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Sor Juana - the First Woman of North American Literature

By Edited Jun 28, 2016 0 0

A few weeks ago, during the course of my online work, an anonymous person asked me to value a 1988 Mexican 1000 Peso coin he had found. I hope this person didn't intend to retire on the proceeds from selling this coin, as my research showed that as the Mexican government devalued the Peso in by 1000% in 1993 due to a currency crisis, the coin’s worth came in at seven cents. Normally, my interest would end there, but I became intrigued by the figure on the coin, which showed the head of a woman wearing a cowl and the upper section of some sort of oval portrait upon her chest. This woman, I learned, survived the currency crisis to appear on the modern 200 Peso bill, where she is more obviously a nun, with books, ink and quills in the background. Digging around, I discovered the woman’s full name - Juana Inés de la Cruz, also known to the ages simply as Sor Juana (‘sor’ is Spanish for ‘sister’), now looked on as a pioneer of New World literature.

Retrato de Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (Miguel Cabrera).jpg
Born Juana Inés de Asbaje y Ramírez de Santillana in the village of San Miguel Nepantla, when Mexico formed a part of the Spanish Empire called New Spain, our knowledge of Sor Juana’s early life is complicated by two competing years for her birth; some sources state 1648, others 1651. Scholars are also unsure of  Sor Juana’s father's identity, naming either a Basque navigator and sea-captain named Pedro Manuel de Asbaje, or the priest of Chimalhuacan, Francisco de Asbaje, as the father. In any case, Juana’s father played no part in his daughter’s life, leaving her to be raised by Juana’s mother, Isabel Ramírez, a local-born woman of Spanish ancestry. Born out of wedlock, Juana would need to overcome the prejudice this entailed only to face another in adulthood, that of an intelligent woman in seventeenth century country ruled by the Catholic Church.  

Although not rich, Sor Juana’s mother had the means to send an elder sister of Juana’s to a school for girls. Aged just three, Juana followed her sister cajoled the teacher into giving her lessons in reading and writing. Once accomplished at these skills, Juana took to her grandfather’s library in the family hacienda and devoured all the knowledge she could. Juana became proficient at mathematics at age five, could write poetry by the age of eight, mastered logic at around twelve years old and understood both Latin and Nahuatl, the language of the Aztec people; all this, along with the expected talents a girl of the time needed to master, such as needlework and cooking. Juana learned of universities and pleaded with her mother to allow her to attend the university in nearby Mexico City dressed as a boy, as girls were not permitted to enrol, but her mother would not hear of such a thing. Juana did travel to Mexico City however, to live with wealthy relatives of her mother, in 1664.  

By her early teens, Juana attracted fame as a prodigy, and word of Juana reached the viceroy and vicereine of New Spain, Antonio Sebastian de Toledo and his wife Leonor Carreto. Brought before the court, Juana impressed the viceregal couple with her wit and intelligence, who admitted the girl into courtly life as a lady-in-waiting for Leonor. For the rest of her time at court, Jauna continued her studying, writing poems and musical pieces under commission for the viceroy and vicereine. Around 1665, the viceroy decided to test Juana’s knowledge before an assembly of scholars, astonished at Juana’s powers of knowledge and memory, and her ability to put together challenging intellectual arguments on religious or historical matters.

However, Juana could not stay at court forever. For a woman of her times and social standing, the choices in life were stark: domestic life as a wife and mother, or the monastic life of a nun. Juana chose the latter, knowing it would allow her time for books, writing and contemplation. The first order she entered, in August 1667, became too restrictive and so in February 1669, Juana joined the Convent of the Order of St Jerome, her home for the rest of her life. Four years later, and Antonio and Leonor returned to Spain, and for the following eight years an Archbishop, Friar Payo de Rivera, took up the position. Juana continued to write sonnets, epigrams, romances and carols, becoming well read in a diverse range of writers, including Descartes, Aquinas, Boethius, Kircher, Gassendi and Boccaccio, and the poets of the Golden Age of Spain, such as de Gongora and de Queveno.   

In 1680, Payo de Rivera stepped down, replaced by a new viceregal couple, Don Tomas Antonio de la Carda, known as the Marques de la Laguna, and his wife the Marquesa, Maria

Estatua de Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz.001 - Madrid.JPG
Luisa, Condesa de Parades. Juana formed a close friendship with the pair, particularly with Maria Luisa, and they encouraged Juana to write, for despite the more relaxed regime of the Hieronymite nuns of St Jerome, Juana’s works did not always meet with approval from the wider Catholic Church of New Spain. Juana often wrote of secular matters, of love, society, dreams, and the stars (one of Juana’s most prized possessions was a primitive telescope). For the time being though, Juana enjoyed aristocratic patronage, meaning the Church could do little to stop Juana from writing witty and satirical plays as The Trials of a Noble House (1683). Such a play would have annoyed Juana’s superior, the Archbishop of Mexico, Francisco Aguiar y Seijas, who disapproved of women in general, let alone fiercely intelligent young women with their own ideas of God and the spiritual life.

The eight years spent under the patronage of the Marques and Marquesa were the most productive of Juana’s life, and she barely stopped writing, when not performing her holy duties, the abbey’s accounting and teaching music to young girls. The Marquesa, like Juana, possessed beauty as well as intelligence, and Juana wrote of her in several decimas, forty-four line poems popular during the Baroque era. The Marquesa arranged for Jauna’s poetry to be published in Seville in 1689, under the title Inundacion Castalida. The close nature of Juana’s relationship with Maria Luisa has led some to wonder if only courtly love existed between the two. Even Shakespeare doesn't escape such speculation (Shakespeare addressed many of his most romantic sonnets to another man), so perhaps there existed a more amorous element to Juana and Maria Luisa’s friendship. Even if this is the case however, it is doubtful the circumstances of the time allowed the two women to act upon any such possible feelings.

Life began to worsen for Juana in 1688, with the Marques and Marquesa summoned by the royal court of Spain to return home, and Juana’s beloved mother dying of old age. On the face of it 1689 appears more successful, with Inundacion Castalida and two more plays, one secular (Love, the Greater Labyrinth) and one sacramental (The Divine Narcissus), but Juana was now more exposed to the disapproval of the Archbishop, who awaited the chance to censure this troublesome nun with her love of earthly concerns. When the chance came however, it was from an unexpected source.

The Bishop of Puebla, Manuel Fernández de Santa Cruz, had become friends with Juana some years beforehand and often visited the nun to discuss religious topics. Unknown to Juana however, the Bishop disliked the Archbishop, seeing him as an unpleasant and overbearing rival. In late 1690, The Bishop and Juana had talked of a sermon given in 1650 by the influential Portuguese Jesuit preacher, Father Antonio de Vieyra, on Christ’s love evidenced as being solely of love itself, in His washing the feet of His disciples. Although admiring de Vieyra’s intelligence and rhetoric, Juana believed such an act (a fineza) proved Christ’s love for humanity, rather than as an expression of a continual state of being. Knowing such a view would be seen as near-heresy by the traditionalist Archbishop, the Bishop grabbed the chance to provoke his rival.

Asking Juana to write her thoughts on Vieyra’s sermon, the Bishop had the resulting essay printed and published in November 1690 under the title Carta Atenagorica, without Juana’s knowledge. Juana’s writing, candid and unguarded in her argument against de Vieyra, infuriated the Archbishop, despite the brilliance and subtlety of her prose and her use of renowned theologians of the ancient world, such as Saint Augustine, in backing up her ideas. The Bishop sent a copy of Carta Atenagorica to St Jerome’s, along with a letter to Juana, written by himself but under the pseudonym of Sor Filotea de la Cruz. The letter asked for Juana to set aside the intellectual life of reason and concentrate on her relationship with God and Christ instead, as more befitting of a ‘fellow’ nun.

Juana knew this letter originated not from a nun and it is highly likely she realized the Bishop had betrayed their friendship. Juana’s reply came in the form of Respuesta a Sor Filotea, not published until 1700, but circulated privately in 1691. It is through the Reply that we know much of Juana’s biographical details, as she explored the nature of her passion for books and learning, and of God’s intentions for the life of a woman. Juana knew that for a nun, to declare a love of secular knowledge attracted danger; if nothing else, The Inquisition were active in the 1690s, forever in the background of Juana’s mental life. Nonetheless, Juana mounted an excellent defense of women’s educational rights and of the need for patriarchal society to allow women a wider and more active role in life.

Segundo volumen de las obras de Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz.jpg
But Juana’s perceived attack on Vieyra meant trouble, with any defense seen as further defiance on her part. Perhaps Juana knew this, putting all she could into her Reply, before the pressure brought to bear by her opponents to put down her pen became too great. When news reached Juana of a second volume of her works, published in Spain in 1692 again by her old friend the Marquesa, it brought little comfort to a woman ordered to sell all her scientific and musical instruments, and her beloved books; some estimates suggest Juana amassed upwards of four thousand volumes during her life, making her collection the largest in North America at the time.

Juana spent much of the following two years in confession and penitence for living an irreligious life in a religious community. No longer did she write, or compose music; God and the spiritual life must dominate her thoughts, so her confessor, Pedro de Arellano y Sosa, commanded. These times were difficult enough, but in 1694-95, floods and civil disorder beset Mexico City, bringing physical distress and mental turmoil to the order of St Jerome. An outbreak of the plague in early 1695 killed many of Juana’s sisters, to whom she devoted her care and energy. Inevitably, Juana herself contracted the plague and died on April 17th, 1695.

With much of Juauna’s works consigned to the flames during her penitence, all we have left is the three volumes published by the Marquesa; these include the poem First Dream, a philosophical work on the nature of the soul at night, and a single carol or villancico, entitled Madre, la de los Primores. The ‘complete works’ of Sor Juana are available as a Penguin Classic, Poems, Protest and a Dream, published in 1997, while Octavio Paz, winner of the 1990 Nobel Prize for Literature, authored a book, part biography, part meditation, on Sur Juana entitled Sor Juana, or the Traps of Faith, translated into English in 1989. The following year, the Argentine feminist writer and actor Maria Luisa Bemberg directed the film Yo, la peor de todas (I, the Worst of all Women), focussing on Juana’s later years, her relationship with the Marques and Marquesa and conflict with church authorities. The title comes from the name, written in blood, under which Juana signed one of her penitential documents.

Today, the village of Juana's birth now known as Nepantla de Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, renamed in her honor. Since 1993, Mexican female writers can compete for Premio Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, an annual prize presented to novelists writing in Spanish. 

The fact that Juana’s face appeared on a coin which became worthless due to the workings of a male-dominated world is an irony this intelligent and remarkable woman would have appreciated. The wonder is that Juana Inés de la Cruz may still be better known as the woman on a 200 Peso note, than as the pioneer of women’s literature in North America. 

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