Juana Ines de la Cruz is a well known literary figure in Mexico. She was a Mexican nun, a self-taught scholar, a child prodigy, a proto feminist and one of the most remarkable poets of the colonial times in Spanish America. In Octavio Paz’s biography she is rated among the five best lyric poem writers of the Spanish language (Paz 1983).
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She was born in San Miguel Nepantla, Mexico on November 12th, 1651 as an illegitimate daughter of Don Pedro de Asbaje and Isabel Ramirez and was raised by her mother together with her other siblings, two older sisters and three younger half siblings on her grand father’s hacienda outside Mexico City.
Juana dedicated herself into religious conviction while she was very young, Cruz (1995) notes “she hid herself several times in her grandfathers hacienda chapel to read his books from a library nearby this practice was forbidden to girls and by the age of three she had known how to read and write.”
Between the age of 5 to 8 years she could comfortably handle accounting work as well as poetry. During her childhood, she lived with her relatives in Mexico City. In terms of education Juana had not had any opportunity to formally go to school as this was not allowed for the female gender except their male counterparts all she had was some 20 lessons in Latin which she taught to young children.
At the age of thirteen she had also learned Nahuati language which she used to write some of her short poems. Juana loved education and what she thought she did not understand why she made sure she studied it again; she even resulted to cutting off her hair once she did a mistake as a form of punishment in order to learn quickly.
Juana’s quest for books made her want to join the university, she would plead with her mother to dress her up as a boy for her to get the opportunity to attend the University of Mexico but her mother would not accept as it was not allowed. Her thirst fro education led her not living the kind of life a woman was expected to live at that time and instead she followed what she wanted. She got her intelligence through her own efforts as she continued with her studies privately.
Her intelligence brought her the attention of the Viceroy of New Spain. In 1662, she was among the ladies in waiting to the Vicareina. The wife of the Viceroy later distinguished her because of her intelligence this happened after she moved to the palace. Juana attended the court of Viceroy Antonio Sebastian de Toledo and she was able to impress his wife with her intelligence that she offered to be in charge of all education matters that Cruz would be involved in.
While at the courts, the then Viceroy invited a couple of theologians, philosophers, poets, jurists and other various scientific and literary subjects to test her intelligence they were very impressed by the way Cruz answered their question with ease earning her reputation all over New Spain. At least now the people embraced the fact that their existed some kind of female intellectuality in a world thought only to be dominated by men (Merrim 1999).
Cruz had begun her career as a writer, composing poems for various social and political events while at the courts. Her writings were majorly concentrated on mathematics, logic, music and theology topics that would surely attract the attention of many of her enemies fortunately she was enjoying a royal protection being a favorite of Mancera and his wife. The protection given to her made it easier for her to write anything without any threat from anyone.
Juana left her court life to start a new life as a nun in the convent of the Barefoot Carmelites but left only a year and half later to join the convent of San Jeronimo in Mexico City. Her decision to join the convent life was not necessitated by the need to get closer to God but as a way to escape marriage life. While at the Vice-royal court, Cruz had many admirers because of her beauty but she turned down all marriage proposals that came her way.
Sor Juana de la Cruz not only took the veil because she did not wish to get married but because during that time the convent was the only place a woman who desired a life of study would have the opportunity to do so freely the environment was conducive for her to carry out what she desired the most mainly being able to read and write she could discuss with ease and intelligence about history, rhetoric, philosophy, art, architecture, geometry and many other different fields at the same time, she wrote dozens of poems, religious allegories which form a great literature output of the baroque era without any disruptions she was also able to respond to questions posed by various people as well as holding intellectual court meetings with her friends (Tracker 2000).
At the convent each nun had her own room these living quarters would occupy at least two storey’s complete with kitchen and bathroom together with servants. This life provided a conducive atmosphere for learning and this was what Juana desired the most.
Her literature works were mostly about secular topics that dared to criticize the male, Catholic establishment and the questioning of the church’s inconsistent and oppressive treatment towards women others that she wrote were literature works that were campaigning for the intellectual freedom for women (Prieto 2004).
Due to her activities while in the convent, she gained recognition from many people who were outstanding in the society. These powerful allies were the ones who helped in the publication of most of Juana’s writings in Spain and they were the ones responsible for its circulation. However, she inadvertently plunged into theological controversy.
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Being both a woman a nun, she was living in a strict society with ecclesiastical boundaries but through her writing, she was able to circumnavigate through the strictness resulting to her being perceived as rebellious, the clergy also perceived her writing as blasphemous, audacious and not fit for a woman especially not for a nun. Cruz (1995) notes “in one of her poems, (Redondillas), she defends a women’s right to be respected as human being as she tries to appeal to the stubborn men.”
During her time, sexism in the society was very rampant, she criticized this practice where men would point figures at women who practiced prostitution by publicly humiliating them stating that this showed hypocrisy because they would be the same men who would offer money in exchange for sexual pleasures. For her a simple answer would be very significant in order to understand as to why men would really result to insulting a woman acts of which she does not commit alone.
Juana raises a very crucial issue concerning whoredom and issues pertaining to spiritual cleanness and how they relate to men’s mind set. ”who sins more, she who sins for pay or he who pays for sin”. the Reply to Sor Filotea De La Cruz describes how Juana discusses about women’s right, fear of wisdom and the role of women according the Perion ata Juaher diverse creative writings developed further to also include romantic comedies “Los empenos de una casa” in which it features a brother and a sister entangled in a love triangle.
“Though she had not experienced this kind of issue, it was not an issue for her to inquire how these matters shaped and curved the woman’s pursuit of liberty, knowledge, education and the freedom to live her life in self-sovereignty.” (Cruz 1995).
She performed her duties at the convent like any other nun despite her desires to want to learn more about everything. Stevenson (2005) notes “her duties in the convent included attending the divine offices, observing of canonical hours and teaching girls music and other dramatic activities.” Kirk (theologian at St. John’s University, New York) describes Juana as an independent-thinker and creative woman and a hieronimite nun who also was a creative and diverse writer (as cited by Greenblatt 1980).
It was not until 1690 that matters came to hand when a letter attacking Juana was published condemning her for engaging and focusing on sciences instead suggesting that she would be better doing soft theology. This is when she first wrote on something to do with theology after being fascinated by an old sermon written by a famous preacher striking her as foolish her critique about the sermon was the first ever theological work to be done by a woman in the world at that time.
She was however lucky because a group of powerful representatives from the Spanish court were her mentors hence gave their support to her. Sor Juana had become famous all over Spain; she lauded herself a name as the most prominent poet of the American Continent in Mexico City. As she became famous, so did the number of people who criticized her increase especially from the clergy resulting in a response that she wrote criticizing an old sermon.
Stevenson (2005) notes “this opened a platform for the bishop of Puebla to respond by writing her a letter praising her orthodoxy and insight but advised her to take caution by restricting herself from activities more becoming to a member of her sex.” In her response to the letter, Sor Juana defended her desire to want to learn as a calling from the Almighty God and that she had no power to deny the calling.
She drafted a letter referred to as “ Respuesta a Sor Filotea” in which she advocated for women’s rights to be observed and preferred getting her references from the bible and other classical literature in relation to women’s education rights. Juana did not give into the pressure mounted on her by the different individuals, especially the church which perceived her thinking out loud in form of writings as dangerous as it raged Counter Reformation.
During this time, anyone who challenged societal values and ecclesiastical doctrine was regarded by the church as a heretic, they were said to harm the church by being false witnesses against a person (Stevenson 2005). The church was then a powerful body and could carry out actions to silence these individuals by forcing them into penitence or stripping them of property and assets including what the individual family owned. They could also face torture, made to go into exile, imprisoned or to an extent of being murdered.
It was not until 1693 when Sor Juana gave in to the demands of her critics and she chose to stop writing to avoid risking a church censure. Paz (1983) notes “this was when she made a public appearance to renew her vows and concentrated herself to the “Virgin Mary the Immaculate Conception.”
Thereafter, she signed a document with her own blood; a document that would be used as evidence to show that she agreed to self humiliation inscribed were these words “Yo, la peor de todas” (I, the worst/meanest of them all). She is said to have given away her books distributing them to the poor as an act of penance including her scientific instruments and music. Juana choose to keep silent.
To many her silence represented an act of full submission to God’s work. In April 1965, a plague swept across town and while Sor Juana was attending to her fellow sisters, she got infected and died at the age of 43. Only a few of her works exist to date they are referred to as “Complete works”. According to Paz (1983), her works were saved by the Viceroy’s wife.
According to Merrim (1991), after analyzing Juana’s works, she came to a conclusion that Juana dared to structure the Athenagoric letters in her concern and explicit awareness of limitations faced by women because of there gender positions as well as the need for education which she recommended for academic for women studies.
In conclusion Sor Juana de la Cruz is a living testimony of the fact that there exists the human will and power to do what most people would think is totally impossible. She was born in an era that undermined and took advantage of a woman’s presence in the society but that did not stop her from expressing her views and suggesting to the community to let the women also enjoy the rights that their male counterparts were enjoying especially educational matters.
The subject of her writings was always the plight of intellectual freedom for women. Though she could not attend schooling because of the societal values, she was able to learn through her own efforts by studying alone. She opted to go into conventional life in order for to achieve her goal of becoming a scholar she embraced the religious life intern she got to pursue her mission to learn.
She was able to achieve her dreams for a few years when she would write down poems letters and other literature works freely even without caring about her critics but it did not last long because of her other duty as a religious woman which dictated that she renounce her learning in order to stay alive.
This convectional took place because of the gender position Sor Juana held in the society; she was a woman in a society dominated by men. Through her education, lifestyle and her passions, she inspired many women to want to be like her and engage in an active life like their counterparts, men.
Cruz, S. J. (1995). Obras Completas de Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz [Finished Works of Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz]. Jalisco: Fondo De Cultura Economica.
Greenblatt, S. (1980). Renaissance Self-Fashioning from More to Shakespeare. Chicago: Univervisty of Chicago Press.
Merrim, S. (1999). Feminist Perspectives on Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz. Detroit: Wayne State University Press.
Merrim,S. (1991). Feminist Perspectives on Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz. Detroit: Wayne States UP.
Paz,O. (1983). Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz las trampas de la fe. Jalisco: Fond de Cultura Economica
Prieto, M. (2004). Elaborando el silencio: la respuesta de Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz [Preparing the silence: the Sister’s response Juana Inés of the Cross]. Iconos Revista de Ciencias Sociales [Icons. Journal of Social Sciences], (19), 132-136.
Stevenson, J. (2005). Women Latin poets: language, gender, and authority, from antiquity to the eighteenth century. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press.
Tracker, G. (2000). The Three Secular Plays of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press.