Juana Inés de la Cruz (1651–1695)

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Juana Inés de la Cruz (1651–1695)

Mexican poet and playwright who was recognized in her own time for her genius but who nonetheless struggled against great odds to achieve the freedom to devote herself to scholarship and creative activity. Name variations: Sor (Sister) Juana Ines de la Cruz; the Tenth Muse; the Mexican Nun. Pronunciation: HWAH-na ee-NEYSS they la KROOTH. Born Juana Ramírez de Asuaje, frequently spelled Asbaje, near San Miguel de Nepantla, Mexico, on November 12, 1651 (some writers, citing plausible but inconclusive evidence, have argued that it was actually three years earlier, in 1648); died on April 17, 1695, in Mexico City; daughter of Isabel Ramírez de Santillana and Pedro Manuel de Asuaje y Vargas Machuca; never married; no children.

Entered Hieronymite convent, Mexico City (1668); had earliest known work published in Mexico (1676); had first collection of works published in Spain (1689); engaged in polemic on women's rights (1691); withdrew from literary life (1693).

Selected works:

long poem Primero sueño (First Dream), numerous sonnets and villancicos, religious and secular plays, and an important autobiographical essay entitled Respuesta a Sor Filotea (Reply to Sister Filotea).

During the 17th century, Spanish colonial Mexico was known as New Spain. A male-dominated society, it afforded few options to women, but Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz defied the limits imposed by Hispanic tradition and the Roman Catholic Church to become one of the most significant writers in the history of Spanish literature. For more than 20 years, Sor Juana maintained a brilliant literary career, but, shortly before her death, she was finally forced into silence. Her admirers in her own day called Sor Juana the "Tenth Muse," a name also applied to her approximate contemporary, the early Massachusetts poet Anne Bradstreet (1612–1672). In the early 20th century, because of her outspoken defense of the equality of the sexes in matters of intellect, Dorothy Schons labeled Juana "the first feminist of America."

The future nun, poet, playwright, and essayist was born Juana Ramírez de Asuaje (frequently spelled Asbaje) at San Miguel de Nepantla, approximately 45 miles southeast of Mexico City. The date traditionally accepted for her birth is November 12, 1651, but some writers, citing plausible but inconclusive evidence, have argued that it was actually three years earlier, in 1648. Sor Juana's mother, Isabel Ramírez de Santillana , a creole, as Mexican-born Spaniards were called, was an independent-minded woman who had at least six children with two different men, neither of whom she ever married. The father in Sor Juana's case was a Basque military officer who may or may not have been at home during his daughter's early years.

Defensive about her illegitimacy, Sor Juana almost never mentioned her father in her writings. The principal male influence during her childhood was her maternal grandfather Pedro Ramírez. A local landowner, Ramírez was an enthusiastic reader with an impressive private library. It was in his house that young Juana first cultivated her remarkable appetite for learning. In her important 1691 autobiographical essay known as the Respuesta a Sor Filotea (Reply to Sister Filotea), Sor Juana tells us that she learned to read at the age of three. By the time she was six or seven, she was pestering her mother to send her to live with relatives in Mexico City, where she proposed to dress as a boy and attend classes at the university, which accepted only male students. Barred from formal education beyond the rudiments of literacy available at a local grammar school for girls, Juana sought consolation by immersing herself in her grandfather's books. She later recalled that "there were not enough punishments, nor reprimands, to prevent me from reading," a reminder that, even in her apparently somewhat unconventional family, intellectual pursuits were not considered altogether suitable for female children.

When she was about eight years old, Juana produced her first known literary composition, now lost, a loa, or prologue, to a sacred play to be performed at the church at nearby Amecameca. About the same time, she got her wish to leave her grandfather's farm for Mexico City, where she lived at first with her mother's sister María de Mata , who was married to an influential man named Juan de Mata. In the Mata household, Juana was able to continue her studies, mastering Latin grammar, she tells us, in "no more than twenty lessons." Not only brilliant and talented, but also physically attractive, Juana was a remarkable prodigy who could not long escape notice in the glamorous circles of Mexico City society. Among her chief admirers were the Spanish viceroy of New Spain, Antonio Sebastián de Toledo, marquis of Mancera (r. 1664–1673), and his wife, the vicereine, Leonor Carreto (Leonor de Mancera ). The Manceras were patrons of art and learning, and they brought Juana to the viceregal court as lady-inwaiting to the marquise. In this capacity, she became something of an official poet, producing verses for all occasions on commissions from both civil and ecclesiastical authorities.

Had Aristotle done the cooking, he would have had a great deal more to write about.

—Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz

At court, Juana grew close to the vicereine, to whom, as "Laura," she later addressed poems of loving friendship. Sharing his wife's pride in her protégée's attainments, on one occasion the marquis arranged an unusual show in which Juana submitted herself to a public oral examination by some 40 of the city's most learned men. As Mancera later told Sor Juana's earliest biographer, the Spanish Jesuit Diego Callejas, the learned teenager from the provinces performed brilliantly in every area of specialization, fielding the examiners' questions "like a royal galleon might repel an assault by a handful of sloops."

In 1667, despite her triumphs in secular society, Juana decided to leave the court and become a nun. With the viceregal couple's support, she entered the Mexico City convent of the Barefoot Carmelites, where she remained only three months. The discipline of this reformed order may have proved too rigorous, or there may have been other problems. Whatever the cause, Juana left the sisters and returned briefly to live with the Manceras. Early in 1669, she tried again, choosing this time the convent of San Jerónimo, which belonged to the Hieronymite order, whose rule was less demanding than that of the Carmelites. Juana would spend the rest of her life at San Jerónimo. When she took her vows as a Hieronymite nun, she adopted the religious name by which she ultimately became famous—Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, that is, Sister Juana Inés of the Cross.

In recent times, Juana's reasons for taking the veil have been the subject of scholarly debate. Despite the claims of her traditional Catholic biographers, she does not appear to have had any particular religious vocation. Some writers have claimed that she was fleeing a painful love affair, but there is little evidence for this assertion, either. More likely, Juana acted on a rational assessment of the options open to her as a young woman in late 17th-century Mexico. Essentially, there were only two such options, marriage or a convent. Matrimony would mean dependence upon a husband, as well as the constant demands of childbearing and domestic responsibilities, and, in any case, her status as the illegitimate daughter of an absent father might have prevented her from making an advantageous match. Sor Juana herself tells us that it was "the total antipathy [she] felt for marriage" that led her to choose the convent as "the least unsuitable and most honorable" way of life.

Only in a convent could a woman hope to enjoy the leisure time and the peace and quiet necessary to pursue scholarly and literary activities. Once Sor Juana joined the Hieronymites, she turned her cell, which was actually a spacious apartment, into a study and surrounded herself with musical and mathematical instruments, as well as an extensive personal library. Some writers claim that she possessed as many as 4,000 books, but this figure is almost certainly an exaggeration.

Any time not occupied by her duties as a member of the community Sor Juana spent in reading, writing, and visiting with her friends. The fact that she had taken religious vows did not mean that she was isolated from outside human contact. Sor Juana's literary works were widely admired in the Spanish-speaking world, and she maintained an active correspondence with kindred spirits, both male and female, not only in Mexico, but also in Spain and in the viceroyalty of Peru. Also, the 17th-century cloister was less secluded than is generally supposed. The rules of Sor Juana's order prohibited her from leaving the convent, but they did not prevent the world from coming to her. The scholarly nun turned the locutory, or reception hall, at San Jerónimo into a kind of literary salon that came to be frequented by some of the most learned, powerful, and influential men and women in the colony.

Among the many admirers who called on Sor Juana were fellow scholars, such as the poet,

scientist, and mathematician Carlos de Sigüenza y Góngora (1645–1700), as well as high-ranking ecclesiastics, such as the archbishop of Mexico City, Payo Enríquez de Rivera, who also served for several years as viceroy (r. 1673–1680). Particularly close to Sor Juana was another viceroy, Tomás Antonio de la Cerda, marquis of La Laguna (r. 1680–1686), who with his wife, María Luisa Manrique de Lara , countess of Paredes, came to play a role in the poet's life similar to that played by the marquis and marquise of Mancera some years before. Sor Juana became close friends with the vicereine, whom she addressed in poems as "Filis," "Lysi," and "Lísida." In 1689, following the couple's return to Spain, the countess arranged the first edition in Madrid of Sor Juana's collected poetry, a volume bearing the imposingly baroque title Inundación castálida (A Muse-Fed Flood). The poet and her friend kept in touch, and Sor Juana continued to send manuscripts to Spain for publication. A second collection appeared in Seville in 1692, and a third was published posthumously in Madrid in 1700. Altogether, these three volumes of works by Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz went through some 20 editions by 1725.

The support and protection of powerful admirers, such as viceroys and their wives and high-ranking ecclesiastics, enabled Sor Juana to get away with things which might not otherwise have been tolerated in a woman, and especially not in a nun. Although much of her literary output was religious in nature, a great deal of it was not. She tried her hand at virtually every genre and meter currently in vogue and excelled at them all. Her style was exemplary of the best of the Spanish baroque, and reflected the influence, among others, of the poet Luis de Góngora y Argote (1561–1627), whom some critics believe she surpassed in quality. Sor Juana's secular works included cloak-and-dagger comedies which were performed in Mexico City during her lifetime, love poems which even to modern ears sound erotic, and unabashedly bawdy burlesque sonnets. More than once, the nun poet turned her attention to the condition of women in colonial Mexican society, as in the famous poem addressed to

Thick-headed men who, so unfair,
Bemoan the faults of women,
Not seeing as you do that they're
Exactly what you've made them.

In the opinion of many writers, Sor Juana's most important work was a long poem she called Primero sueño (First Dream). Written probably in the mid-1680s and published for the first time in 1692, this difficult composition recounts a voyage of the soul, momentarily freed from its sleeping body, in a quest for comprehension of the created universe. In the end, the seeker realizes that such an understanding is impossible, and, disappointed, the dreamer awakes. The Mexican poet and critic Octavio Paz has noted that Sor Juana's Sueño is unique in Spanish letters in its attempt to synthesize science and poetry. It is also a peculiar bridge between the Middle Ages and the modern era. Although the scholarly nun takes creation as her topic, she makes little reference to the Creator himself, and none to the redemptive mission of his son Jesus Christ. The universe as Sor Juana describes it is no longer the limited geocentric cosmos of medieval thought; instead, it is a vast space with no center and no fixed limits. It is unlikely that Sor Juana was familiar with the revolutionary theories of the German astronomer Johannes Kepler (1571–1630), but the vision she presents is clearly reminiscent of ideas for which the Italian Giordano Bruno (d. 1600) was burned at the stake.

There are many places in the work of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz where it appears that she came perilously close to heresy and blasphemy, offenses against orthodoxy which could have brought her under the scrutiny of the Mexico City tribunal of the Holy Office of the Inquisition. Intellectually adventurous, she was not afraid to take risks in order to increase her knowledge and understanding; in fact, a favorite theme of hers was the story of Phaëthon from Greek mythology, who, although considered unqualified to do so, had defiantly driven the chariot of the sun. But Sor Juana was not a fool. She was cautious about what she wrote and how she wrote it, and she was always careful to cultivate powerful allies who could protect her against her detractors.

Critics and detractors Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz certainly had. It was not particularly unusual for nuns to write. In fact, there was a long tradition of them, going back to the early Middle Ages. Before the modern era, the only woman, other than Sor Juana, who achieved a secure place in the canon of Spanish literature was also a nun, Saint Teresa of Avila (1515–1582); but Teresa, and the many other religious women of more modest talent who also wrote, restricted themselves to works of devotion and edification. What set Sor Juana apart from her sisters was the large amount of her literary output that was secular in nature. Also, it did not help her case that her work, being of extremely high quality, attracted admirers on both sides of the Atlantic. Worldly fame was bad enough; what was worse was that Sor Juana appeared both to court it and to enjoy it.

In her autobiography, Sor Juana tells us that she suffered throughout her life from the jealousy and resentment of others. Some of her critics resented her talent and fame, while others held against her the fact that she was a woman. There were also well-intentioned meddlers, such as the prioress who once forbade Sor Juana to write for three months, who sought to discourage her literary activities out of concern for her own spiritual welfare. In general, the poet could count on her powerful and influential friends to protect her against those who, for whatever reason, might have wished to silence her. The network of personal alliances she actively developed and maintained kept her free to do pretty much as she pleased for more than 20 years. In the end, however, it failed her.

Toward the last years of her life, the protective little environment Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz had managed to build around her began to come apart. In 1681, her friend Payo Enríquez de Rivera was replaced as archbishop of Mexico City by Francisco de Aguiar y Seijas, a neurotic and misogynistic ascetic who condemned public spectacles such as bullfights and theater productions, and who complained of lax discipline in the city's convents. In his mind, the worldly nun who wrote plays and secular poetry was symbolic of both evils. A close ally of the Society of Jesus, the archbishop worked through the Jesuit Antonio Núñez de Miranda, who had been Sor Juana's confessor and spiritual director since before she had entered the convent, in an attempt to bring her activities under tighter church supervision. The poet resisted all such efforts, however, and as a result she and Núñez de Miranda became estranged.

Sor Juana had nothing to fear from the archbishop and Núñez de Miranda as long as she enjoyed the protection of the marquis of La Laguna and the countess of Paredes, who, even after they returned to Spain, continued to defend her and to promote her career. The marquis' successor as viceroy, Gaspar de Sandoval, count of Galve (r. 1688–1696), was also friendly to the poet nun, and she enjoyed another important ally in Aguiar y Seijas' rival prelate, the powerful bishop of Puebla Manuel Fernández de Santa Cruz. In addition to admiring Sor Juana and her work, it appears that Bishop Santa Cruz had a personal grudge against the archbishop and his Jesuit friends.

In 1690, Bishop Santa Cruz asked Sor Juana to put in writing some critical thoughts she had expressed to him regarding a sermon by the famous Portuguese Jesuit António Vieira (1608–1697), of whom the archbishop happened to be particularly fond. Acting ostensibly without her permission, Santa Cruz then published the essay under the fawning title Carta atenagórica (A Letter Worthy of the Wisdom of Athena), preceded by a prologue which he supplied himself under the pseudonym "Sor Filotea de la Cruz." In a peculiar twist, although the fictitious Sor Filotea opened her remarks with praise for the poet nun, she went on to parrot Aguiar y Seijas and Núñez de Miranda by admonishing Sor Juana not to waste her time with vain pursuits, such as secular learning. Warning her sister that "learning that engenders pride God does not want in a woman," Sor Filotea urged her instead to study "the book of Jesus Christ."

Some scholars claim that Bishop Santa Cruz genuinely intended to counsel his old friend to abandon her secular studies, while others disagree, saying that Sor Filotea's challenge was only a clever ruse to provide Sor Juana an opening to justify herself in writing. Octavio Paz subscribes to the latter view and argues further that the whole affair was a carefully calculated insult to the archbishop, meant to humiliate him and his allies by attacking them through a woman. Whatever the intent, the scholarly nun rose to the occasion in magnificent fashion and the result was her justly famous Respuesta a Sor Filotea (1691), which is both her intellectual autobiography and a manifesto in support of the right of all women to study and to express themselves. A favorite theme of Sor Juana's throughout her career was that neither the soul nor the intellect had gender. Although she accepted certain customary restrictions, such as that women should neither preach in churches nor teach in the universities, she rejected most other limits on feminine intellectual expression. In recounting her own scholarly development, Sor Juana noted that some traditionally female experiences might afford insights ordinarily denied to men. "Had Aristotle done the cooking," she declared, "he would have had a great deal more to write about."

In itself, Vieira's sermon was unimportant, and Sor Juana's criticisms of it were not particularly provocative. Even so, the publication of her essay placed the scholarly nun in the middle of a local political dispute. She found herself the object of an angry controversy which involved, among other things, the question of a nun's obligation of obedience and of the appropriate behavior for women in general. Unfortunately for Sor Juana, about the same time, for reasons completely outside of her control, her protective network of personal friendships began to disintegrate. Flooding and famine in central Mexico during 1691 and 1692 led to political difficulties for the count of Galve, whose ineffective response to rioting which broke out in the capital in June 1692 left his leadership discredited and provided an opening for Archbishop Aguiar y Seijas to emerge as the real power in the colony. Recognizing the dramatic shift in political fortunes, Bishop Santa Cruz withdrew from the fray, abandoning his protégée to her enemies.

Sor Juana still had friends in Spain. In fact, she was at the height of her fame and acceptance there, and, in 1692, the countess of Paredes brought out the second volume of her collected works, complete with multiple testimonials in the nun's favor by prominent theologians, including some Jesuits. But the death of the marquis of La Laguna the same year diverted the countess' attention from Sor Juana's problems, and, at any rate, Spain was a long way from Mexico and political realities there. To the archbishop and his crowd, the arrival of Sor Juana's new book looked more like a provocation than a vindication.

In her Respuesta a Sor Filotea, Sor Juana had made it clear that she had no intention of giving up studying or writing, but two years later, in 1693, she did precisely that, renewing her nun's vows and giving up her books and other possessions to be sold for charity. Traditional writers have portrayed this sudden reversal as a genuine religious conversion, but others, including Octavio Paz, have argued instead that Aguiar y Seijas and his allies simply succeeded in intimidating Sor Juana into silence.

While it is impossible to know what was going through Sor Juana's mind at this time of personal crisis, it is likely that she felt alone and defenseless. Because she was a believing Catholic, even if she was never a particularly enthusiastic nun, it is also possible that she experienced inner conflict between her desire for autonomy as an intellectual and writer, and the obligations imposed upon her by her vows. She may even have allowed herself to sense some personal responsibility for the natural and social calamities occurring around her. Prior to her submission, Sor Juana had accepted back as her confessor the Jesuit Núñez de Miranda, who would have encouraged her to turn her back on what he would have called her pride and willful nature. Whatever her reasons, after 1693 Sor Juana wrote nothing else. Instead, she devoted herself entirely to the life of the convent and died two years later, having fallen ill while nursing her fellow nuns during an epidemic.

Some critics complain that it diminishes Sor Juana's importance to describe her as a woman poet, because her work is of universal significance and better than that of many of her male contemporaries. It remains true, however, that the fact that she was a woman determined the conditions under which Sor Juana had to live and work, and in many cases the themes which she addressed in her writings. Certainly, in her day a life devoted to secular letters would not have been thought inappropriate in any male writer, not even a member of the clergy, and no man would have been silenced the way she was, for no other cause than having insisted upon his right to learn and express himself.


[Calleja, Diego.] "Vida de la madre Juana Inés de la Cruz, religiosa profesa en el convento de San Jerónimo, de la ciudad imperial de México" (c. 1700), in Juana de Asbaje, by Amado Nervo. Madrid: Biblioteca Nueva, 1920.

Juana Inés de la Cruz, Sor. A Woman of Genius: The Intellectual Autobiography of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz [Respuesta a Sor Filotea]. Trans. and ed. by Margaret Sayers Peden. Salisbury, CT: Lime Rock Press, 1982.

Paz, Octavio. Sor Juana: Or, the Traps of Faith. Trans. by Margaret Sayers Peden. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988.

Sabat-Rivers, Georgina. "Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (1651–1695)," in Latin American Writers. Ed. by Carlos A. Solé and María Isabel Abreu. NY: Scribner, 1989.

Schons, Dorothy. "Some Obscure Points in the Life of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz," in Modern Philology. Vol. 24, 1926, pp. 141–162.

suggested reading:

Arenal, Electa, and Amanda Powell. The Answer/La Respuesta: The Restored Text and Selected Poems of Juana Inés de la Cruz. Feminist Press, 1993.

Flynn, Gerard C. Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. NY: Twayne Publishers, 1971.

Juana Inés de la Cruz, Sor. A Sor Juana Anthology. Trans. by Alan S. Trueblood. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988.

——. Sor Juana's Dream [Primero sueño]. Trans. and ed. by Luis Harss. NY: Lumen Books, 1986.

Leonard, Irving A. Baroque Times in Old Mexico: Seventeenth-Century Persons, Places, and Practices. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1959.

Merrim, Stephanie, ed. Feminist Perspectives on Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, 1991.

Stephen Webre , Professor of History, Louisiana Tech University, Ruston, Louisiana

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Juana Inés de la Cruz (1651–1695)

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