Juana Inés: A Voice from the Cloister

portrait of Juana InesThe confession was signed in her own blood, “Juana Inés de la Cruz, the worst of all.” They had finally gotten to her, those somber fellows, the priests. They had agreed amongst themselves to let her know, in no uncertain terms, that she was wrong in choosing the world instead of the religious life she was expected to lead. They had said that all she had loved in life: poetry, music, science, philosophy and astronomy was bold, improper and profane of her, for how dare a woman, much less a nun, peek inside those doors? How dare she refute the writings of a well-respected theologian! Her thoughts, in a storm of self-castigation cried, all that studying, all that curiosity for what? Pride? Vanity? They are right… those priests, she reluctantly admitted. They say my arrogance displeases the Lord. From childhood she had constantly sought the means to fulfill her curiosity, to quench her thirst for knowledge, and she became successful enough to grow proud of her talents and accomplishments. But no more! The holy fathers had raised her self-doubt enough for her to be conflicted.

Juana’s birthplace, the village of San Miguel Nepantla, sits near the slopes of the volcanoes Popocatépetl and Iztaccíuatl. To the north-west, a group of seven more volcanoes sit in wait until their turn to burst comes in glorious fireworks and dancing earth. It is for that reason, its ancient inhabitants had named their village “Nepantla”, meaning “in the midst of.” In the midst of volcanoes comes to mind. How appropriate is the name Nepantla in predicting how its most illustrious native was destined to be born, to live, and to die: surrounded by danger, in the midst of volcanoes. On November 12, 1648, Juana Inés de Asbaje y Ramírez de Santillana was welcomed to this world in her grandfather’s hacienda, one of three illegitimate daughters of Isabel Santillana, a Mexican native of Spanish parentage, and Pedro Manuel de Asbaje, a Spanish military captain who left them to fend for themselves. Fortunately, her maternal grandfather had the means to give a comfortable life to his daughter Isabel and her three little girls.

One morning, when she was about three years old, Juana Inés secretly began to follow her older sister to the school for girls in the neighborhood. Eventually, she convinced the teacher to let her stay for reading lessons. The teacher agreed and soon Juana was able to explore her grandfather’s private library. With ease she learned Nahuátl, the language of the Aztecs, spoken by the servants and their children who lived and worked in the hacienda. Juana Inés, who by age eight had won a poetry contest, continued educating herself with incredible discipline for someone so young. When she heard a friend in school say that cheese renders one dull-witted, she resolved that there would be no more cheese in her diet. For her self-taught grammar lessons, she devised a method by which she would cut off two or three inches of her hair if she did not learn her lesson as she expected. After all, she thought, why should a head be pretty on the outside if it is empty inside? She begged her mother to let her dress as a man so that she could study at the university in Mexico City. Since this request was vehemently denied, she continued studying from her refuge, her grandfather’s library. In time, seeing how little Juana struggled to learn, Isabel realized how desperately her daughter needed to open her wings.

portrait of young Juana InesThat opportunity came to pass when, a few years later, Juana was sent by her mother to live with Juana’s wealthy aunt and uncle in Mexico City, a place that would enable her to expand her horizons. While living with her aunt and uncle, Juana Inés resumed her writing, acquired books and taught herself Latin, which she mastered in only twenty lessons. So impressed was her uncle by her brilliance that he introduced her to the viceregal court. Soon enough everyone who met her came to admire her beauty and intelligence. The wife of the viceroy, Leonor Carreto, Marquesa de Mancera, became fond of her the minute she met the brilliant girl, and came to love her so much that she had Juana Inés move to the palace as her handmaiden and protégée, dubbing her “my most beloved”. The viceroy, amazed by her intelligence, decided to invite forty luminaries of erudition (most of them clerics) such as theologians, scientists, historians, mathematicians, and jurists to pose any questions of their choice to Juana Inés. The viceroy could not believe how limitless this adolescent’s knowledge seemed to be. He beheld her calm demeanor as she answered each and every question thrown at her by these scholarly men. To the viceroy, Juana Inés behaved like a royal galleon fending off little canoes, and he concluded that such a brilliant young woman deserved to have her portrait commissioned in triumphant celebration of her success.

As it always happens with young women blessed with both intelligence and beauty, Juana Inés was besieged by a myriad of suitors who constantly hassled her with marriage proposals. This she abhorred. Why should she become some man’s property? Why should she bow down to the demands of this unenlightened, patriarchal society? Was not marriage the enemy of every free-minded woman, a smothering gag, a tight blindfold? There was still so much to learn, to explore, to create. For a long time, her confessor, Antonio Núñez de Miranda, had tried to persuade her to take the veils which, as he insisted, was the best choice for a brilliant woman of letters such as herself. Behind the bars of the cloisters, he claimed, she would be able to read, write and study to her heart’s content, with no interruptions and the blessings of the Holy Church. Trusting the words of her confessor, Juana Inés decided to join the order of the Discalced Carmelite nuns at the cloister of San José. But there was no time for anything but hard work at this convent, due to the strict discipline imposed by the order. Worse still were the living conditions at the convent, a dank, vermin-infested, decaying structure. Juana was very frail. Soon enough she contracted typhus, thanks to the plague of fleas infesting every corner of her living quarters. When the nuns discovered what was ailing her, they hastily sent her home. Freed at last from that nightmare, Juana Inés’ health improved. For three months she was able to rest at her aunt’s and uncle’s home and read her beloved books from the wall-to-wall bookcase in her bedroom.

Juana Ines at her studyOnce she felt well enough, she chose to join the Hieronymite order at the cloister of Santa Paula in Mexico City. Life was hugely different here. She occupied a two-story apartment where, overtime, she established her study area with a copious library, musical and scientific instruments and, most important of all, plenty of writing material. A few months after she arrived at Santa Paula, she took the religious name Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. Juana Inés became the cloister’s accountant, archivist and treasurer. She also taught music and drama to the girls in the convent’s school. Whenever the powers that be prevented her from using her treasured library, she would get busy in the kitchen, concocting quite a few recipes which, eventually, were compiled to become a cookbook. Cooking let her mind set off like a bird taking flight to unexplored heights. Aristotle would have been a far better writer, she mused, had he known how to cook. Since she was already famous for her talents, wit, and beauty when she joined the convent, and also since she enjoyed the friendship and protection of the new viceregal couple, she received special dispensations such as the permission to read, write, study, keep servants and receive visitors. Her old illustrious friends from the court, especially the new vicereine, María Luisa Manrique de Lara, Countess of Paredes, who became her best friend and protectress, would visit her often and commission her to write something special for them, such as poems or songs or plays. And write she did. This would be the most productive stage in Juana’s life. She would write music, dissertations, sacred and profane poems, Christmas carols and comedies, as well as moral, religious and satiric lyrics.

Among her old friends from the court, Juana Inés enjoyed the company of Manuel Fernández de Santa Cruz, Bishop of Puebla, a learned man, with whom she would have discussions on theology and philosophy. During one of those discussions, he instructed Sor Juana to write a critique of a sermon by Antonio Vieira, a Portuguese Jesuit preacher. The bishop was really using Juana Inés to infuriate his rival, the Archbishop of Mexico, Francisco de Aguiar y Seijas, who was partial to Vieira and whose misogyny was so extreme that not only did he disdain women, but he would also look away when he addressed them. Naturally, Juana Inés was hesitant, but Bishop Manuel assured her that her critique would not be printed. But, indifferent to the catastrophe that he knew would befall Sor Juana, he went ahead and published her critique without her permission. As expected, there was an uproar. Clerics high and low and from all corners were indignant. Her own long-time confessor Antonio Núñez de Miranda broke all ties with her. The nuns of her cloister of Santa Paula, jealous of all her virtues, attacked her by insulting her and spreading venomous gossip throughout the region. To her consternation, the misogynistic Archbishop of Mexico exploded louder than the mighty Popocatépetl. How dare this woman, who knows nothing of theology, contradict the venerated Father Vieira!

To add insult to injury, the “good” Bishop of Puebla added a letter, addressed to Sor Juana, as an introduction to her now published critique. Hiding behind the name Sor Filotea de la Cruz, he admonished Juana Inés to abandon the world of letters and embrace religion in full. Sor Juana, hurt and angry, now realized that her friend the bishop had manipulated her in the most duplicitous manner for his own selfish purposes. Juana Inés, knowing full well who Sor Filotea really was, resolved that he deserved an answer. It would take her four months to compose the letter that is now known as La Respuesta (The Answer to Sor Filotea de la Cruz). Quite lengthy, this missive, in which she defends the intellectual rights of women, has been hailed by many to be the first feminist manifesto. Wisely using quotations from revered books and sages to get her point across, she humbly addresses Sor Filotea, wishing to thank her for her letter, and “…to express my appreciation … for having my scribblings printed…” Further on she asks, “…for who was it who had my letter printed unbeknownst to me?… a particular way to shame and confound me…” To elucidate the origins of her studious character, Sor Juana then relates her life story, in which she defines how, from childhood, she had always held knowledge above everything else and in consequence, as an adult, she continued to pursue her scholarly activities as she was born to do. She cites the names of intellectual women throughout history, stressing that, since there is evidence that brilliant women have been created, then women have been muted, not by the designs of God, but for the convenience of men, who, regardless of their intellect, are given the right to pursue further education.

But it did not matter what she wrote in her powerful response. The priests were outraged. They wanted their pound of flesh. This mere nun had eclipsed the smug princes of the church and they could not tolerate that from a woman. They wasted no time in forcing her to abjure, ordering her to give up her beloved books, as well as her musical and scientific instruments. If she wanted to remain in the bosom of the church, they insisted she must not write or read anything but religious texts; she must abstain from her sinful secular enjoyments, and she must be humble and obedient — this is the penance that would cleanse her soul. Such a misogynist conspiracy was conceived by the envious in order to humiliate and alienate this exceptional woman. To her further misfortune, her protectors, the viceregal couple, had been ordered by the king to return to Spain. Now, surrounded by enemies, Juana Inés stood alone in the midst of volcanoes. She became despondent, fearful, perhaps racked with guilt. They are right… those priests. Nothing matters anymore. As an act of contrition, Juana Inés was driven to write a confession which she signed with her own blood: Juana Inés de La Cruz, la peor. The priests had finally succeeded in breaking her spirit. Her voice that had sung in many tongues was silenced, and silenced she remained for two more years until she died, infected by the plague at age forty-six while taking care of her ailing convent sisters.

But before she died, Juana Inés was able to enjoy the fruit of her labors, thanks to the vicereine who, fearing the fires of the Inquisition, had taken Sor Juana’s original manuscripts with her on her journey back to Spain, to be published there. Soon she was read and admired in every country where Spanish and Portuguese were spoken. Soon she discovered she was hailed as the Mexican Phoenix. She was, indeed, the Mexican Phoenix, and as such she would rise from the abyss into which she had been thrown.

Juana Ines on banknoteToday, Juana Inés de Asbaje y Ramírez de Santillana is celebrated all over the world as not only the Mexican Phoenix, but also as the Tenth Muse, defender of women’s right to study, first important poet and feminist of Latin America. Scholars continue to research all aspects of her life, always striving to separate myths from facts. Countless books have been written about Juana Inés, such as the exhaustive biography by Octavio Paz titled Sor Juana: Or the Traps of Faith, to name one of many. The cloister where she lived for twenty-seven years is now La Universidad del Claustro de Sor Juana. San José Nepantla has been renamed Nepantla de Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. Her image is stamped on Mexico’s 20 pesos note. Her works, currently translated into many languages, are studied and discussed among scholars and enthusiasts alike. Those enthusiasts, scholarly or not, are dubbed “sorjuanistas.” I would like to consider myself one of them.

“Who has forbidden women to engage in private and individual studies? Have they not a rational soul as men do? … I have this inclination to study and if it is evil I am not the one who formed me thus — I was born with it and with it I shall die.”

—Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, from La Respuesta a Sor Filotea de la Cruz


About the author

Marie Zurenda: Marie Zurenda has a B.A. in psychology. She is also an artist and poet who is not quite satisfied with her work. Married with two daughters and five grandchildren, she has been working with a European airline for the past 15 years. Happiest is she when spending time reading in her quite extensive library and when tending her lush tropical garden. She prefers to observe nature through the eyes of a child. Once a week, as often as she can spare it, she volunteers at her local old and antique bookstore, Dunbar Old Books, where she is apt to purchase a volume or two for her ever-growing collection.


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