Posted in essay, history

Women of History: Sor Juana de la Cruz

Author’s note:  I apologise for the lack of Spanish punctuation.  I haven’t quite figured out the character settings on this blog to do them.

This week we travel to Mexico during the 1600s. Our featured lady of history is Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz (Sister Juana Ines of the Cross), a 17th century nun who was an early feminist and poet

Sor Juana Ines was born Juana Ines de Asbaje y Ramriz de Santillana on November 12, 1651 (or possibly 1648). She was born in San Miquel Napantla, a town located in the southern half of Modern Mexico. At the time however, it was known as New Spain, still a colony of Spain. Her hometown was later renamed in her honor as Napantla de Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz)

She was raised by a single mother, Isabel Ramirez, and her maternal grandparents. Her first obstacle was the Casta system that the Spanish colonies in the Americas worked under. Juana was considered a Criollo, or a person who was of Spanish heritage but born in the Americas.

Those who were born in Spain and moved to Mexico were of a higher social standing and were known as Peninsulares. They were higher socially than those who descended from a mixed heritage, and those who were Amerindian or slaves. Her mother had also been a Criollo, but her father had been a Spanish officer named Pedro Manuel de Asbaje. While Pedro and Isabel had three children together, they never married. When Juana was baptized she as listed as a daughter of the church for that reason.

It was the library of her grandfather that sparked the interest in reading and writing. Her grandfather, Pedro Ramirez de Santillana was educated and had gathered a great library. She taught herself, and with the use of the library, and being exposed to multiple languages she became quite educated. It was discouraged as she got older, as there was a stigma against women who were educated and made sure to use said education.

As she got older, she butted against the social norms. She had spent 5 years in Mexico City working as a lady-in-waiting at the vice-regal court and was able to access even more books to self-learn. Her efforts were supported by the Vicereine Leonor Carreto, whom Juana considered a good friend. In the end she decided to join a convent, the only socially acceptable way to be able to live alone and continue her interest in learning. She found a hero in Saint Catherine of Alexandria, who seemed to face the same struggles as Juana had.

In 1668 she applied to become a nun. The first order she participated in did not fit, so she later applied to join the Hieronymite order of St. Jerome at the convent of Santa Paula in Mexico City. This order fit her better, and she would stay with it for the rest of her life. On her paperwork she claimed to be sixteen, and that her parents were married, though no documentation would support her claim. However, it was a requirement of the church that she would be a legitimate child, so she claimed she was. Still, despite being able to have her own room and develop her own library, she found herself coming across the same obstacles. Male members of her church found her intelligence and determination to show it to be off-putting. Many believed that she was an improper nun, as she went against the social norms of the time.

During her time as a nun, she was expected to run a small household. She received commissions for her literary works on various feast days by dignitaries. She would also write on her own about her views, including her strong belief that women should be educated, and were as logical and rational as men.

She was held in great esteem by the Vice regals and despite her assigned confessor finding her educational and literary developments a scandalous use of her time remained firm in her standing. She formed a great friendship with the Vicerines, and wrote several poems dedicated to them. Whether their relationship was a close friendship or romantic in nature is debated. Her friendship with Maria Louise, Marquise de la Laguna, helped her become published in Spain and become a popular at times author. Her poetry was liked, but it caused displeasure with her superiors.

Their displeasure with her writings was increased when she moved from poetry to theological discussion. It was still believed that the male gender reserved the temperament for such things. However, not all her male colleagues believed this. Bishop Manuel Fernandez de Santa Cruz was visiting her convent near Mexico City when he overheard her listing her critic of the writings of an earlier theologian. He asked her to write them down for him, and then sent them to the press. He added a forward, disguising himself as ‘Sor Filotea’.

Sor Juana was shocked, and a bit disheartened by this action, as it not only put her views up for criticism by the public and her superiors, but it also felt like a betrayal from a good friend. She was forced to defend herself against the reaction to her words as well as the forward that ‘Sor Filotea’ had written which came off as a light rebuke.

She had one supporter in the form of her old friend Maria Louise, who took to supporting her back in Spain. Her views on Viera’s work was taken much more easily in Spain, as was a great deal of her work. However, her superiors in Mexico were much more conservative, and less impressed with her words. She became disheartened, and under the command of her superior, Archbishop XX, sold her library and other educational tools and gave the proceeds from charity. She wrote the last volume of poetry and ended her career in the literary world.
She renewed her vows in 1694, and even signed a statement of condemnation. She retreated into her convent and was largely unheard in the last years of her life. She once again used Nunez as her confessor and focused on her charity work.

Sor Juana died on April 17, 1695, after she caught the plague while assisting her sisters. She left behind a body of work that showcased the style of the era, as well as promoted ideals that were not popular at the time. One of her works was the poem “Hombres Necios” (Foolish Man) which claims it is illogical for men to criticize women for behavior they instigated and the double standard they used.

While she was controversial in life, after her death she became a celebrated piece of Mexican history. She is considered a key part of the golden age of Spanish literature from the period. She was honored by having her name inscribed on the wall of honor in Mexico’s congress hall as well as her face appearing on the 200 pesos bill.

The convent she spent the last years of her life in was later turned into a private university and renamed in her honor. The University of the Cloister of Sor Juana (Universidad Del Claustro de Sor Juana) was established in 1979 and has a variety of degrees in communication, education, law and food.

Her poetry and other writings have inspired artists and philosophers alike. There are several plays, telenovelas and operas written about her life, and her poetry has been sampled in music, and inspired films and writers. Margaret Atwood, who wrote “The Handmaiden’s Tale,” wrote a poem named after Sor Juana called Sor Juana works in the garden.

Perhaps her greatest legacy is the fact that she succeeded in determining her own life when others tried to determine it for her. She wanted to learn, and felt all women should, and use the tools at hand to do so. Her career ended with betrayal of a friend, but she still determined her own fate.

Her life, like many women of history, has been altered by time. Some of it is legend, some of it is truth. Scholars debate whether she sought approval or disapproval. Did she choose to go into a convent to learn, or to hide a broken heart. Was she secretly a lesbian in love with Maria Louise?

In the end, her words might speak louder than her story.

Further Reading:
Wikipedia: Juana Ines de la Cruz Juana Ines de la Cruz
Respuesta a Sor Filtea -Introduction by Electa Arenal and Amanda Powell
Hombres Necios – Sor Juana Ines dela Cruz
Universidad del Claustro de Sor Juana
Sor Juana Works In The Garden – Margaret Atwood
A Mexican Martyr: Amy Fuller looks at the life of the Mexican nun Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz and asks why we feel the need to kill our heroines rather than celebrate their achievements – Amy Fuller


A thirty-something Graphic Designer and writer who likes to blog about books, movies and History.

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