Juana Inés de la Cruz, Sor (1648–1695)

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Juana Inés de la Cruz, Sor (1648–1695)

Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (b. 12 November 1651 or 1648; d. 17 April 1695), the major poet of the Spanish colonies. Born in San Miguel de Nepantla, near the capital city of Mexico, Juana Inés de Asuaje y Ramírez was the illegitimate daughter of Isabel Ramírez de Santillana and Pedro Manuel de Asuaje y Vargas Machuca; her illegitimacy may explain the uncertainty about the year of her birth. Taken to the Spanish viceroy's court as a child prodigy, she became a nun in 1667, first with the Carmelites for a short time and then definitively, in 1669, in the Jeronymite Convent of San Jerónimo, where, with the religious name of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, she had her own collection of books and some free time for study and writing. Toward the end of her life she was more strictly ascetic. She died taking care of her sister nuns during a plague.

Almost all of Sor Juana's works were initially published in Spain in three different volumes (1689, 1692, and 1700). Her works include many different genres of poetry, dramatic works in verse, and prose works of a more doctrinal or autobiographical sort.

Personal Lyrics

Her secular lyric poetry is among her best-known work. There are, for example, such highly original works as her verse portrait of her beloved Marquise of Paredes (a viceroy's wife); her sonnet on a painted portrait of herself as a vain attempt to save her body from annihilation; several "carpe diem" sonnets centered on the image of the rose; and various poems on hope and the vanity of human illusions, on feminine fidelity, on absence and the sufferings of love, and on the imagination within which we can imprison the beloved.

Religious Writings and "Villancicos"

Among Sor Juana's devotional writings are the interesting prose Ejercicios de la Encarnación (Exercises on the Incarnation), in which she presents the Virgin Mary as a model of feminine power and wisdom, almost on the same level as God. Her villancicos, or carol sequences, written for festive performance in cathedrals, reveals her religious and social sensibility. This popular genre, with many different voices, permitted the poet to speak for marginal social groups such as black slaves, Indians, and women, and to make fun of masculine clerical types such as the student. These songs present women as intellectual as well as devout, as for example in the figure of Saint Catharine of Alexandria. Her black voices speak a special dialect of Spanish, and her Indians speak Nahuatl, to address God directly and to complain about how they are treated by Spanish representatives of the Church or State.

The "Sueño"

Sor Juana's lengthy Sueño (Dream) occupies a unique place among her works. In her highly significant autobiographical Respuesta (Reply), she refers to the Sueño as the only poem that she had written for her own pleasure. It is a compendium of contemporary scholastic and scientific knowledge, ranging from the ancient philosophers and church fathers to Florentine hermetic wisdom and the contemporary ideas of Athanasius Kircher and perhaps even of René Descartes. Literarily, the poem draws on Renaissance poetic commonplaces, recast in Spanish baroque forms. Its narrative structure is based on the arrival and departure of night, framing the dream itself, which is an adventure of the intellectual Soul in search of a complete understanding of the universe, a journey that represents the author's own crisis as a religious woman interested in the physical sciences. She seems to identify with Phaëthon, the illegitimate son of Apollo struck down by his father and thus made famous, and with other mythological figures, mostly feminine, such as Night. The Soul, who is the protagonist of the poem, comes back to earth in the final lines of the poem and is identified with the poet herself, who wakes up and, for the first time, asserts her feminine presence grammatically in the very last word of the poem.

The "Respuesta"

In 1690 the bishop of Puebla published Sor Juana's critique of a Portuguese Jesuit's sermon, along with a public letter of his own addressed to her over the pseudonymous signature of a nun. In her critique (Carta atenagórica or Crisis sobre un sermón), Sor Juana had refuted in a highly sophisticated and learned way the argument of Father Antonio de Vieira, in which he rejected interpretations by the fathers of the church and proposed his own. The letter, although somewhat ambiguous, reveals how much bishop admires her intellectually as he urges her to use her intelligence in the study of divine rather than secular matters. The bishop's critique provided Sor Juana with an excuse for a full-scale apologia in her Respuesta a sor Filotea de la Cruz. This eloquent and warmly human document fully explains the nun's intellectual vocation by recalling her childhood eagerness to learn to read and write and her adolescent rejection of marriage and choice of the convent as a place in which to study. She cites many famous women from the Bible and from classical antiquity in her defense of equal feminine access to study and to writing. She implies that women as scientists have empirical advantages when she asserts, "If Aristotle had done some cooking, he would have written even more." Such a feminist apologia is unique in the seventeenth-century Hispanic world. (In a letter, "Carta de Monterrey," a translation of which was published in 1988, which Sor Juana wrote to her confessor long before her Respuesta, she defends her rights in even stronger terms.)

Neptuno alegórico (Allegorical Neptune) is, for the modern reader, a difficult work; it is an official relación or explanation of the triumphal arch erected in November of 1680 for the reception of the new viceroy, the Marqués of La Laguna, and his wife. The nun presents as an allegorical model for the viceroy the mythological figure of Neptune, in her poetic description of the arch. This is a highly learned text in which she displays her most arcane erudition and ingenuity.


Sor Juana's theatrical works consist of several loas (short dramatic prologues) that are largely mythical and allegorical; three autos sacramentales, or allegorical dramatizations of sacramental theology in the tradition of Calderón, written, with their loas, for the feast of Corpus Christi; and two full-length "cape and sword" plays in the tradition of Lope de Vega. The loas that precede her autos are especially interesting for their presentation of Aztec feminine characters, who defend pre-Christian religious practices. Of the autos, El cetro de José (Joseph's Scepter) is based on a story from the Bible; El mártir del Sacramento, San Hermenegildo (The Martyr of the Sacrament …) is hagiographic; and El Divino Narciso (Divine Narcissus), the best of the three, is an ingenious allegorization of the pagan mythological Narcissus as the redeeming Christ. Narcissus (Christ), having rejected the advances of Echo (the Devil), who is the rival of Human Nature, sees the latter reflected in the Fountain of Grace, which unites God to Human Nature at the moment of the Incarnation; then Narcissus, in love with himself as reflected in Human Nature, falls into the fountain and drowns, allegorically crucified. One of the secular plays, Amor es más laberinto, was written in collaboration with Juan de Guevara; the other, Los empeños de una casa, has strong leading female roles, especially that of Leonor, which is a sort of autobiographical figure. The comic character Castaño, a mulatto servant from the New World, speaks satirically of the machismo of white Spaniards in a metatheatrical scene parodying the "cape and sword" comedy as a literary genre.

From the baroque intellectual world of her convent cell Sor Juana sends messages that intimate her deep concerns as a woman and a criolla. She is a key figure for understanding colonial Mexico.

See alsoMexico: The Colonial Period; Theater.


Electa Arenal, "Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz: Speaking the Mother Tongue," University of Dayton Review 16 (1982): 93-105.

Marie-Cécile Bénassy-Berling, Humanismo y religión en Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (1983).

Jean Franco, Plotting Women (1989).

Inundación castálida, edited by Georgina Sabat de Rivers (Madrid, 1982).

Asunción Lavrin, "Unlike Sor Juana? The Model Nun in the Religious Literature of Colonial Mexico," in Feminist Perspectives on Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (1991), pp. 61-85.

Josefina Ludmer, "Tricks of the Weak," in Feminist Perspectives on Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (1991), pp. 86-93.

Obras completas, 4 vols. edited by Alfonso Méndez Plancarte and Alberto G. Salceda (Mexico, 1951–1957).

Obras selectas, edited by Georgina Sabat de Rivers and Elias L. Rivers (Barcelona, 1976).

Octavio Paz, Sor Juana; or, the Traps of Faith (1988).

Georgina Sabat-Rivers, El "Sueño" de Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz: Tradiciones literarias y originalidad (1976).

Georgina Sabat-Rivers, "Esta de nuestra América pupila": Hacia Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz: Poetas barrocos de la Colonia (1991); and "A Feminist Rereading of Sor Juana's 'Dream,'" in Feminist Perspectives on Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (1991), pp. 142-161.

Nina Scott, "'If you are not pleased to favor me, put me out of your mind …': Gender and Authority in Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz," (Plus the translation of the "Carta de Monterrey"), Women's Studies International Forum 2 no. 5 (1988): 429-438.

"Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz," Latin American Writers, edited by Carlos A. Solé and Maria Isabel Abreu, pp. 85-105.

Alan Trueblood, A Sor Juana Anthology (Cambridge, Mass., 1988).

Additional Bibliography

Glantz, Margo. Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz: Saberes y placers. Toluca, Estado de México: Gobierno del Estado de México, Instituto Mexiquense de Cultura, 1996.

Montané Martí, Julio C. Intriga en la corte: Eusebio Francisco Kino, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, y Carlos de Sigüenza y Góngora. Hermosillo, México: Universidad de Sonora, 1997.

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

                                 Georgina Sabat-Rivers

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Juana Inés de la Cruz, Sor (1648–1695)

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