Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz

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Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz was a Rock Star of her time–and of all time! She was a writer and poet, a nun, a self-taught scholar in 17th Century New Spain (Mexico), and a feminist before the concept of feminism existed. She was a relentless advocate for women’s rights at a time when few women had a voice in the social, academic, or political realm.

She was born in around 1650 to a single mother in San Miguel Nepantla, Tepetlixpa, Mexico. Though her mother was illiterate, she hired a tutor for Juana and her five siblings. Juana could read by the time she was 3, and read all the books in her grandfather’s library. By the time she was 6, she begged to dress like a boy so that she could go to study at the university. She taught herself several languages, including Spanish, Portuguese, Latin, some Italian, and Nahuatl (the language of the indigenous people of the central highlands in Mexico). At age 8, she was sent to live in Mexico City.

By the time she was a teenager, she was well known as a brilliant scholar. In an unprecedented move, the viceroy assembled a group of 40 men to test her knowledge of history, literature, math, theology, philosophy, poetry, and mythology. The results were, in the viceroy’s words: “in the manner that a royal galleon … might fend off the attacks of a few canoes, so did Juana extricate herself from the questions, arguments, and objections these many men, each in his specialty, directed to her.”

She became a Lady in Waiting for the vicereine of New Spain, and in so doing, established a friendship with the vicereine and viceroy that would benefit her for years to come. She became a nun of the Hieronymite Order in 1667 because, in her words, of her “total disinclination to marriage” and her desire “to have no fixed occupation which might curtail my freedom to study nor the noise of a community to interfere with the tranquil stillness of my books.”

She was a prolific writer and her work was published in Spain. She was a vociferous reader and, serving as the convent’s archivist, collected one of the world’s largest private libraries of both secular and non-secular texts–4,000+ volumes–as well as musical and scientific instruments. She had books on law, history, theology, philosophy, and mythology, among others. Authors represented included Aristotle, Heraclitus, Democritus, and Pythagoras, as well as contemporaries like Cervantes, Quevedo, and Lope de Vega. Her reading influenced her writing, but she was inventive and used her own voice to cross genres and push the limits on traditional formats. She wrote drama, comedy, religious, and scholarly works. She wrote plays, sonnets, and romances. She wrote music, math treatises, and social commentaries.

She was well liked by the viceroy and vicereine of New Spain, and they visited her often at the Convent San Jerónimo. They ensured that her work was published in Spain and they made her the unofficial court poet. They commissioned plays and poetry for festivals and other important events, which helped her become well known in Europe as well as in Mexico. She was one of the last great Hispanic Baroque writers and one of the first great writers of the Latin American Colonial period.

Her writing challenged traditional social norms and promoted women’s right to read, learn, and, basically, to be smart and creative. In one of her most famous poems, entitled “Foolish Men” (“Hombres Necios”), she highlights the illogical habit of men of causing faults in women and then criticizing women for those very faults. In other words, she asserts that men hound women into submission and then fault them for being submissive. Here’s an excerpt:

You foolish men that accuse
women, without a reason
without seeing that you´re to blame
of the same thing you accuse.

You fight against her resistance
and then, with a grave face
you said that it was promiscuity
what diligent effort won.

The stubbornness of your crazy ideas
seems to me, from the outside,
that of the child who speaks of the boogeyman
and then is afraid of him.

What temper could be more strange
than of him, who having no advice,
fogs over the mirror himself
and complains that it is fogged?

Remember, this was in the mid-1600s! Her thinking and writing was as scandalous as it was unprecedented. As Sor Juana became more famous, there was more and more pressure on her from the Catholic church to stop writing about secular, progressive topics and stick to religious topics. And when the viceroy and vicereine of New Spain were called back to Spain, she found herself without defenders against the staunchly conservative church leaders. One bishop, in particular, had it in for Sor Juana. He published–under the pseudonym Sor Filotea and without Sor Juana’s permission–one of Sor Juana’s writings critical of a 40-year-old sermon by a Jesuit priest, which the bishop had requested she write–in hindsight, an obvious set-up. The full weight of the Catholic hierarchy came down on Sor Juana. She lost access to her books and her writing was restricted to matters relating to religious piety. Among her last writings was a “Respuesta to Sor Filotea” (“Response to Sister Filotea”) in which she advocated for intellectual freedom, arguing that women had a right to education and to acquire knowledge. She wrote that “[o]ne can perfectly well philosophize while cooking supper,” and she justified her secular studies as being a necessary prerequisite to her theological studies and writing.

However, pressure from the Catholic church was relentless and it intensified after her “Response to Sister Filotea.” In the end, her library, musical instruments, and scientific equipment were sold and the proceeds donated to the poor. There is evidence she was physically beaten or forced to injure herself. She stopped writing. She confessed “I, the worst of the world” and took a vow of silence that would last through her illness and death, both signed in her own blood. When the plague overtook Mexico City, she nursed other nuns who became sick before becoming ill herself. She died–still in silence–when she was around 44 years old.

Her love of knowledge and the drive to express her knowledge, wisdom, and emotion in writing dominated her life. She said “[f]rom my first glimmers of reason, my inclination to letters was of such power and vehemence, that neither the reprimands of others–and I have received many–nor my own considerations–and there have been not a few of these–have succeeded in making me abandon this natural impulse which God has implanted in me.” She was a rebel who believed that “a woman’s place is in the revolution” (I have no idea who coined that phrase, but it seems especially apt for Sor Juana).

Although her life was difficult and her last few years must have been nearly intolerable for her, she is now widely regarded as the most important writer of her time and the original feminist. She has been called the Tenth Muse and the Pheonix of Mexico. Her face now appears on Mexico’s 200 peso bill, and the convent where she spent the second half of her life is now a university named for her–Universidad del Claustro de Sor Juana.

To read more of Sor Juana’s work, check out this book, a recent translation of selected works.

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