59 pages 1 hour read

Elizabeth Borton De Treviño

I, Juan de Pareja

Fiction | Novel | Middle Grade | Published in 1965

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Summary and Study Guide


Elizabeth Borton de Treviño’s I, Juan de Pareja is a young adult historical fiction novel published in 1965. Its complicated portrayal of slavery, art, and self-expression earned it the Newbery Medal in 1966. In 1656, Spanish Golden Age painter Diego Velázquez unveiled his newest portrait: a simple study of one of his enslaved workers entitled Portrait of Juan de Pareja. Upon viewing the painting, de Treviño was inspired to imagine the story of this man who was eventually emancipated and became an accomplished artist. Published in the wake of the American Civil Rights Act of 1964—a culmination of decades of struggle against racial discrimination in the United States—I, Juan de Pareja sheds light on the undercurrent of racism in Western art. De Treviño was born in California but permanently relocated to Mexico after marrying her husband, Luis. As a white American living in Mexico, de Treviño was fascinated with the nuances of multiculturalism, and her many novels and essays reflect her lived experience. 

This study guide refers to the 2008 Square Fish edition of the text.

Content Warning: This guide discusses the novel’s depictions of racism, slavery, and mistreatment of little people. This guide quotes the novel’s use of a pejorative term for Romani people.

Plot Summary

Juan de Pareja is born enslaved in the early 17th century in Seville, a vibrant port city in southern Spain. His mother, Zulema, dies shortly after his fifth birthday. Their enslaver—Doña Emilia—teaches him to read and offers him one of Zulema’s earrings as a remembrance. Often, Juan writes letters to Emilia’s family, including her nephew, Don Diego Velázquez, a prominent painter in Madrid.

After Emilia’s husband dies, she travels to Madrid to reconnect with Diego. However, plague sweeps through Seville, and Emilia dies. Juan also falls ill and is too feverish to join the household as they vacate the city. He nearly dies but is rescued by Brother Isidro, a Franciscan friar who happens upon the house. Brother Isidro suggests that God deliberately spared Juan.

Juan learns that he has been inherited—along with all other property—by Diego. Before traveling to Madrid, Juan stays with Brother Isidro in the Franciscan convent and joins the friars as they tend to the poor and sick. Eventually, Brother Isidro forfeits Juan to the care of Seville’s magistrate, whose arrogance and self-satisfaction earn Juan’s distrust. 

The magistrate assigns Don Carmelo, a Romani nomad, to bring Juan to Madrid. He routinely mistreats and threatens Juan, who runs away and finds work with Don Dimas, a local baker who retains Juan for four months of service. After the term expires, Juan continues to Madrid alone. Carmelo suddenly apprehends him and whips him all the way to Madrid. Juan eventually falls unconscious.

When he awakes, he is safe in Diego’s house in Madrid. Diego lives with his wife, Juana, and their two daughters, Francisca (“Paquita”) and Ignacia. Juan works alongside Diego in his studio and learns how to clean brushes, mix pigments, and stretch canvases. He develops an interest in portraiture, but Juana warns him that Spanish law prohibits enslaved people from participating in the arts.

Diego has several apprentices, and Juan often works alongside them. One day, Diego receives a commission from King Philip IV for an official portrait. Diego, his family, and Juan relocate to the royal palace. As Juan observes their sessions, he notices the King’s respect for Diego’s skill. The accomplished Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens visits the Spanish court. Diego is his tour guide and introduces him to a religious image maker. To Juan’s surprise, the image maker confesses to mock-crucifying condemned criminals to better render Christ’s pain. When attending a ball held in Rubens’s honor, Juan notices Miri, a young, enslaved girl who sings for the group’s entertainment. Juan quickly falls in love with her and laments her epileptic attacks. When Rubens leaves, Miri goes with him, and Juan never sees her again. 

The King commissions Diego to travel to Italy and secure several pieces for the royal collection. Diego takes Juan while the rest of the family awaits his return in Seville. In Italy, Juan notices their different customs but admires the Italians for their dedication to great art. Juan begins to secretly copy Diego’s paintings, pawning his mother’s earring to buy his first art supplies. When Juan and Diego return, they learn that Ignacia has died. 

Juan continues to paint secretly. As Paquita matures, she catches the attention of Diego’s apprentice, Juan Bautista. Juan carries secret notes between the two lovers. Diego eventually blesses the union, and Paquita and Juan Bautista marry. 

Juan and Diego attend a hunting excursion organized by the King. Though Juan cringes at the violence, Diego explains that art must be true and depict ugliness as faithfully as beauty. Juan socializes with the little people whom the King uses for entertainment. Diego paints these performers, aiming to reflect their pain. 

Bartolomé Esteban Murillo arrives in Madrid to apprentice under Diego. Kindhearted and deeply religious, Murillo encourages Juan, who shows him his most recent painting—a study of the Virgin Mary as a Black woman. Murillo admires his technique. When Juan worries that he has sinned by painting, Murillo says that art is not a sin and encourages him to recommit himself to the church. Eventually, Murillo returns to Seville, and Diego and Juan sail to Italy. During a storm, Diego injures his hand, and Juan heals him. However, infection sets in, and Diego grows weak and feverish. Afraid of losing his hand and livelihood, Diego despairs. Juan prays fervently, and the fever suddenly breaks. 

When Diego and Juan arrive in Rome, Diego meets Pope Innocent X, who asks him to paint his portrait. Determined to produce a masterpiece, Diego practices by painting Juan. The portrait proves to be an exceptional character study, and Juan shows it to potential clients to earn Diego new commissions. After Diego completes his portrait of the Pope, he and Juan return to Spain. There, Juan meets Lolis, an enslaved woman around his age whom Juana has recently purchased. Juan and Lolis become friends, and Juan admires her fiery temper. 

Juan resolves to reveal his secret painting to Diego and the King alike. The King often relaxes in Diego’s studio and flips through his paintings. One day, the King discovers a portrait of all his favorite hunting dogs. Juan confesses that the painting is his and awaits punishment. Diego immediately frees Juan instead, exempting him from any criminal penalties. Juan assumes a new role as Diego’s studio assistant and marries Lolis, whom Juana similarly frees. 

Not long after their wedding, Paquita dies in childbirth, and Juana follows soon after. To keep himself busy, Diego designs an elaborate pavilion for the Infanta’s wedding, enlisting Juan’s help. After its completion, Diego falls ill and eventually collapses, dying in his studio.

Juan and Lolis decide to leave Madrid for Seville. Before their departure, Juan bids farewell to the King, who grieves Diego’s loss. Together, Juan and the King admire Las Meninas, one of Diego’s finest works and his only self-portrait. Hand-in-hand, Juan and the King draw the Cross of Santiago on Diego’s breast. 

Back in Seville, Juan and Lolis reconnect with Murillo, who has established a successful studio. Even though Murillo does not know that Juan has been freed, he offers Juan studio space and a place to live. Juan accepts, and he looks forward to new opportunities.