In 1651, Juana Inés de Asbaje y Ramírez de Santillana was born in San Miguel de Nepantla. Juana learned to read and write at the age of three, and unable to handle her precocious daughter, Juana’s mother sent her to live with well-to-do relatives in Mexico City. Her talents in literature and music, as well as her beauty caught the attention of the Spanish Vice-regal court, and Juana was invited to be the maid-in-waiting to the Viceroy’s wife. Juana impressed the court and professors with her knowledge, her debating skills.
In XVII century Mexico the Inquisition was powerful and much-feared. There were only three paths open to a lady: become a wife, become a courtesan, or become a nun.
Because she was illegitimate, she was deemed unmarriageable. Nonetheless she was devout, so the courtesan role would not fit. That left only the third option – and indeed, she spent 26 of her 44 years as a nun. On the day of her final vows, she took the name, Juana Ines de la Cruz.
Her order of contemplative sisters lived at the Convent of San Geronimo, less than a kilometer from Mexico City’s Zocalo – the Main Square. She constantly defied the authority of the Catholic Church by writing – poems, prose, plays, essays and letters – that today are recognized as the most brilliant, but subversive literary works of the colonial period. As a woman (and a nun at that) she was not supposed to write at all). She died in the convent in 1695.
368 years after Sor Juana’s death, the cloister is now a liberal arts university that bears her name – Universidad del Claustro de Sor Juana. I think she would be pleased to know that her former prison is now a place of enlightenment and learning.
Jorge and I visited the university’s on-site museum that features several portraits and sculptures of – La Musa – The Muse. Her resting place, her cell, confessional, and even her blue-tiled bathtub can be viewed. A section of the convent that sunk over the centuries has been excavated and covered with thick acrylic panels, so visitors can tiptoe over top of the foundation of the former kitchen and annexed patio. Later, as we strolled along the worn garden pathways and under the stone arches, I tried to imagine what it would have been like, to be an exceptionally intelligent woman, forced to conform to the laws of ignorant, misogynist clerics.
Sor Juana was Latin America’s first feminist, and she quickly shot down the theological dogma and cultural constraints of the Spanish colonial society. At the time, the secular and religious leaders proclaimed women to be intellectually inferior. Sor Juana insisted that she (and in fact all women) had a God-given, intellectual right to read, study, write, publish, and teach.
In her convent cell, Sor Juana had as much liberty as the times would allow. The space was large enough to house a telescope, thousands of books, scientific and musical instruments. After compliance with her strict religious observances, she would escape to her sanctuary to study, and of course, write—poetry, plays, romances, dramas, letters, and songs.
Much to the dismay of her clerical critics, Sor Juana’s work was smuggled out of the convent and printed. She became extremely popular in New Spain and even Spain itself. Fear, manifested by envy and resentment spurred the Archbishop to launch a campaign that he hoped would break her spirit. Self-flagellation, penance, and mortification of the flesh became daily requirements. She was forced her to renew her vows and then sign the document with her own blood. After that, the Archbishop removed her books and writing tools:
The plague of 1695 claimed Sor Juana’s life, but her work lives on.
In a thoughtful mood, Jorge and I joined our author friends, Michael Schussler and CM Mayo for lunch at the Zèfiro Restaurant. We enjoyed a delightful meal and of course we talked about Sor Juana and her legacy. Thanks to her and others like her, we have the freedoms we have today.
Authors’ and journalists’ rights of expression are constantly challenged and questioned by society, and we auto-censor as well. If I had even 1% of Sor Juana’s bravery and conviction, my writing would be riskier. Maybe this is one of the changes coming into my life?