biography · history

Sor Juana Ines De La Cruz

“Like men, do women not have a rational soul? Why then shall they not enjoy the privilege of the enlightenment of letters? Is a woman’s soul not as receptive to God’s grace and glory as a man’s? Then why is she not able to receive learning and knowledge, which are lesser gifts? What divine revelation, what regulation of the Church, what rule of reason framed for us such a severe law?”– From a Spiritual Self Defense, Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz

I have recently been watching the Netflix show titled Juana Ines. It is a very enjoyable   historical drama and I thought all the actors were very good. I love these types of shows because they always inspire me to look into the real events and people. I never knew about the genius nun, Sor Juana Ines De La Cruz, from Mexico (then New Spain) during the 17th century. Sor Juana loved to learn and study, yet she was constantly in conflict with the restrictions for women during her time. I admire her because she continued to fight to follow her dreams. In her writings she fought for a woman’s right to learn and questioned the norms of society at the time. She was much ahead of her time in that respect. How had I not been taught her incredible story before? She was a genius, a brilliant writer, and a fighter for the rights of women.

“There is no woman suits your taste,
Though circumspection be her virtue:
Ungrateful, she who does not love you,
Yet she who does, you judge unchaste.
You men are such a foolish breed,
Appraising with a faulty rule
The first you charge with being cruel
The second, easy, you decree
So how can she be temperate,
The one who would her love expend?
If not willing , she offends,
But willing, she infuriates…” 
-Sor Juana Ines, A Philosophical Satire: She proves the inconsistency of the caprice and criticism of men who accuse women of what they cause

Sor Juana Ines De La Cruz (her given name was Juana Ramirez de Asbaje) was born (most likely) on November 12, 1651 near modern day Mexico City. Interestingly, Juana and her two sisters were born out of wedlock. Her father’s name was Pedro Manuel de Asbaje, but that is about all that is known about him. He was not central to Juana’s life and was most likely absent most of it. There is no mention of him in any of her writings, possibly hinting that he was not important to her, but it is unknown if they had met each other or what she really thought. Her mother was Isabel Ramierez, an American born of Spanish parents (or referred to then as criollo). She held the family together in the absence of a father and Juana admired her a great deal. Sor Juana wrote about her in her works. She writes briefly about her childhood in her famous response (which got her in trouble in the end) titled Response to the Most Illustrious Poetess Sor Filotea De La Cruz. “I was not yet three years old when my mother determined to send one of my elder sisters to learn to read at school for girls…Affection, and mischief, caused me to follow her, and when I observed how she was being taught her lessons I was so inflamed with the desire to know how to read, that deceiving– for so I knew it to be– the mistress, I told her that my mother had meant for me to have lessons too.” Sor Juana goes on to tell that she learned to ready so quickly (at three years old, mind you) that she was able to surprise her mother with this gift. “When later, being six or seven, and having learned how to read and write, along with all the other skills of needlework and household arts that girls learn, it came to my attention that in Mexico City there were Schools, and a University in which one studied the sciences. The moment I heard this I began to plague my mother with insistent and importunate pleas: she should dress me in boy’s clothing and send me to Mexico City to live with relatives, to study and be tutored at the University. She would not permit it, and she was wise, but I assuaged my disappointment by reading the many and varied books belonging to my grandfather and there were not enough punishments, nor reprimands, to prevent me from reading.” She soon began to learn Latin at an extremely young age (and it is said she became fluent in 20 lessons) as well and as she grew into her teen years her love of learning never diminished.

“Not to be born of an honorable father
Would be a blemish, I must own,
If, recieving my being from no other,
I did not judge it as his alone.
Far more generous was you mother
When she arranged your ancestry,
Offering many a likely father
Among whom to choose your pedigree” –Sor Juana, A Much-Needed Eyewash for Cleansing the Eyes of an Arrogant Myope

She was eventually introduced to the court of the viceroy and vicereine (the governors of New Spain appointed by the monarch of Spain) and she became very popular there due to her cleverness and witty verses. This is where her fame began to grow outside of just her hometown circle. Being known as a child prodigy, she was able to meet many influential people and gained the patronage of the viceroy and vicereine (she would go on to have many other governor patrons as well). She was even tested for a long time by many many learned men, scholars, historians, scientists, etc and impressed all with her knowledge. This was featured in the Netflix show as well. Much of her poetry (even though she was a nun while writing it) features secular themes and themes of courtly love.

“Lysi: into you hands divine
I give two chestnuts with thorny spines,
Because where roses bloom in number,
Thorns will flowers stems encumber
If to their spines you are inclined
And so contrive to trick your taste,
Forgive the shocking lack of grace
Of one who sent you such a toy;
For if you would the meats enjoy,
Then first you must burr the embrace” -Sor Juana, A Modest Gift by Affection Made a Treat

Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz eventually joined the convent. During this period women did not have many choices for their lives, for them it was the domestic or the church. There were also the women who lived life at court, but in all three of these options women were seen as lesser humans. “I deemed convent life the least unsuitable…wishing to have no obligatory occupation that would inhibit the freedom of my studies, nor the sounds of a community that would intrude upon the peaceful silence of my books,” wrote Sor Juana regarding her decision. She first began with the order of Carmelites nuns, but found them too strict and eventually found her place with the Hieronymites. Here she continued her studies and continued to learn solely from books. It amazes me that she could be self-taught in every subject. She was the convents accountant as well. She was still quite famous as her works were shared throughout the Americas and Spain and she still had many influential friends. In 1680 she received the honor to write the poem that celebrated a triumphal cathedral arch which was to honor the new viceroy as he entered New Spain. It was titled “Allegorical Neptune” and she used biblical and mythological references “which reflect the defiant idea that male power depends on female wisdom (Stavans, xxxvii).” Maria Luisa Manrique de Lara y Gonzaga (Marquesa de la Laguna) was her most dear patroness. The Netflix show makes it seem like they had a sexual relationship, which is unlikely in real life as a nun’s life was very restricted. But, there seemed to possibly have been some love connection as Sor Juana refers to the Marquesa in her poems as “Lysis.” Many are written as romantic and slightly erotic.

“It is not permitted of women to read publicly in church, nor preach, why do they censure those who study privately? And if they understand the latter…that not even in private are women to be permitted to write or study– how are we to view the fact that the Church permitted a Gertrude, a Santa Teresa, a Saint Birgitta, the Nun of Agreda, and so many others to write? And if they say to me that these women were saints, they speak the truth; but this poses no obstacle to my argument.” -Sor Juana, Response to the Most Illustrious Poetess Sor Filotea De La Cruz

Sor Juana was very controversial during her time, especially as the church in New Spain was cracking down on those they deemed “heretical” and they had a certain vision of how nuns should act. Sor Juana wrote about many controversial topics; some questioned the faith, supported human reason and she fought for women’s rights. She was a person who “challenged the ecclesiastical status quo (Stavans introduction).” In 1690 Sor Juana wrote a criticism of a very famous sermon by Jesuit Antonia Vieria and it was published without her permission by the Bishop of Puebla. This brought judgement from the church upon her as Vieria was extremely respected and she was seen as moving out of her proper sphere. Using the pseudonym Sister Filotea, the bishop of Puebla condemns her which brings about the famous response by Sor Juana Ines: Response to the Most Illustrious Poetess Sor Filotea De La Cruz, which defends a woman’s right to knowledge. She defends this right by pointing out the hypocrisies in the church social constraints and uses biblical evidence of God/important church figures supporting educated women. She even goes on to state that having older women being knowledgeable to teach the younger generation of women is important to society. Unfortunately, this lead to her being subdued by the higher church authorities and she was forced to give up her extremely large collection of books and renew her vows. She died at age 46 on April 17, 1695 due to the plague. She caught this sickness as she cared for and attended her fellow sisters during this epidemic. Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz was an amazing woman and has now become one of my most admired female heroes. It was a joy learning about her.


Much of my research came from:

De la Cruz, Sor Juana Ines. Poems, Protest, and a Dream, trans by Margaret Sayers Peden. New York: Penguin Books, 1997.

This book is a collection of many of her poems and letters (as included in this blog post). It also contains the very informative introduction by Ilan Stavans where I gained a lot of knowledge as well.

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