Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz
(maybe 1648 lol – 1695)
DJ Name: Juan(a) in a millón
This week we’re bringing you a Juan(a) in a millón story about a lady named Juana Inés de la Cruz who cruised into the literary world with prose that challenged society’s views on women and called for equal rights to educational access, which made her the first published feminista of the New World. Even though she was living in what is now Mexico, during her life it was a land under colonial control of España (read: Ethpaña). This meant that the words she penned to paper traveled far and wide, and she became an international and acclaimed author during her life.
Did we hype you up enough yet to learn more about Sor Juana? Ok good. But before you read some more, here are Juan(a) in a millón’s favorite tunes to turn up to while she called out the patriarchy. Though women’s history month may have come to a close this week, there are many herstories to share (shoutout to Historic Shuffle fan, Claudia, for the recommendation this week!):
Juana Ramírez de Asbaje was (allegedly) born out of wedlock to Spanish captain, Pedro Manuel de Asbaje and Isabel Ramirez, on November 12, 1648. However some sources say 1651. What’s a few years? Anyways, Juana was born in November with pen and paper in her little hands. Rumor has it she wrote a poem on the spot. Mama Isabel was a criolla woman, which meant that she was a woman of Spanish descent who was born in Mexico. Because of her Spanish ancestry and Mexican birth, Juana was also considered a criolla. Papa Pedro was absent from her life.
Her hometown was San Miguel Nepantla, Tepetlixpa, which now goes by Nepantla de Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz in her honor. It’s near modern day Mexico City. During 1648 (or 1651 or really just the entirety of Sor Juana’s vida) Mexico was a Spanish territory. Spanish conquistadors like Hernán Cortés and Francisco Hernández de Córdoba sailed the ocean blue to “discover” new territories that would offer their motherland new resources AKA wealth. Upon arrival, these conquistadors came into contact with many native tribes, such as the Aztecs, who had lived in this “new world” for centuries. Aztecs thought that these new visitors were gods, but quickly learned that they were not as they pivoted and fought to prevent siege of their homes. However the capital cities were seized by the Spaniards who reaped the benefits of a New Spain while they quickly turned around and enslaved much of the indigenous population. Yikes.
Sor Juana came into the picture nearly a century after this. However, Mexico didn’t gain independence from Ethpaña until 1821. Juana grew up living with her mother and grandfather, who owned a hacienda AKA an estate which had a chapel that housed a library of libros. Juana spent many hours reading novel after novel during her youth. She composed her first poem when she was eight years old, and by her early teen years, she knew Latin so well that she could teach it to others (casual flex). Because Latin wasn’t enough, Juana also learned Nahuatal. This was the Aztec language spoken in Central Mexico (reminder: at this time it was “New Spain”). Juana said adios to the hacienda and hola to Mexico City as her mother sent her to live with other family members when she was about eight years old. While there, she took a ~casual~ twenty lessons in Latin grammar which expanded her knowledge even more because she was able to comprehend more philosophical and theological works of LITerature. We told you she was Juan(a) in a millón.
Juana Inés de la Cruz wanted to go to college to get more knowledge, but unfortunately only dudes were allowed. She begged her familia to let her to disguise herself as a guy to get into school, but they said no so she continued to study on her own. When she was 16, she was presented to the court of the Viceroy, who oversaw New Spain as a representative of the Spanish monarchy, and was admitted to serve his wife. She lived in the court and worked for the viceroy until she was 20. The Viceroy recognized Juana’s brains early on and put her to the test by bringing in several theologians, philosophers and poets to quiz her on several subjects. She schooled those scholars with her facts and was admired in the viceregal court. Her brains were also her beauty, and as time went on many a man proposed to Juana. However, she always declined. Libros were her novio.
In 1667, Juana Inés de la Cruz became Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz because she joined the Monastery of St. Joseph, which was a community of Discalced Carmelite nuns but only remained there for a brief span of time before she entered the Convent of the Order of St. Jérôme, where she stayed until her death. It was while in the convent that Juana found the time and space to study as many as 4,000 books. She was also able to talk to many scholars from the court and the university. Juana the reader became Juana the author as she put pen to paper and began to write many poems and plays. Juana wrote like she was running out of time, Juana wrote like she needed it to survive.
There were no cons to the convent life. Juana was as happy as a clam in her cloister. She was happy in her habit, if you will. Besides hitting the books, Juana also moonlighted as the archivist and the accountant. She had her own apartment all to herself, and she used her time and space to amass one of the largest collections of books in the New World. She also kept a bunch of scientific and musical instruments in her home, because one can never have too many hobbies. The Viceroy of New Spain continued to favor her during her time in the convent, and he helped make life a bit cushier. He and his wife visited her, and they published her works in Spain.
Juana lived during the nexus of a couple of different artistic eras, which she navigated masterfully, and it was this artistic acumen that helped elevate her fame. Spain’s Golden Age was in its eclipse during Juana’s life, and some of her work reflects those themes: religious fervor and heightened realism, and her poems incorporated elaborate conceits and Baroque-style wordplay (like, she wanted to be a poet, and she wanted to be taken seriously as a woman, but she didn’t want to sound like a Baroquen record). But Juana was more than just the Spanish Golden Age golden girl, she was also a pioneer of colonial Mexican literary culture.
Because this was a long time ago and iCal hadn’t been invented yet, it’s tough to date many of Juana’s poems. She wrote moral, satiric and religious stanzas, but she wasn’t just Sor Juana. She was also simply Juana, who wrote secular love poems. For a nun, she didn’t want nun of that pigeonholing that other nun writers had to deal with. Jesus was her muse, but so were lots of other subjects. And honestly, Jesus was a dude and to Juana, dudes were “hombres necios,” or foolish men. Las mujeres son el futuro, and Juana wrote about how women are the voice of reason and should be looked to for knowledge and not those dumb-dumb boys! Her poem, “Hombres Necios” accuses men of the illogical behavior that they criticize in women. Many of Juana’s most enigmatic and heroic characters were women who are ingenious yet disillusioned by love.
However, as Juana became more famous as a poetess, she became more disliked by church officials and cut ties with the ones who spoke out against her publicly. More and more people disavowed her publicly, either because she was a women or because she was a part of the religious community, but she said “I don’t juana hear it.” After a while, though, the haters started to get her down. By 1694, her writing had come to a halt and her book collection was given away as charity. She found her way back to the church and renewed her vows. She died among her fellow sister nuns as she nursed some of them back to health during the plague, not unlike the coronavirus one!
¡Viva Juana! Her legado lives on, as she’s a symbol of Mexican culture and identity. Her former cloister is now the site of a center for higher education, and her face adorns Mexican currency. Thanks to a rising interest in feminist literature, people like our pal Claudia now read her work in college classes and become inspired to join their own cloister. Bye bye, Claudia! ¡Divertirse!