Juan Francisco Manzano was born in Havana, Cuba in 1797. He was born enslaved and remained in servitude until the age of 40. His younger years as a child were spent at the feet of his mistress where he developed his skills as a tailor and artist.
Born to free parents Manzano lived a privileged life as a child. It was after the death of his first mistress and his transfer of ownership at the age of ten to the home of the sadistic Marquesa Ameno, did he become aware of his lowly status due to the beatings and punishment he received on a regular basis. He was his mistress’s attendant and also an attendant in his master’s drawing class. Here is where he developed his skill as an artist. Few privileges he was afforded at the whims of his mistress. Over the years he suffered from severe beating and punishments for the slightest infractions. Often times he was sent to the overseer where he was punished again for the same incident. In his own words, “I was like my mistress’s lap-dog, since I had to follow her where ever she went…”
During these years he taught himself to read, write and compose poetry. Mistress Ameno would invite authors and poets into her home for evening entertainment. Manzano would memorize each verse and carefully transfer to paper during his time alone. It was under the rule of slavery that most of his poetry was written. Poetry that would later be instrumental to him acquiring his freedom with help from admirers of his work.
Manzano became a favorite in the household for his skills as a tailor. He created elaborately designed pillows, clothings and linen. He pushed to learn all he could for he knew that one these skills would help him as a free man.
Born enslaved in 1797, Juan Francisco Manzano under the tutelage of a kind mistress he worked to develop his skills as a tailor, but did not have an onerous childhood. However once she died, his life change drastically. His new mistress was demanding to a fault. Manzano was often placed in the stocks and received regular beatings, from Overseers as well as from the constabulary for his perceived shortcomings. However it was also the household that was often frequented by artists and writers. Due to their influence Manzano was prompted to teach himself to read, write and compose poetry. Thus despite the demeaning treatment and degradation he suffered, he was able to develop his creativity both as a poet and a visual artist.
There never passed a day without it bringing some trouble to me…the incredible hardships of my life, a life full of sorrows! My heart sickened through sufferings. Until.. I…we went to Havana, where I was appointed to the service of young Don Nicolas, who esteemed me not as a slave, but as a son, notwithstanding his youth. As soon as day dawned, I used to get up, prepare his table, armchair and books. I, in fact, adapted myself so well to his customs, and manners that I began to give myself up to study. From his book of rhetoric I learned by heart a lesson every day, which I used to recite like a parrot, without knowing the meaning. But being tired of that, I determined to do something more useful: learn to write. But here was the difficulty: I did not know how to begin, nor did I know how to mend a pen) and I would not touch any of my master’s.
So, I bought ink, pens, and penknife, and some very fine paper; then taking some of the bits of written paper thrown away by my master, I put a piece of them between one of my thin sheets, and traced the characters underneath, in order to accustom my hand to make letters. At the end of a month I could write almost the same hand as my master’s.
When my master was told how I employed my evenings, he surprised me one day with all my writing apparatus. He “advised” me to drop my pastime, as it was not adapted to my situation in life, that it would be more useful to me to employ my time in needlework. But it was in vain that I was forbidden to write. For when everybody went to bed, I used to light a piece of candle and discreetly copy verses of poems, thinking that if I could imitate these, I would become…a poet. A poet who could capture in verse the cruelty of slavery.
When I think of the course I have run
From my childhood itself to this day,
I tremble, and fain would I shun
The remembrance its terrors would array.
I marvel at struggles endured
With a destiny frightful as mine.
At the strength for such efforts –assured
Tho’ I am, (tis in vain to repine
I’ve known this sad life thirty years
And to me, thirty years it has been
Of suff’ring, of sorrow and tears
Ev’ry day of its bondage I’ve seen.
But ’tis nothing the past -or the pains,
Hitherto I have struggled to bear,
When I think, Oh my God! on the chains
That I yet know I’m destined to wear.
Juan Francisco Manzano wrote the majority of his poetry while he was still enslaved. His poems depict the incredible hardships and degradation he endured along with his amazing capacity for hope. He did not win his freedom until he was forty years old when he became an important voice against enslavement.
Voice Over by Felix Justice