Juan Latino, or Juan de Sesa as he was actually named, was an
Afro-Hispanic poet in Renaissance Spain who taught at the Cathedral
school in Granada and became famous for his epic Latin poems. A native
of BerberÍa, a Spanish term associated with the Northern Coast of
Africa, Latino was brought to Spain at the age of twelve. He and his
mother were slaves in the house of Doña Elvira, the daughter of Fernándo
de Córdoba, the famous Spanish war hero.
In 1530, the family moved to Granada, taking young Juan Latino with
them. There, Doña Elvira's son, Gonzalo, the future Duke of Sesa and the
slave boy became friends and Latino was often seen accompanying his
young master to his grammar classes. With Gonzalo’s permission, Latino
dedicated himself to the study of letters at the Cathedral school. Under
his teacher Pedro de Mota, the black slave became outstanding among his
classmates, excelling in Greek and Latin and soon writing his own poems
From the Cathedral school he moved to the newly founded University of
Granada, receiving his bachelor's degree in 1546. It was there that he
adopted his new name Latino, which associated him with the humanist
ideals he was trying to rehabilitate in Spain.
His sophistication in Latin and his skills as a poet and musician soon
gave him access to the best houses in Grenada where he found his wife
Ana Carlobal. Nominally, he was still a slave, but with his master
Gonzalo campaigning in Italy, Latino enjoyed the virtual, if not actual
status of a free man. When his old teacher Pedro de Mota died in 1556,
Latino, with the help of his protector Archbishop Pedro Guerrero, took
up his job as a lecturer in the Cathedral school.
Between 1573 and 1585, Latino published three volumes of Latin poems in
which he reflected on the condition of blacks and negated the validity
of any religious justification for slavery of Africans. His most famous
poem is probably the Austrias carmen, dedicated to Juan de Austria the
hero of the sea battle of Lepanto.
Latino died on an unknown date after 1594. Despite his accomplishments,
there is no evidence he was ever freed. Interestingly, the black
humanist himself became the object of literature in Diego Jiménez de
Enciso's play La famosa comedia the Juan Latino (1652), the first white
European testimony about the life and work of a black writer.