Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz

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Background: New Spain in the 17th Century

Map of Tenochtitlan, 1524. When Cortes' second letter to the emperor Charles V was published, this map (created by an anonymous European draftsman) accompanied Cortes' description of the Aztec capital city. (Click for larger image)

The Mexican colony of New Spain was one of the most important possessions of the Spanish Empire, rivalled only by its holdings in Peru. Its territory was largely agricultural, with some important mining regions in the north. The silver produced in these mines was the colony's largest international export, with ships traveling frequently between Mexico and Spain (if they weren't raided by pirates first!). New Spain was ruled by a viceroy, appointed by the Spanish king and given the power to enact royal policy in his name. Its economic, political, and intellectual heart was Mexico City (formerly Tenochtitlán), which by Sor Juana's time had evolved into a wealthy and populous town containing the colony's archbishropic, an appellate court, a university, and many churches, plazas, and administrative buildings charged with organizing and ruling over the colony.[1]

Map of Tlalteco and Tenochtitlan. Post-Conquest. This is a rare example of an indigenous-made map of the Valley of Mexico. It shows the influence of European city maps, which the artist would have likely seen in Mexico City. (Click for larger image)

By the mid-seventeenth century, the population of New Spain was a unique mix of Spanish, indigenous American, and African. The indigenous portion of the population was the largest, whereas Spaniards migrating from Europe formed only a small, privileged segment at the very top of the social pyramid. Social hierarchy was organized based around the concept of limpieza de sange, or purity of blood. Spaniards and their descendants were in the highest positions of society, owning most of the land and in charge of government, the Church, and trade. Those people of Spanish descent but born in the Americas were known as criollos. These generally could depend on having the same rights and privileges as the peninsular Spaniards, with certain exceptions: the Viceroy appointed by the king was always a European Spaniard, never an American-born criollo. Over the course of several generations the criollos would slowly begin to acquire an independent sense of identity despite their European roots: by the mid-seventeenth century such consciousness was probably just beginning to emerge. Below the criollos were the castas, the various peoples of mixed blood   mestizos (Spanish + indigenous), mulatos (Spanish + African) and others: there existed a complex hierarchy with terms for every possible combination of Spanish, African, and indigenous.  who formed the bulk of the working masses in the colony's urban areas. While early on in the history of the colony Spaniards had intermarried with the indigenous nobility in order to form strategic alliances, by the seventeenth-century Spaniards and criollos tended to keep their distance from even the elite members of the indigenous population. At the very bottom of the social ladder were African slaves and the large mass of non-noble indigenous Americans, who performed most of the agricultural labor in the countryside. Indigenous communities had a separate administration adapted from the Spanish model, possessed their own governors, and had a certain degree of autonomy in making local decisions. These populations were kept under close supervision by the Church, whose members frequently expressed the fear that their religious assimilation was far from complete. Nevertheless, the indigenous population adhered largely to the Catholicism imposed on them by the Spanish, participating at least in its formal public rituals.[2]


Painting by Andres de Islas, Mexico, 18th century.

Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (1648-1695) was an accomplished poet, dramatist, and self-taught scholar of New Spain. Born as Juana de Asbaje y Ramírez de Santillana in 1648  Some historians list her birthdate as 1651; there is no scholarly consensus. , she was an illegitimate daughter in a poor criollo family and had little access to formal education. Nevertheless, she managed to teach herself to read and write in Latin as well as Spanish at an early age. Her intelligence brought her to the attention of the Viceroy of New Spain, and at the age of sixteen Juana became a lady-in-waiting to the Viceroy's wife, the Marquesa de Mancera. The Marquesa would become one of Juana's most important patrons.[3]

In 1667, Juana left her life at court to enter the Convent of the Discalced Carmelites. She moved two years later to enter the (more lenient) Order of St. Jerome, where she took her vows and assumed the name Sor [Sister] Juana Inés de la Cruz. She remained a nun at the Order of St. Jerome until her death in 1695. Scholars continue to speculate on exactly why Sor Juana chose to retire from public life at court, where she was widely admired and where she could move in the same circles as the most influential and important figures in the colony.[4] Sor Juana herself wrote, of this period in her life, that "given the total antipathy I felt for marriage, I deemed convent life the least unsuitable and the most honorable I could elect if I were to insure my salvation."[5] It seems that life as a nun was the best option Sor Juana had in order to continue her studies. Many scholars and biographers have depicted her as having a complex, ambiguous relationship with the Church that harbored her. In the opinion of Irving Leonard, for example, "The love and kindliness implicit in the Church's paternalism claimed her gratitude and, of course, her vows compelled obedience to it. Yet the persistent longing for a freer expression of her intuition and for another and more open avenue to truth and to God prevented complete reciprocation and submission in her heart." [6] Nevertheless, for two decades in the convent Sor Juana was able both to carry out her duties to her religious community and enjoy a life of great intellectual and literary productivity.

The Response to Sor Filotea and trouble with the Church

In 1690, however, Sor Juana inadvertently wandered into theological controversy. It was in that year that she wrote a refutation of a sermon preached in Lisbon by the Jesuit Antonio de Vieyra. She meant the refutation to be a private document solely for the eyes of friends. Yet somehow the letter came into the hands of the Bishop of Puebla, Manuel Fernandez de Santa Cruz, who published it without her permission, together with a letter of his own as a preface. Rather than reveal his own name, he signed the letter as "Sor Filotea de la Cruz." The letter concedes that a woman may pursue literary learning, since "the Apostle does not criticize letters as long as they do not lead a woman from a state of obedience," but nevertheless voices a certain disapproval for Sor Juana's own secular writings and her love of secular literature, advising her to better spend her time "by reading occasionally in the Book of Jesus Christ. ... You have spent much time in the study of philosophers and poets; now it would be well for you to better your occupation and improve the quality of the books."[7]

Rather than write a retraction, Sor Juana wrote a refutation to "Sor Filotea" in 1691, explaining her own inclination towards letters and learning and defending the right of women to cultivate such pursuits. Her Response to Sor Filotea tells us much of what we know of her early years. Sor Juana relates how her desire for learning has permeated her entire life, describes her challenging process of self-education, and tells us also of the opposition she faced from those who wanted her to stop her studies. This leads her to the question of whether women ought to be engaged in the study of letters at all. She cites examples of learned women, drawing from pagan antiquity, Jewish history, and the history of the Church itself (which, after all, had such learned women as Saint Catherine of Egypt, Saint Gertrude, Saint Paula, Saint Theresa of Avila, and others). Sor Juana concedes that women should not preach in public, but nonetheless argues that women with the capacity ought to be given the chance to study in private. As for her own secular writings and poems, Sor Juana defends them as perfectly decent, honest pursuits and not in conflict with the law of the Church. Justifying both secular learning (as a necessary stepping stone to more sacred subjects) and the education of women, Sor Juana's Response is a remarkable text: many scholars consider it "a defense of the rights of women, a memorable document in the history of feminism." [8]

In 1995, María Luisa Bemberg wrote and directed a film based on the life of Sor Juana, entitled Yo, la peor de todas [I, the worst of all]. Below is a scene from the film depicting the "Sor Filotea" conflict, and Sor Juana's impassioned desire to defend herself:

Final years

We have very little documentary evidence as to what happened to Sor Juana in the years following the publication of the Response. All we know is that her letter caused dissent within the Church (with some defending Sor Juana and some admonishing her), and that the years 1692-1695 were difficult ones for all of Mexico. Mexico City was in the grip of famine, violent riots had broken out amongst the populace in response, and the civil government was able to restore order only after months of public whippings and hangings. Plague broke out in Mexico towards the end of 1692. Death and disease were rampant, and general opinion amongst the populace was that such afflictions were a punishment for sin and irreligiosity. Finally, in 1693, we know that Sor Juana chose to sell off all her books for relief of the poor and made a total renunciation of the world, signing a renewal of her vows in her own blood. When an epidemic struck her convent, Sor Juana spent her time nursing the sick, and eventually died of the plague herself in 1695.[9]

El Divino Narciso

Sor Juana wrote El Divino Narciso [The Divine Narcissus] around 1688, a few years before the "Sor Filotea" incident. It begins with a loa allegorizing the first encounter between the Aztecs and the Spaniards. We do not know if the play was ever performed, but we do know that it was intended to be put on in Madrid, before a Spanish audience rather than a colonial one. In the loa, the figures Zeal (dressed as a conquistador) and Religion (dressed as a Spanish lady) debate the nature of the true religion with Occident and America, costumed as an Aztec prince and princess. You can listen to an audio recording of verses 98-129 of the loa in the original Spanish here:

¡Y en pompa festiva,
celebrad al gran Dios de las Semillas!

And celebrate in festive pomp
the great God of the Seeds!

(Llegan el CELO y la RELIGIÓN.)

(Zeal and Religion cross the stage.)

Occidente poderoso,
América bella y rica,
que vivís tan miserables
entre las riquezas mismas:
dejad el culto profano
a que el Demonio os incita.
¡Abrid los ojos! Seguid
la verdadera Doctrina
que mi amor os persüade.

Great Occident, most powerful;
America, so beautiful
and rich; you live in poverty
amid the treasures of your land.
Abandon this irreverent cult
with which the demon has waylaid you.
Open your eyes! Follow the path
that leads straightforwardly to truth,
to which my love yearns to persuade you.

¿Qué gentes no conocidas
son éstas que miro, ¡Cielos!,
que así de mis alegrías
quieren impedir el curso?

Who are these unknown people, so
intrusive in my sight, who dare
to stop us in our ecstasy?
Heaven forbid such infamy!

¿Qué Naciones nunca vistas
quieren oponerse al fuero
de mi potestad antigua?

Who are these nations, never seen,
that wish, by force, to pit themselves
against my ancient power supreme?

¡Oh tú, extranjera Belleza;
¡oh tú, Mujer peregrina!
Díme quién eres, que vienes
a perturbar mis delicias.

Oh, you alien beauty fair;
oh, pilgrim woman from afar,
who comes to interrupt my prayer
please speak and tell me who you are.

Soy la Religión Cristiana,
que intento que tus Provincias
se reduzcan a mi culto.

Christian Religion is my name,
and I intend that all this realm
will make obeisance unto me.

¡Buen empeño solicitas!

An impossible concession!

¡Buena locura pretendes!

Yours is but a mad obsession!

¡Buen imposible maquinas!

You will meet with swift repression.

Sin duda es loca; ¡dejadla,
y nuestros cultos prosigan!

Pay no attention; she is mad!
Let us go on with our procession.

¡Y en pompa festiva,
celebrad al gran Dios de las Semillas!

MUSIC AND ALL [Aztecs on stage]
And celebrate in festive pomp,
the great God of the Seeds!


  1. Asunción Lavrin, "Seventeenth-Century New Spain: a Historical Overview," in Emilie L. Bergmann and Stacey Schlau (eds), Approaches to Teaching the Works of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, (New York: Modern Language Association of America, 2007) 28-29
  2. Lavrin 29-31
  3. Gerard Flynn, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, (New York: Twain Publishers, 1971) 14-15
  4. For an overview of the scholarly speculation, see Dorothy Schons, "Some Obscure Points in the Life of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz," in Stephanie Merrim (ed), Feminist Perspectives on Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz 38-60.
  5. from the Response to Sor Filotea, quoted in Schons 45
  6. Baroque Times in Old Mexico p. 188, quoted in Patricia A. Peters, "Introduction," The Divine Narcissus (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1998) xxi
  7. Octavio Paz, Sor Juana, or the Traps of Faith, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988) 396
  8. Schons 52
  9. Schons 54-57

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