I’m taking August to celebrate a woman whom I can say that I have never heard of before, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. This woman was so far ahead of her time, it’s unreal. I enjoyed reading her poetry and prose so much, it’s inspiring me to learn Spanish so I can read this in the original Spanish!
Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz was a 17th-century nun, self-taught scholar and acclaimed writer of the Latin American colonial period and the Hispanic Baroque. She was also a staunch advocate for women’s rights.
Born circa November 12, 1651, in San Miguel Nepantla, Tepetlixpa, Mexico, Juana Inés de la Cruz’s intelligence and scholarship became known throughout the country during her teen years. She began her life as a nun in 1667 so that she could study at will. After taking her vows, Sor Juana read tirelessly and wrote plays and poetry, often challenging societal values and becoming an early proponent of women’s rights. Sor Juana is heralded for her Respuesta a Sor Filotea, which defends women’s rights to educational access, and is credited as the first published feminist of the New World. She died in Mexico in 1695.
Juana Inés de la Cruz was born out of wedlock in San Miguel Nepantla, Tepetlixpa—now called Nepantla de Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz in her honor—near Mexico City, circa November 12, 1651, when Mexico was still a Spanish territory.
In 1667, owing to her desire “to have no fixed occupation which might curtail my freedom to study,” Sor Juana began her life as a nun. She moved in 1669 to the Convent of San Geronimo (St. Jerome) in Mexico City, where she remained cloistered for the rest of her life.
Juana had plenty of time to study and write in the convent, and she amassed a large library. She also gained the patronage of the viceroy and vicereine of New Spain, and they supported her and had her works published in Spain.
Sor Juana’s enduring importance and literary success are partly attributable to her mastery of the full range of poetic forms and themes of the Spanish Golden Age, and her writings display inventiveness, wit and a wide range of knowledge. Juana employed all of the poetic models of her day, including sonnets and romances, and she drew on wide-ranging—secular and nonsecular—sources. Unlimited by genre, she also wrote dramatic, comedic and scholarly works—especially unusual for a nun.
Sor Juana’s most important plays include brave and clever women, and her famous poem, “Hombres necios” (“Foolish Men”), accuses men of behaving illogically by criticizing women. Her most significant poem, “Primero sueño” (“First Dream”), published in 1692, is at once personal and universal, recounting the soul’s quest for knowledge.
Defending Women’s Rights
With Sor Juana’s growing renown, however, came disapproval from the church: In November 1690, the bishop of Puebla published (under the pseudonym of a nun) without her consent Sor Juana’s critique of a 40-year-old sermon by a Portuguese Jesuit preacher, and admonished Sor Juana to focus on religious studies instead of secular studies.
Sor Juana responded with stunning self-defense. She defended the right of all women to attain knowledge and famously wrote (echoing a poet and a Catholic saint), “One can perfectly well philosophize while cooking supper,” justifying her study of secular topics as necessary to understanding theology.
Death and Legacy
Sor Juana died in Mexico City, Mexico, on April 17, 1695.
Today, Sor Juana stands as a national icon of Mexican identity, and her image appears on Mexican currency. She came to new prominence in the late 20th century with the rise of feminism and women’s writing, officially becoming credited as the first published feminist of the New World.
So check out this here poem to start us off. Please enjoy as usual.
“I only like two kinds of men, domestic and imported.” -Mae West
by Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz
My lady, I must implore
forgiveness for keeping still,
if what I meant as tribute
ran contrary to your will.
Please do not reproach me
if the course I have maintained
in the eagerness of my love
left my silence unexplained.
I love you with so much passion,
neither rudeness nor neglect
can explain why I tied my tongue,
yet left my heart unchecked.
The matter to me was simple:
love for you was so strong,
I could see you in my soul
and talk to you all day long.
With this idea in mind,
I lived in utter delight,
pretending my subterfuge
found favor in your sight.
In this strange, ingenious fashion,
I allowed the hope to be mine
that I still might see as human
what I really conceived as divine.
Oh, how mad I became
in my blissful love of you,
for even though feigned, your favor
made all my madness seem true!
How unwisely my ardent love,
which your glorious sun inflamed,
sought to feed upon your brightness,
though the risk of your fire was plain!
Forgive me if, thus emboldened,
I made bold with that sacred fire:
there’s no sanctuary secure
when thought’s transgressions conspire.
Thus it was I kept indulging
these foolhardy hopes of mine,
enjoying within myself
a happiness sublime.
But now, at your solemn bidding,
this silence I herewith suspend,
for your summons unlocks in me
a respect no time can end.
And, although loving your beauty
is a crime beyond repair,
rather the crime be chastised
than my fervor cease to dare.
With this confession in hand,
I pray, be less stern with me.
Do not condemn to distress
one who fancied bliss so free.
If you blame me for disrespect,
remember, you gave me leave;
thus, if obedience was wrong,
your commanding must be my reprieve.
Let my love be ever doomed
if guilty in its intent,
for loving you is a crime
of which I will never repent.
This much I descry in my feelings–
and more that I cannot explain;
but you, from what I’ve not said,
may infer what words won’t contain.