were mixed, can be shared by the reader. I don’t paint or draw and I felt awestruck just reading the imagined depiction of Velasquez’s studio.
This book is not a fast read despite being fairly short. I think it would be of good use in a unit on slavery to show that the concept was not limited to certain parts of the world and to introduce the historical foundations of racism and slavery.
Now for the vocabulary – there were so many words! Some are in Spanish or have a religious or historical origin. Definitely a good book for making word-lists:
laboriously, siesta, sweetmeats, mantilla, mangy, urchin, rosary, melodious, vestments, deceit, maravedis, constricted, cipher, ignominy, conviction (idea, not jail), sullenly, niggardly, coddled egg, morsel, frugal, Damascu paper, capricious, dictated, “Ay de mi”, taciturn, fretful, portended, premonition, miser, penury, Romany, subservient, crony, scourged, real (coin), zaguau, prophetic, intuitive, retching, ravenously, “Quien?”, pattered, magistrate, tottering, convent, mortars, apprentice, obligated, commissions, taffeta, azure, schemer, copyist, scrivener, dais, vulgar, frivolous, inconspicuously, corpulence, puritanical, parasite, stripling, indefatigable, sanctity, shriven, manumission, slap-dash, departure, jovial, craggy, impetuous, retinue, unguents, encysted, despondency, repentence, temerity, wallowing, miasma, ominously, swart, obeisances, coolly dispassionate, Regent, cosset, meticulous, adulation, communicant, scrupulous, treachery