Juan de Sessa was born around 1518, his place of birth is debated by historians, but it is believed that he was either born in Spain or Ethiopia. We do know he was born from enslaved Africans of the house of Don Luiz Fernandez, the Count of Cabra, the second Duke consort of Sessa. Juan was the personal assistant to the third Duke of Sessa, Don Gonzalo, the son of Don Luiz Fernandez. Juan and Don Gonzalo were said to have been around the same age range. In 1520, Don Luiz Fernandez died, forcing his wife Dona Elvira to move her family to Granada. At the age of twelve, Juan moved to Granada with Don Gonzalo and Dona Elvira, around this time Don Gonzalo began attending school, and because Juan was his personal assistant he accompanied Gonzalo as he attended school. Pedro de Mota was an instructor at the Cathedral of Granada who taught Don Gonzalo, because Juan was constantly in attendance and also paying attention, he also gained an education, becoming proficient in Greek and Latin languages. It is said that because he mastered the Latin language that his classmates named him Juan Latino and the name stuck. Under normal circumstances of the times, Juan would have only just accompanied Don Gonzalo and not have learned much because school was presented as unattainable for enslaved people, but because Juan was eager to learn he began picking up on the lessons and even outperforming Don Gonzalo. Juan was so proficient that he was allowed to continue to study because the instructors could see how much of an asset he was to the household.
The University of Granada was founded in 1531, it is also the place where Juan and Don Gonzalo would continue their education after advancing past the Cathedral of Granada. Juan earned his Bachelor’s degree in 1546 and his Master’s degree in 1556, all while starting a family and navigating a world where slavery is still legal and racism is being defined. Juan was an educated man of African descent living in Spain less than fifty years after the Moors were expelled from Spain, and the European nations have begun building wealth from the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. To say Juan Latino was an exceptional person would be an understatement. Juan was known for his intellectual prowess and ability to teach others. He was hired to tutor Ana, the daughter of the Licenciado Carlobal, the owners of the estates of the Duke of Sessa. He was tutoring Ana in music; Ana had a reputation for her beauty and Juan had a reputation for being a lady’s man. After tutoring Ana, the two eventually married and the union was a disruption of the social classes of Spain. A man who is the son of a slave of the Duke of Sessa has married the daughter of the overseers of the Duke of Sessa. Ana and Juan produced 4 children from their union, two boys and two girls. Around 1566, Juan competed with Licenciado Villanueva for the position of Cathedral Professor of Grammar, he eventually earned the position and it was incentivized by giving him extra university privileges.
Juan Latino was breaking barriers as an African in Spain in the 1500s. He was excelling as a Professor of Grammar and gaining a reputation as a great poet, he was even able to translate the poems of Virgil into Spanish. He was creating quite a reputation of excellence for himself, he was also beginning to be seen and respected within the social circles of Granada, but no amount of success could have shielded him from the presence of racism. Black skin was still seen as inferior to his fellow white counterparts, he was often targeted and ridiculed for his skin color and social class by birth. Juan is credited with contributing to the “Golden Age” of Spanish writing because a number of the writers who pushed Spanish literature into their “Golden Age” were students of Juan Latino. His influence and views of the world helped to prepare some of the most skilled and thought-provoking writers in Spanish history. Juan was very successful in his life, he gained a lot, but he also lost a lot as well. As he aged he began to lose a number of the people who were closest to him. A number of friends and colleagues passed away, but the loss of his dear wife Ana was a devastating blow to him. Juan Latino died in 1608 at the age of 90 due to his health failing and blindness setting in. Before his death, Juan was able to defy the odds of the times. He became a prominent member of his community, and his country, even though he was the son of an enslaved African within a society that saw African people as less than human. Mr. Juan de Sessa, aka, Juan Latino, we proudly stand on your shoulders.
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Wirth, N. (2007, December 09). Juan Latino (ca. 1518-ca. 1594). BlackPast.org. https://www.blackpast.org/global-african-history/latino-juan-c-1518-c-1594/
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