Afro-Cuban writer in the 19th century. He wrote poems, theatrical works, novels and the important Autobiografía de un esclavo, the only Spanish American slave narrative.
Juan Francisco was born a slave in Havana, Cuba in 1797. He was owned by the Marquise Jústiz de Santa Ana and was therefore given the surname of her husband, Manzano. He was the son of one of the Marquise’s favorite female slaves and a mixed-race house slave. As a boy, he benefited from the benevolence of his owners, who spared him from the rigors of slavery in his childhood. He recited from memory the sermons and prayers he learned at mass and operascenes he saw with his owners. His fortune took a turn for the worse when his owner died and he was sent to work for a relative, the Marquise Prado Ameno, who eliminated all of his privileges and treated him cruelly.
Within this hostile environment, however, he came into contact with poets and artists who were invited to the house. It was during those years of service that Juan Francisco learned about Cuba. In another turn of fortune, he was sent to serve Nicolás de Cárdenas y Manzano, the second son of his original owner. It was under his tutelage that the slave had the privilege of learning to read and write and was allowed to use the books in his new owner’s library. With a permit, which was required because of his status as a slave, he wrote his first poems in a book titled Cantos a Lesbia (1821), which is lost today, and also wrote lullabies and ten-line stanzas that were published anonymously in various literary journals. During those years, he came to know Domingo del Monte, a wealthy patron of Cuban literature and an activist for better treatment for slaves. Del Monte raised money among the members of Cuban high society to buy the poet’s freedom.
Del Monte encouraged Juan Francisco to write about his experiences as a slave. Scholars also believe he was instrumental in the decision not to directly attack the institution of slavery, but to concentrate on the slave’s inhumane treatment. Under the threat of punishment, due to the censorship in effect in that era, he finished Autobiografía de un esclavo in 1839, but it was not published until a year later when it was translated into English by British abolitionist Richard Madden. It was published in Spanish nearly a century later, in 1937, based on a manuscript found at the National Archives in Havana. The autobiography was conceived as two volumes, but only the first part survives. The second part disappeared with Ramón de Palma, who had ties to the family of Manzano’s former owners.
In 1844, Manzano and Del Monte were falsely accused of participating in the La Escalera Conspiracy (in which blacks and free mixed-race people tried to organize an uprising against Spanish rule over Cuba). He was absolved in 1845 after a year in prison. He never published again and the rest of his life was dedicated to humble jobs. He died in poverty in 1854.
Author: Pablo Samuel Torres
Published: May 09, 2012.
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