Widely considered the foremost Baroque poet in 17th-century colonial Mexico, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (1651–1695) was a Catholic nun, self-taught polymath, prolific poet and playwright, and the author of a powerful treatise defending the educational rights of women—the first of its kind written in the Western hemisphere.
Juana Inés de Asbaje y Ramírez de Santillana was born near Mexico City, one of three illegitimate children of Pedro Manuel de Asbaje, a Spanish captain, and Isabel Ramírez, a criollo woman (Mexican-born, but of Spanish descent) whom Juana admired deeply. From her earliest recollections, Juana fostered a desire for learning and formal education, a luxury generally unavailable to women in 17th-century Mexico under Spanish rule (often referred to as “New Spain”). As an adult, she wrote, “from the moment I was first illuminated by the light of reason, my inclination towards letters has been so vehement, so overpowering, that not even the admonitions of others—and I have suffered many—nor my own meditations—and they have not been few—have been sufficient to cause me to forswear this natural impulse that God placed in me.”¹
At age three, Juana entreated her elder sister’s private tutor to teach her to read and write—skills she mastered shortly thereafter. Upon later hearing of the great universities in Mexico City, Juana begged her mother to dress her as a boy so she could attend. Her mother did not acquiesce, and Juana instead found recourse in her grandfather’s library. There, she poured through numerous volumes and mastered many subjects including Greek philosophy and rhetoric, Latin, Catholic theology, mathematics, the physical sciences, and even the Aztec language of Nahuatl. A serious student, Juana invented an ascetic practice wherein she cut her luxurious hair in self-punishment whenever she made mistakes in her Latin exercises. Her predominant love was writing: at age eight she wrote her first poem, the topic of which was the religious sacrament of the Holy Eucharist.
At age 17 Juana moved to Mexico City to live with relatives. There, she came into contact with the ruling family and became the protégé of Leonor Carreto, wife of the Spanish viceroy Antonio Sebastián de Toledo. Juana astonished his court with her poise and wisdom, earning nicknames such as “The Tenth Muse” and “The Phoenix of Mexico.” As her reputation as an educated woman and talented author spread, she gained many patrons, the viceroy’s wife being one of the most prominent. She wrote romances, redondillas, epigrams, décimas, sonnets, villancicos and theatrical works; their topics included courtly life and the popular Baroque themes of appearances, hypocrisy, and pretenses. Although prolific during her time at court, Juana was not at liberty to pursue her own interests in study and writing: as she later claimed, virtually all of her poems and plays were written at the behest of others.
For a woman of letters in 17th-century Mexico, there were few avenues available to pursue a career of study. Generally speaking, women chose one of three lives: married, courtly, or monastic. Juana had no desire to marry, and eventually found the court too frivolous an environment for serious study. She therefore chose the life that offered the greatest opportunity for solitude and learning: in 1669, she entered the Convent of Saint Paula of the Order of Saint Jerome. On her choice to join the convent, Juana mused, “I deemed it the least unsuitable and the most honorable I could elect if I were to insure my salvation.”²
In the quiet repose of the convent, Juana’s studies took a backseat to her duties as a sister in a self-sustaining community. Even as a cloistered nun, however, Sor Juana enjoyed fame and repute for her intellect: she lived a relatively comfortable life with a large, apartment-like cell, a sitting room, and domestic assistance. In her spare time, she continued to study and write for her distinguished patrons. With the assistance of a wealthy benefactor, she amassed an astounding library of over 4,000 books—a rare luxury at that time—as well as a collection of indigenous and imported musical instruments, scientific apparatuses, and folk art.
Sor Juana’s time as a cloistered sister was the most productive of her writing career. In 1688, at the encouragement of the Condesa de Parades, Sor Juana wrote The Divine Narcissus, considered by many to be her finest work. An allegorical play, Divine Narcissus features the characters Zeal and Religion, a conquistador and a Spanish woman respectively, who discuss the truth of religion with Occident and America, an Aztec prince and princess. Unprecedented in its time, Divine Narcissus incorporates the native Mexican language of Nahuatl and serves as an astute dialogue between Catholicism and the Aztec religions, demonstrating Sor Juana’s knowledge and understanding of both faiths and their relation to one another in colonial Mexico.
In 1685, Juana produced the one work written for herself. El Sueño (The Dream)—which she considered the crowning achievement of her career—is a tour de force epistemological work inspired in part by Dante’s Divine Comedy. El Sueño narrates a dream in which Juana’s soul separates from her body and wanders the terrestrial and celestial realms. Unlike the Divine Comedy, however, Juana’s soul does not meet a Virgil-like guide in her dream; instead, the soul wanders alone, a “mournful shadow” embodying the isolation Juana felt in her own life.
An anomaly in both the secular and ecclesiastical realms, Juana’s celebrity evoked either profound admiration or stern criticism from her contemporaries. She occasionally conflicted with local Church authorities for her writing activities, but never left the Church and found inspiration in the lives of exceptional Church women such as Saint Catherine of Alexandria—a princess and self-taught scholar who, through her deft debating skills, converted many scholars and nobles in the court of the Emperor Maxentius, ultimately earning the death sentence. Identifying with Catherine’s sufferings as a learned woman out of step with her time, Juana wrote a villancico in her honor. In it, Juana proclaims that educated women are an aid to the Church, and not a hindrance:
There in Egypt, all the sages
by a woman were convinced
that gender is not of the essence
in matters of intelligence
It is of service to the Church
that women argue, tutor, learn,
for He Who granted women reason
would not have them uninformed.³
—Raphael Fitzgerald is an art historian and researcher.
1. Juana Inés de la Cruz, Poems, protest, and a dream: selected writings, trans. and introductions by Peden, M. S., & Stavans, I. (New York: Penguin Books, 1997), xxvi.
2. Peden & Stavens, xxxv.
3. Peden & Stavens, 189-191.