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I, Juan de Pareja

Elizabeth Borton de Treviño

Theme: Persevering under Difficult Odds
Grades: Grades 9-10

This work of historical fiction is based on the life of an actual person who modeled for a work of art. Juan de Pareja is a young black slave in 17th century Spain who survives the plague and the capricious treatment of his original owners. He is then inherited by a nephew of those owners—master painter Diego Velázquez. Juan becomes Velázquez's personal servant in his studio. Though devoted to the Velázquez family, Juan secretly begins to paint, an activity forbidden to slaves. After much agonizing, he reveals his secret and discovers Diego Velázquez's devotion to him to be equal to his own devotion to Velázquez. Velázquez declares Juan de Pareja a free man and gives him a post as his assistant.

  1. Title Exploration.
    Have students discuss the title, I, Juan de Pareja. Help them to pronounce Juan's name correctly and ask students to predict something about him. Do students think he will be brave or cowardly? proud or meek? confident or insecure? Why? Invite students to compare their predictions with the man Juan proves himself to be in the course of the novel. Ask students what they would name a book about themselves. What stories about their lives would they include?
  1. Concept Webs.
    Ask students to work independently or in small groups to create two word webs or other graphic organizers: one that explores their associations with the word master and one that explores their associations with the word slave. How would they describe what it's like to carry out each of those roles? Then have students create webs for the words boss and assistant. As a class, discuss the similarities and differences students discover between master and boss and between slave and assistant.
  1. Role-Play.
    Juan wants to learn to paint, but as a slave, he is prevented from doing so. Ask students to consider the internal struggles he might have had as he tried to decide whether he should teach himself to draw and to paint. Divide them in to groups, and have them role-play: One student is Juan, and one student is an interviewer, seeking the story of Juan's life. Did Juan make the right decision? What effect did Juan's decision have on other aspects of his life?

  1. Personal History.
    After Master dies and Juan and Lolis get ready to move to Seville, Juan says sadly, "Home for me, was where he was." Lolis responds, "Home is where I am now, Husband." Have students write a personal history in which they explain what the word "home" means to them, and why.
  1. Slavery in Spain.
    Have students write a research paper on the slave situation in 17th century Spain; challenge them to find the actual historical parallels between Treviño's fictional Juan and Velázquez's actual slave, Juan de Pareja.

  2. Art Through Adversity.
    Have students choose an artist from history who overcame great odds to express his art. Instruct them to write a research paper detailing this artist's life.