Juana Inés de la Cruz de Asbaje y Ramirez

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JUANA INÉS DE LA CRUZ DE ASBAJE Y RAMIREZ . Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (1648/16511695) was a compelling seventeenth-century Mexican scholar and writer whose work deserves a significant place in the history of Christian thought. Scholars who study her religious writings consider her to be the first female theologian of the Americas. Her poetry and dramas offer a theological voice through the medium of literature.

Juana Ramirez de Asbaje y Santillana, the daughter of unwed parents, was born in the town of Nepantla, Mexico, between 1648 and 1651. Her mother was a criolla (American of Spanish descent), and her father was a Spanish military officer. Around the age of thirteen, Juana went to live in the court of the viceroy of New Spain (colonial Mexico) as a lady-in-waiting. She stayed there for three years. In 1667 she entered into the ascetic, cloistered Roman Catholic order of Discalced Carmelites, which she left after a short time. Two years later she joined the order of the Hieronymites.

At a young age, Juana developed a passion for the intellectual life. She was an avid reader, primarily self-taught, and by her midteens she was recognized as the most erudite woman in Mexico. Her reputation as a scholar was a crucial factor in her gaining a position in the viceregal court. Her desire for a life of scholarship and study was perhaps a significant factor in her decision to enter cloistered life. During her time in the court, the Jesuit Antonio Núñez de Miranda encouraged Juana to enter the convent. Aware of her academic gifts, as well as her distaste for marriage, he felt the convent was the best venue from which to monitor Juana's growing public notoriety and intellectual aspirations. Juana hesitated to take the veil, fearing that convent life would impede her studies, and the reasons for her entry into a convent continue to be a matter of debate amongst sorjuanistas (Sor Juana scholars). Núñez de Miranda became Sor Juana's confessor for a significant portion of her cloistered life.

Sor Juana's time in the convent was focused primarily on fierce study and scholarship. She read in the fields of literature, philosophy, theology, and science. Estimates of the number of books in her library range from hundreds to thousands. She also collected scientific and musical instruments. Her poetry and plays were in high demand for both Church festivities and court occasions, and it is in these milieus that her writings were read, sung, and performed. Much of her corpus was written by request and for commission.

After enjoying a public life as a writer and intellectual, Sor Juana's situation took a dramatic turn when, in 1690, La Carta Atenagórica, her critique of a male theologian's analysis of Christ's greatest demonstration of love, was circulated without her authorization. The critique was circulated with a letter, written under the pseudonym Sor Filotea, criticizing Sor Juana's intellectual pursuits. Sor Juana scholars generally acknowledge that the author of the letter was the Bishop of Puebla, Manuel Fernández de Santa Cruz, and that Sor Juana was aware of his role in these events. Fernández names the object of Sor Juana's critique as a fifty-year-old sermon written by the prominent Jesuit theologian Antonio Vieira. Though the actual object of Sor Juana's critique is a matter of debate among sorjuanistas, the perceived target in the eyes of her contemporaries was Vieira. Sor Juana's response to these events, La Respuesta, an autobiographical defense of women's right to intellectual pursuits, was completed the following year. Within four years of the production of La Respuesta, Sor Juana renounced her public life. Two years later she died from an illness that she contracted while caring for the sick in her convent.

Three volumes of Sor Juana's works were published in Madrid between 1689 and 1700. Her corpus includes sixty-five sonnets, sixty-two romances, a large number of poems in other forms, two comedies, three autos sacramentales (allegorical dramas), sixteen sets of villancicos (poems sung on religious holidays), one sarao (a celebratory song accompanied by a dance), and two farces. Her writings incorporate an eclectic mixture of colonial Mexican philosophy and theology, including Thomism, Neoplatonism, and Hermeticism. A child of the Americas, Sor Juana incorporates indigenous and African sources and voices throughout her work. One of her most significant contributions to Christian theology is her defense of indigenous peoples and her understanding of indigenous religions as prefigurations of Christianity.

As a baroque figure, Sor Juana's writings are clearly marked by the excesses and ornamentation that characterize this era. She and other baroque writers of New Spain emulated the Spanish greats of the period, including Luis de Góngora (15611627) and Pedro Calderón de la Barca (16001681). The literature of this world was predominantly male, written to and read by men. Sor Juana, of course, is a notable exception, although not because she was a woman. There were other women writers in colonial Latin America, especially within the context of convent life. What distinguishes Sor Juana is her forays into what were understood as the masculine discourses of philosophy and theology, which contrast drastically with the mystical writings of other nuns. Today, Sor Juana is recognized as Mexico's most important colonial writer.

Sor Juana's corpus touches on a wide variety of theological themes through the lens of literature. In her poetry one finds a heavy Marian emphasis. The theme of beauty is pervasive in her work. Her Christological writings emphasize Jesus as a manifestation of God's glory and the beauty of humanity created in the image of God. Her allegorical drama El divino Narciso reinterprets the Ovidian myth of Narcissus into an account of Jesus' passion, death, and resurrection, highlighting the dramatic character of humanity's relationship with the divine. Her theological anthropology presents a relational humanity, constituted by the interconnectedness of the human community and its relationship with God. Sor Juana also defended women's right to an education, and she critiqued the social construction of gender. Poet, dramatist, theologian, and philosopher, Sor Juana is a Latin American Church mother and a key figure in the history of theology.

See Also

Christianity, article on Christianity in Latin America.


Bénassy-Berling, Marie-Cécile. Humanisme et religion chez Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz: La femme et la culture au XVIIe siècle. Paris, 1982.

Gonzalez, Michelle A. Sor Juana: Beauty and Justice in the Americas. Maryknoll, N.Y., 2003.

Juana Inés de la Cruz, Sor. Obras completas. 3d ed. Edited by Alfonso Méndez-Plancarte and Alberto G. Salceda. Vol. 1: Lírica personal ; Vol. 2: Villancicos y letras sacras ; Vol. 3: Autos y loas ; Vol. 4: Comedias, sainetes, y prosa. Mexico City, 1995.

Kirk, Pamela. Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz: Religion, Art, and Feminism. New York, 1998.

Merrim, Stephanie, ed. Feminist Perspectives on Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. Detroit, 1991.

Paz, Octavio. Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, or, The Traps of Faith. Translated by Margaret Sayers Peden. Cambridge, Mass., 1988.

Tavard, George. Juana Inés de la Cruz and the Theology of Beauty: The First Mexican Theology. Notre Dame, Ind., 1991.

Michelle A. Gonzalez (2005)

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