Knowledge of sixteenth or seventeenth century Lima is obviously superfluous for understanding the appeal of Porres’ life for young readers. Present in Bishop’s biography are all the lurking fears familiar to most children: abandonment, rejection, misunderstanding, the taunts and cruelties of other children, physical abuse, the uncertainties linked to low or dubious status and to a family’s failed income, and, for many children, the awareness that they are stigmatized by their color. For Bishop, time and geographical distance objectify Porres’ heroic actions against these and other injustices, while at the same time sensitizing young readers to the fact that such injustices continue. Bishop’s Porres is characterized as a hero, but the author defines as heroic a peaceful life of self-denial and of unstinting service—primarily to the least fortunate.
Bishop immediately builds sympathy for Porres. When he was seven, he and his sister were publicly beaten and decried as bastards for having an unknown father and an African-American mother, despite Martín’s cries that his father was a Spanish nobleman. According to the author, they retreated to further abuse from their distraught mother, Ana Velásquez, a laundress who blamed Porres—because he was black—for her lost chances for riches with a noble husband. Martín’s sole comfort came from Juana, who was favored by her Castilian features; indeed, he drew strength from his ability to care for her.
Collecting moneys due his mother, Porres soon betrayed what proved his peculiar strength: the ability to discern an always greater need in others. He gave the money to an aged, destitute Native American—a descendant of the Incas...
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Any religion would regard Porres’ life as a saintly one, whether or not he was formally canonized or literally treated as divine. Bishop, however, although sensitive to the possibilities of supernatural events in Porres’ life, chooses to designate him a hero—a noun with distinctly secular connotations. Speculations on the reasons for this choice come readily to mind. Martín de Porres, Hero was published in 1954, in the immediate aftermath of history’s most devastating war. Moreover, the Cold War was underway between the giant superpower blocs, and lesser wars, such as the one in Korea, were threatening to erupt into full conflagrations. Military and political heroes existed in abundance and indeed were common fare in the public’s channels of information. Ironically, on the other hand, Bishop’s United States had plunged into what proved to be its first age of genuine affluence, with attendant emphasis on life’s values being reckoned by material goods.
Therefore, with the power of great delicacy, Bishop refocuses young minds on what was rapidly becoming an obscured definition of heroism: the unadvertised life of self-denial, of devotion to others, and of cheerfully dispensed love in a world which, like that of Porres, continued the oppressions of imperialism and colonialism and of class, caste, bigotry, poverty, and racism. Bishop’s biography is a charming, subtle, and intelligent story that is unlikely to become dated in the future.