Book Fridays: I, Juan de Pareja by Elizabeth Borton de Treviño

I had no idea who Juan the Pareja was before picking up this book. I found it while browsing the children’s section at the library. I read the blurb and thought it sounded interesting. The book, while a good read, is not without its problems. Juan de Pareja was slave to Diego Velazquez one of the most important painters of the Spanish Golden Age. This story is told from Pareja’s point of view which is both wonderful and problematic.

Juan de Pareja was born to a mulatto mother and Spaniard father. He was born into slavery. Diego Velazquez inherited him after his original masters succumbed to disease. I’m going to go ahead and discuss what I think the book has going for it before I delve into what I took issue with. Having a Newberry Medal winner be a book about a black protagonist is significant. Almost 50 years later we still face diversity issues in publishing but it is important to note that the author of this book is a white woman. I’m not saying that she won because she was white but if you look at the list of Newberry Medal winners you will see which way it skews. One book about a 17th century slave does not change the reality of publishing.

When we talk about 17th century Europe many people overlook the fact that black people lived among all the white people we read about in books and see in movies etc. set in that time period. They are not often discussed or depicted but they were there because: slavery. This is why a book about and told from the point of view of a black man is significant.

The writing is good and the story engaging. There were a couple of scenes that stood out to me.

When I started reading the book the foreword bothered me and 40 pages in I declared the book garbage on my GoodReads status update. My feelings have mellowed somewhat but the main issue I have with the book is the handling of slavery and racism. The author doesn’t go as far as to justify it but she does almost excuse it. She doesn’t go as hard on it as I think she should have. The contempt for slavery is mild and Pareja is characterized as a docile slave who loves his station and his masters. Her foreword is basically a declaration of that’s just what was done back then rather than a condemnation.

Something else that I found disgusting was the way in which the white slave owners were heralded as kind, good people. Heroes even for treating their slaves with common decency. This is the kind of bullshit that I honestly cannot stand. A person who owned slaves is scum, I don’t care how well they treat their “property”. They are still in the ownership of human beings. I feel that the author went to great lengths to make the reader sympathetic to the slave owners. The idea that a slave and master can have a real loving friendship is a fallacy. There is too much power imbalance in such a relationship.

What saved this book for me was the character of Brother Isidro who finally lays down some truth when he says, “They look at a black boy and they see only a slave who is capable of doing work. They do not see what I do.” and adds, “Well, I see a person.” He is the only character that acknowledges Pareja’s personhood. Another character that tempers the complacency depicted throughout most of the book is Loli, a fellow slave who later becomes Pareja’s wife. She is the opposite of Pareja. She hates being a slave and she resents the white people. Her anger is not dwelled upon but it is expressed in a conversation she has with Juan. These two characters have a minor presence in the story but the fact they were there gives me hope that Treviño was a sincere detractor of racism and slavery.

The bottom line: this is definitely a worthwhile read. It’s a good book and for all the faults I found I still enjoyed it. Being critical of something doesn’t mean you can’t also like it. I think it’s important to read critically. To consume all things critically. It’s not always comfortable but it is necessary.  There is a lot more I could say about this book and the issues but I have dinner to prepare and so I must end it here.

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One comment

  1. I haven’t read this book, but I really appreciate how honest your review is. So many people find something they like and will defend every detail because somehow criticism of something we like feels like criticism of ourselves. Recognizing we can be critical of the problematic parts of a work we enjoy opens us up to bigger discussions while also giving us a chance to examine why it is we like it.

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