Jonathan F. Correa-Reyes (The Pennsylvania State University)
Recent decades have seen an increase in the scholarly attention devoted to Juan Latino, the first known poet of African descent to be published in Latin. In this presentation I will discuss a rich point of criticism of Latino’s oeuvre: his self-proclaimed Ethiopian origins. This claim peppers some of Latino’s epigrams. In what Elizabeth Wright calls “his only autobiographical statement,” he writes: “Joannes Latinus, Ethiopian follower of Christ, taken out of Ethiopia in infancy, slave of the most excellent and invincible Gonzalo Fernández de Córdoba, duke of Sessa, grandson of the great Gonzalo of Hispania, by him nourished with the same milk of infancy, with him from untamed mind instructed through liberal arts, and taught, and finally given liberty.” Latino’s claim to Ethiopian ancestry has been a rich point of contention, since scholarship both by some of his contemporaries (Diego Ximénez de Enciso; and Bermúdez de Pedraza 1608) as well as several modern-day scholars, such as Wright (2016), Aurelia Martín Casares (2016) and Mira Seo (2011) argue that he was born elsewhere, possibly in Guinea, but likely in Baena, Spain. The question thus arises, why make a claim to Ethiopian ancestry? Given the historical context in which Latino found himself, Wright’s and other scholars’ proposition that this claim would have allowed Latino to certify himself as a Cristiano Viejo in a time of increasing religious prejudice makes sense. My intervention into this conversation, however, seeks to move us past the religious underpinnings of Latino’s claim, by pointing to Latino’s claim as an assertion of a racial identity that coexists with previous approaches.
I consider the epigrams where Latino claims an Ethiopian ancestry for himself in conjunction with his depiction of the Ethiopians in his most ambitious poem, the Austriad, to illustrate how Latino uses his poetry to fashion himself as the poet of his times, a voice like none that came before. To do this, I will pay close attention to the many glosses that accompany the first printed edition of the Austriad to illustrate how Latino’s claim of poetic superiority heavily relies on the textual apparatus he created for his epic poem as well as on the classical allusions and references that pepper his verses.