Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz

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Date: 1997
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Biography
Length: 1,021 words

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About this Person
Born: November 12, 1648? in San Miguel de Nepantla, Mexico
Died: April 17, 1695 in Mexico City, Mexico
Nationality: Mexican
Occupation: Writer
Other Names: Asbaje, Juana Inés Ramirez de; Asbaje, Juana de; Asbaje y Ramírez de Santillana, Juana Inés de; Asuaje, Juana Ramirez de; Asbaje, Juana Ramirez de
Updated:Jan. 1, 1997
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Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, or the "tenth muse" of Mexico, was renowned during her lifetime for her intellect, wit, and literary skill. In an age when few women could read, Juana's capacity to undermine the superiority of respected male scholars, to write poetry and plays fit for royalty, and to have her works published in Spain, made her a celebrity. While Juana was frequently praised and admired, friends and enemies alike attempted to restrain her creativity and outspokenness.

Just as she elicited both praise and censure in the seventeenth century, Juana incites debate in the twentieth. Was she a Mexican poet, a Spanish one, or, as Mexican Nobel prize winner Octavio Paz asserts in Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz; or, the Traps of Faith, "a universal poet"? Does she deserve the title "First Feminist of the New World"? Finally, why did she eschew life among the elites of New Spanish society for that of a nun? Offering an explanation for this latter question, Dorothy Schons provides some sound advice in Feminist Perspectives on Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz: instead of examining Juana's life and motives with the "eyes of the present," we must view it "with the eyes of the past," and "study the social conditions of her time."

Sor Juana (Juana Ramírez de Asbaje) was born in San Miguel de Nepantla, New Spain, in November 1648 (some sources say 1651). Her parents were never married, and she grew up in the family home of her mother. There, as Paz explains, she witnessed the strength and relative independence of the women in her mother's family, and found a haven in her grandfather's library. Juana learned to read when she was just three years old, and to write by the time she was six; when she failed to progress in her Latin studies, she punished herself by cutting off her hair.

Juana was sent to Mexico City when she was ten years old, and she was later invited to live at the viceregal court. Although she was poor and illegitimate, the brilliant, beautiful young adolescent was a popular figure in high society, and she enjoyed the favor of powerful patrons. By the time Juana was fifteen, according to Schons, she "had already established a reputation as the most learned woman in Mexico."

In 1667, when she was just sixteen years old, Juana decided to leave the court and enter a convent (first that of the Discalced Carmelites and finally San Jeronimo). Rejecting alternative explanations for Juana's decision to become a nun, Schons demonstrates that Juana sought "the seclusion of a cloister" to indulge "her first love"--her books. According to Schons, as a young woman of New Spain, Juana's only options were to become a wife, a prostitute, or a nun--and the latter occupation was the only one which would afford her security and time to devote to her studies and writing.

When she was not performing her duties as a nun, Juana spent much time in her convent room, which was filled with books and scientific instruments. While she wrote works for the New Spanish officials and socialites who often visited her, these were rooted in the Spanish literary tradition. As Gerard Flynn relates in Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, she wrote "sacramental plays and...comedies" in the "school of Calderón," poetry inspired by the "sonnets and liras" of the Spanish golden-age, and prose "concerned with the ecclesiastical society she lived in...a mirror reflection of society in Spain."

Like some of the Spanish poets and playwrights she admired, Juana wrote the parts for both her male and female characters in the first person. As Ester Gimbernat de González argues in Feminist Perspectives, this allowed Juana to control "discourse through the man's voice," to assume "a certain superiority," and to exercise "a new power." In addition, as Georgina Sabat-Rivers explains in Feminist Perspectives, Juana "proclaimed her neuter status as a virgin, free from the domination of any man." Sabat-Rivers points out that, like Calderón, Juana also asserted the right of people to think and love regardless of gender; she wrote a poem (number 403) for her beloved benefactor, the Countess de Paredes, which Sabat-Rivers translates in part: "Neither being a woman nor being far away keeps me from loving you, for, as you know, souls are ignorant of distance and of gender."

The debate about Juana's feminism continues. In Paz's perspective, her "satire of men and her defense of women cease to be opinion" and become "moral, even visceral, reaction to lived experiences" when we consider the women and men she knew as a child. Sabat-Rivers, on the other hand, asserts that what "really mattered to [Juana] was to give to the feminine sex a literary and intellectual status equal to that of men, as can be seen explicitly or implicitly throughout her works." While Sabat-Rivers contributes a "feminist rereading" of Juana's "beloved" and most famous poem, Sueño (Dream), a more explicit example of Juana's independence of action and thought is found in her Reply to Sor Filotea. In this famous 1690 letter, Juana risked the notice of the Spanish Inquisition by challenging the wisdom and authority of an official who wanted her to spend less time thinking and writing and more time quietly at prayer.

Juana continued her work writing and preparing manuscripts for publication in Spain until 1693, when, according to Schons, floods, famine, and disease led Juana to believe her critics; she began to see her intellectual activity as sinful, part of the reason why disaster had descended upon Mexico. It was a that point that, as Asunción Lavrin remarks in Feminist Perspectives, the "`odel nun' overpowered the exceptional genius." Juana renounced her studies, sold all of her books, gave the money to the poor, and devoted herself to her prayers, duties, and nursing the sick. In the words of Paz, she "scourged her body, humbled her intelligence, and renounced the gift that was most her own: the word." Soon afterwards, on 17 April 1665, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz fell ill during an epidemic and died.



Flynn, Gerard. Sor Juana Inés De La Cruz. New York: Twayne, 1971.

González, Ester Gimbernat de. "Speaking Through the Voices of Love: Interpretation as Emancipation," in Feminist Perspectives on Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, edited by Stephanie Merrim. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1991: 162-176.

Lavrin, Asunción. "Unlike Sor Juana?," in Feminist Perspectives on Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, edited by Stephanie Merrim. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1991: 61-85.

Paz, Octavio. Sor Juana: or, The Traps of Faith, translated by Margaret Sayers Peden. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1988.

Sabat-Rivers, Georgina. "A Feminist Rereading of Sor Juana's Dream," in Feminist Perspectives on Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, edited by Stephanie Merrim. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1991: 142-161.

Schons, Dorothy, "Some Obscure Points in the Life of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz," in Feminist Perspectives on Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, edited by Stephanie Merrim. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1991: 38-60.

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Gale Document Number: GALE|K1634000151