The Slave Poet of Cuba: A Biography of Juan Francisco Manzano by Margarita Engle, illustrated by Sean Qualls
Awarded the 2008 Pura Belpré Medal, “presented to a Latino/Latina writer and illustrator whose work best portrays, affirms, and celebrates the Latino cultural experience in an outstanding work of literature for children and youth,” Margarita Engle’s biography-in-verse introduces Cuban poet Juan Francisco Manzano to younger readers.
Born into slavery in 1797 to a titled family, Juan is quickly adopted – in the way pets are claimed – by the wife of a wealthy plantation owner he refers to as La Marquesa: “The boy is much cleaner than poodles and parrots / or the Persian cats … / I treat him like my own / I tell him he’s the child of my old age.” He must call her Mamá, even though he has a loving mother and father of his own; La Marquesa pampers him, while he performs her every request.
By the time La Marquesa passes away when Juan is 11, she has allowed his parents to buy their freedom and promised Juan’s upon her death, but instead, he is sent to his so-called godparents where his new owner, La Marquesa de Prado Ameno, treats him as a prized possession she both abhors and cherishes. His near-death experiences of violent abuse are countless, and often he is saved just in time by his cruel owner’s son, who both admires and cares for Juan like a sibling. In spite of all that horror, Juan manages to find inspiring solace in the power of words.
Engle enriches Juan’s own story with the rotating voices of his parents, his owners, his defender Don Nicolás, and even “The Overseer” who comes to feel shame for the abhorrent beatings he is forced to inflict on Juan. The result proves to be a celebration of a remarkable life of tenacity and imagination that miraculously rises out of tortuous conditions. If you choose the audible option, you’ll be rewarded with a full-cast performance, although it’s slightly marred by a strangely affected narration of La Marquesa de Prado Amano; oddly, narrator Yesenia Cabrero has no such issues when she voices Juan’s mother’s passages. If stuck-in-the-ears is how you read, make sure to still check out the page as Sean Qualls’ gentle drawings are certainly worth a special visit to your library or local bookstore.
That Juan Francisco Manzano’s literary legacy survives more than two centuries after his birth, is inspiring testimony to both his difficult life and his creative accomplishments. And, that Engle – herself a Cuban American poet, as well as novelist and journalist – received over a dozen awards and honors for Slave seems surely to be poetic justice indeed.
Readers: Middle Grade, Young Adult