Books

The Lyricism and Wit of Elizabeth Borton de Treviño Crossed Cultural Barriers

Detail of Juan de Pareja (1606–1670), 1650, by Velázquez. (Metropolitan Museum of Art/Open Access)
An American who married into a traditional Mexican family, Borton de Treviño brought the story of Velázquez’s slave to life.

‘Shall I sing you a song about love?’ he asked.” And before she knew it, Elizabeth Borton was being courted.

Actually, it was quite a while before she figured it out. The visit to his family’s ranch; attending a dance with him; meeting his mother (!); eating polvorones de maizena (the engagement cake). The courting rituals were being carried out, and Elizabeth was oblivious.

That is, until Luis de Treviño chased after her train, stopped it, and kissed her.

Elizabeth Borton de Treviño was born in Bakersfield, Calif., in 1904, the daughter of an attorney, Fred Ellsworth Borton, and his wife, Carrie Louise. After attending Bakersfield College for two years, Elizabeth was accepted to Stanford University, where she studied Latin American history. She graduated with the Distinction of Great Honor, and then moved across the country to study violin at the Boston Conservatory and work for the Boston Herald. It was on a reporting assignment to Mexico that Elizabeth met her future husband, Luis, who had been appointed her guide and interpreter during her stay.

What began as a whirlwind romance turned into a 59-year marriage, nearly all of which was spent living in what Elizabeth referred to as her adopted country, Mexico.

Readers may know Borton de Treviño from her 1966 Newbery Medal–winning book, I, Juan de Pareja, about the slave of Velázquez, the famous Spanish painter. I first encountered this striking book sometime in junior high, when my mom, a home educator, read it aloud as part of our art-history course. A few details lingered in my memory, but it was only with a recent rereading (and after reading Borton de Treviño’s autobiography) that I truly appreciated the masterly story she had woven.

It is the early 17th century, the time of Galileo, Shakespeare, Cervantes, and Molière. The sun shines brightly over Seville, and over Juan de Pareja, a black slave. In a clear first-person narrative, Juan tells us of his early life, the loss of his first master and mistress to plague, and his subsequent transfer to the service of Don Diego Velázquez. All of this unfolds against the stiff, opulent background of the Spanish court, with themes of art, religion, and truth entwined throughout.

In her acceptance speech for the Newbery Award, Borton de Treviño told the audience what a teacher had once impressed upon her: “The mere recounting of impressions and piling on of details is not art, . . . it is merely musing. One must master one’s material, cut it into form, learn that the essence of art is knowing what to eliminate.”

Her adherence to this practice brings alive Juan’s story, as she chooses her phrases and words carefully to capture emotion, color, form, and light. Take, for instance, Juan de Pareja’s description of the first time Velázquez painted the Spanish king: “I remember the day his Royal Highness appeared for his first sitting to Master. It was fall, and the sunshine which entered our studio was a pale golden with a touch of freshness.” Throughout the book, it is clear that her Velázquez has a strong opinion about what art is, and in her afterward, Borton de Treviño tells us that “so far as we can tell, only one direct quotation can be authenticated, as from his lips, and it is significant, since he is now recognized as the precursor of the realistic, as well as of the impressionistic, school. ‘I would rather be the first in painting something ugly than second in painting beauty,’ he said.”

Inspired by the real painting Velázquez did of Juan, Borton de Treviño studied and researched for years before setting pen to paper. Throughout the story, her careful study of the master’s paintings, her understanding of his use of light, and her knowledge of the historical characters who glide in and out of the tale are apparent. But she does not leave readers with just vague impressions. Hers is the story of a good man, Velázquez, whose art radiates his love of truth. And it is the story of his slave, Juan, who desires to become a painter despite the laws that bar his way. She skillfully depicts their lives together, from Juan’s beginning as Velázquez’s slave, through their budding friendship, to Velázquez’s freeing of Juan, making him his assistant, and encouraging his artistic career.

Accounts of Velázquez and Pareja are scant, but, as is apparent from the quote above, Borton de Treviño fully used the resources available to her, filling in the rest as only a lively, practiced imagination can. She studied their art and has drawn the artists out, bringing them alive for us. She does not preach, but her characters’ faith in God is shown to give them purpose and aim. Her approach to slavery (a prominent piece of the story) is to portray it as what it is: a great evil. Without overwhelming the narrative, she has different characters firmly call out this evil, giving Juan and others a voice to express its impact on them. The story focuses on the dignity and worth of every human being and the powerful bond that is friendship. Readers will come away from it with a renewed appreciation for both art and man.

The deep love and understanding of Spanish culture that Borton de Treviño cultivated stemmed from her marriage and life in Mexico. But how did such a thoroughly American woman ever make the transition to the seemingly antiquated culture of 1930s Mexico? Look no further than her first autobiography, My Heart Lies South. In it, she pours forth her wit and charm as she relates the slow, sometimes painful, often hilarious, but undeniably beautiful process by which she came to embrace and cherish this new culture.

My Heart Lies South is an uproariously funny book (and I’ve only read the “Young People’s Edition”!) telling the true, very wonderful tale of “Eleesabet,” as she was known to her in-laws. In short, pithy sentences, she leads us through the intricacies of daily life in Monterrey, where she and her husband settled down close to his family. Readers will fall in love with Luis’s mother, “Mamacita,” as she soothes, advises, and scolds those she loves. “Papacito,” his father, will charm you with his loving ways. Friends, neighbors, many aunts, Luis’s siblings — all these and more make up a wonderful cast. In her delightful way, Borton de Treviño shows us her struggle to understand the bartering system, the many varieties of Latin emotions and their uses, how to handle servants, what a trip over the border to Laredo truly entailed, why she must never reveal her true age, and numerous other cultural teaching moments. There is much to be touched, amused, and amazed by in this tradition-filled culture.

Borton de Treviño does not attempt to make others she encounters take on American ways, nor does she lose her individuality. She finds ways to bring parts of her American upbringing into her Mexican life, while also embracing the beauty and tradition she found upon her marriage. Hers was a splendidly rich and full life, in “an era . . . now passed, but not to be forgotten,” and my hope for any reader is that her account of it will bring you laughter, tears, and hope.

Sarah Schutte is the podcast manager for National Review and an associate editor for National Review magazine. Originally from Dayton, Ohio, she is a children's literature aficionado and Mendelssohn 4 enthusiast.

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