The Poet Slave of Cuba: A Biography of Juan Francisco Manzano

The Poet Slave of Cuba: A Biography of Juan Francisco Manzano

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A lyrical biography of a Cuban slave who escaped to become a celebrated poet. 

Born into the household of a wealthy slave owner in Cuba in 1797, Juan Francisco Manzano spent his early years by the side of a woman who made him call her Mama, even though he had a mama of his own. Denied an education, young Juan still showed an exceptional talent for poetry. His verses reflect the beauty of his world, but they also expose its hideous cruelty.

Powerful, haunting poems and breathtaking illustrations create a portrait of a life in which even the pain of slavery could not extinguish the capacity for hope.

The Poet Slave of Cuba is the winner of the 2008 Pura Belpre Medal for Narrative and a 2007 Bank Street - Best Children's Book of the Year.

Latino Interest.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780312659288
Publisher: Square Fish
Publication date: 03/15/2011
Edition description: Bilingual edition
Pages: 208
Sales rank: 617,519
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.80(d)
Age Range: 12 - 17 Years

About the Author

Margarita Engle is a Cuban American poet, novelist, and journalist whose work has been published in many countries. She is the author of young adult nonfiction books and novels in verse including The Surrender Tree, a Newbery Honor Book, Hurricane Dancers, The Firefly Letters, and Tropical Secrets. She lives in northern California.

Sean Qualls is the illustrator of The Baby on the Way and Powerful Words. He lives with his wife and their son in Brooklyn, New York.

Read an Excerpt


My mind is a brush made of feathers

painting pictures of words

I remember

all that I see

every syllable

each word a twin of itself

telling two stories

at the same time

one of sorrow

the other hope

I love the words

written with my feathery mind

in the air

and with my sharp fingernails

on leaves in the garden

When my owner catches

a whiff

of the fragrance

of words

engraved in the flesh

of succulent geranium leaves

or the perfumed petals of alelí flowers

then she frowns because she knows

that I dream

with my feathers

my wings

Poetry cools me, syllables calm me

I read the verses of others

the free men

and know

that I’m never alone

Poetry sets me aflame

I grow furious

dangerous, a blaze

of soul and heart, a fiery tongue

a lantern at midnight

My first owner was sweet to me

I was her pet, a new kind of poodle

my pretty mother chosen

to be her personal handmaid

My mother

María del Pilar Manzano

a slave

Together we belonged

along with countless others

human beasts of burden

to Doña Beatríz de Justíz, La Marquesa

the proud Marchioness Justíz de Santa Ana

noble wife of Don Juan Manzano

who shares my name

even though

he is not

my father

Don Juan rules El Molino

his plantation

on this island of sugar

and many other

sweet illusions

These were my mother’s duties:

dress La Marquesa

undress her

cool her skin with a palm-leaf fan

answer questions

never ask

collect milk from new mothers

in the huts

near the fields

slave milk, the lotion used for softening

the skin

of noble ladies

This my mother accomplished:

deliver the milk

grind eggshells and rice into powder

for making la cascarada

a pale shell for hiding

the darkness

of Spaniards

who pretend

to be pale

in our presence

When the noble ladies go out in public

milk-soothed, eggshell-crusted

masked and disguised

we no longer look the same

dark owner

and dark slaves

Now my owner is ghostly

inside her skeleton of powder

but I, being only a poodle,

can watch

I am allowed

to know

these truths

about shadow

and bright

So I listen

when the ghost-owner calls me her own baby

she plays with me

and even decides

to set my true mother


Free to marry Toribio de Castro

a man also promised

his freedom

My father is winged, like my mother

oh, I envy them

what will happen

to me

little bird

left behind in this haunted nest?

She takes me with her wherever she goes

I become the companion of my owner, noble ghost

no, not a companion, remember?

a poodle, her pet

with my curly dark hair

and small child’s brown skin


for the theater

and parties

So I bark

on command

I learn to whine and howl

in verse

I’m known as the smart one who never


I can listen

then recite

every word

Listen, she says to her friends

and the priest

see how little Juanito can sing

see how I’ve trained him

watch him


Back and forth

over and over

country home, city home, palaces, the plantation

only six years old, she says

but listen to his big funny


Back and forth

over and over

I recite strange words in several languages

Spanish, Latin, French

while my sweet ghost-Mamá-owner

and all her friends


they are forgetful

I am rememberful

I remember there is also one more mother

in my song

a bird-mother


but winged



Excerpted from The Poet Slave of Cuba by Margarita Engle.

Copyright © 2006 by Margarita Engle.

Published in 2006 by Henry Holt and Company.

All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.

Reading Group Guide

Discussion Questions

1. How did the slave experience of Juan Francisco Manzano in Cuba differ from that of slaves in the United States?

2. How did sugarcane contribute to the growth of slavery in Cuba?

3. What was the cultural hierarchy of Cuba during the 19th century? How was this revealed in The Poet Slave of Cuba?

4. What was the relationship between the individuals in The Poet Slave of Cuba? Create a diagram to assist in determining how each was connected to the other person.

5. What were the various skills and trades learned by Manzano? How were they acquired and how did he use these skills throughout his life?

6. Why was La Marquesa de Prado Ameno so sadistic in her relationship with Manzano? What do her actions tell us about her?

7. What type of interactions occurred between Manzano and Don Nicolás? Could Nicolás have assisted Juan in some way?

8. How do Sean Qualls' white, black, and gray illustrations enhance and extend the biography?

9. What do you feel is the most compelling moment or event of this story? Explain.

10. Would you film this biography in black and white or in color and why?

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