I, Juan de Pareja
Elizabeth Borton de Trevino

What was life like for a slave in the seventeenth century? Was it full of unbearable hardship? Was it a simple life, working for a rich family? The seventeenth century slave Juan de Pareja knew both hardship and a simple life, but he was also able to live out the desires of his own heart. Spanish Artist, Diego Velázquez, Juan’s second Master, was kind and influential. Seeing and experiencing the art of Velázquez inspired Juan to create his own art even though the laws of Spain forbid it. Reading this story gives you the perspective of a slave. It also gives inspiration, as two men of different race and status share a genuine friendship, unique for their time.

I, Juan de Pareja is a story that helps you see life through the eyes of a slave in the seventeenth century. Juan was born into slavery to a kind Mistress, Doña Emilia. This Mistress provided him with a safe home and even went to the extent of teaching him the alphabet. Juan’s first Mistress died from a plague in his hometown of Seville. After the death of his Mistress, Juan was also very ill and alone. The friar Brother Isidro nursed Juan back to health and was an example of Christian love to him. When Juan was healthy again, he was to be shipped to his new Master, Diego Velázquez, a relative of his deceased Mistress. “Don” Carmelo, a cruel gypsy, was in charge of taking Juan to his new Master. Carmelo mistreated Juan on their journey to Madrid and Juan ran away. After many hardships Juan made it to Madrid and then learned the duties of his new household. Master Velázquez was kind to Juan and provided him with love and a home, safe from the harsh realties he experienced on his journey to Madrid. Juan aided the artist Diego Velázquez in his work. Juan began to desire to paint and painted his own art in secret. Juan and his Master Velázquez developed a friendship over the years Juan was his slave. Juan became close with all members of the Velázquez family. Master Velázquez was given a house with a studio near the heart of Madrid when he became an artist for the King of Spain. The King of Spain was fond of Velázquez and they developed a friendship as well. In the following years, Juan fell in love, helped the daughter of Velázquez in her secret pursuit of love, took trips to Italy with Velázquez, befriended many different people at the court and continued with his secret art. Juan eventually confessed his secret to the King of Spain and Velázquez gave Juan his freedom to save Juan from punishment. Juan stayed with Velázquez till his death. After Velázquez had passed away Juan returned to his hometown and resided with his old friend Bartolomé.

In relation to my own life, it was interesting to see how Juan reacted to hardships and how he had faith through them. Juan turned to God and the Madonna as he encountered trials. It was interesting to see how faithful and devoted he was. Juan’s character was inspirational to me in this aspect. He had religious struggles and hard times that I could relate to. Even through struggles, Juan found his way back to God and asked God to forgive him for not believing that His grace would be sufficient for Juan’s sin.

An idea for classroom discussion from this book would be the subject of slavery. A teacher could look at the different ways that people reacted to the slave Juan de Pareja in the story and the class could discuss the benefits that resulted from people treating Juan with respect, as a fellow human being. - FT