Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz

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Biography of Juana Inés de la Cruz, religious Mexican who stood out in a remarkable way as a lyrical writer. She is an extraordinary exponent of the Golden Age of literature in Spanish.

In any selection of famous Mexican poets, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz appears first. This singular woman, occupies an outstanding place in Spanish literature.

She cultivated lyric, self-sacramental and theater. Critics believe that her poems and sonnets are sublime and of unique beauty. One of her poems is the following:

Stop, shadow of my elusive good,
image of the spell that I love the most,
beautiful illusion for whom happy I die,
sweet fiction for whom I live painfully.

 If to the magnet of your graces, attractive,
serve my obedient steel chest,
Why do you make me fall in love flattering
if you are to outwit me then fugitive?

But you cannot emblazon, satisfied,
that your tyranny triumphs over me:
that although you leave the close bond mocked
that your fantastic form belonged,

it doesn’t matter to circumvent arms and chest
if my fantasy makes you prison

Juana de la Cruz’s birth and first years

Juana Inés de la Cruz was born in Mexico, a country known at the time as “New Spain“. The date of her birth is uncertain, but the most common is to place it on November 12, 1648.

Juana was the second of the three daughters of Pedro de Asbaje and Isabel Ramírez. Because her parents never married through the church, in some biographies, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz is said to be an illegitimate daughter.

Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, in her will, affirmed that she was: “legitimate daughter of Don Pedro de Asbaje y Vargas, deceased, and of Mrs. Isabel Ramírez“.

However, Mrs. Isabel Ramírez acknowledged in writing that all her children, including Sor Juana, were conceived out of wedlock.

Pedro de Asbaje was a native of Guipúzcoa. In 1598, when he was still a child, his mother went with him to “New Spain” (now Mexico) in the company of Pedro’s widowed grandmother and younger brother.

Isabel Ramírez was the daughter of a wealthy and educated landowner, owner of a large farm that produced wheat and corn.

Juana Inés spent her childhood in this estate of her grandfather. There she learned Nahuatl with the slaves of the farm.

At a very young age, she learned to read and write thanks to the lessons of her older sister. Very soon she discovered the wealth that housed her grandfather’s library and became fond of reading the Greek and Roman classics.

Juana read and studied on her own all the books that fell into her hands.

When her maternal grandfather died, the girl Juana Inés went to live with María Ramírez, her mother’s sister, married to Juan de Mata.

She lived for about eight years in the Mata house, from 1656 to 1664.

Frontispiece of the Panoaya hacienda, which belonged to Juana Inés de la Cruz’s grandfather. Credit: Wikipedia

Adolescence of Juana Inés de la Cruz

In 1664, Juana Asbaje with sixteen years had become a beautiful and intelligent girl.

Her fame as a wise woman reached the ears of the viceroy, Don Antonio Sebastián de Toledo, Marquis of Mancera.

The viceroy called her to court to serve as the lady-in-waiting of his wife, the marquise Leonor.

The viceroy, Doña Leonor de Carreto, was immediately enchanted by the intelligence and sagacity of Juana Inés. The cultured atmosphere and the protection of the viceroys decisively marked the literary vocation of this budding poet.

Two centuries later, in France, another beautiful and talented woman was also Lady of the Court. Her name was Sarah Bernhardt and she was one of the most famous actresses in history.

The viceregal court was one of the most cultured and enlightened places of that time. Viceroy Sebastián de Toledo celebrated frequent and lavish gatherings attended by theologians, philosophers, mathematicians, historians and all kinds of humanists. The “Royal and Pontifical University of Mexico” was a focus that radiated culture and wisdom in abundance.

The seventeenth century is called in Spain the Golden Age. During the reign of Felipe IV, exponents such as Luis de Góngora and Lope de Vega shone in literature; and Diego Velázquez and Bartolomé Esteban Murillo in painting.

Then came a decline in Spain, but the opposite happened in New Spain, under the rule of its viceroys.

As a lady-in-waiting to the viceroy, the adolescent Juana, was able to develop her intellect and literary abilities. She entertained herself by writing sonnets, poems, and funeral elegies, with which she later delighted the viceregal court.

The viceroy also had a special appreciation for her. The viceroy, Leonor de Carreto was the great protector of the precocious girl poet.

Juana Inés Youth

She wanted to enter the University, but she did not succeed because the women did not have permission to study. She tried to do it disguised as a man, but it didn’t work.

At the end of 1666, the prodigious intelligence of Juana Inés caught the attention of the priest Núñez de Miranda, confessor of the viceroys. It is likely that this priest hired a private teacher, Martín de Olivas, on his own. This teacher gave her Latin lessons.

Juana Inés did not want to marry, since marriage would leave her restricted to the mediocre and subdued life of the women of that society.

Father Núñez de Miranda took pity on her and proposed an intermediate solution: “wife of Christ“, as a religious in a convent. There she could freely develop her literary skills.

Juana Inés enters a convent of nuns

Juana Inés Asbage Ramírez entered a Carmelitas convent in Mexico City.

Another famous Spanish poet, Santa Teresa de Jesús, had founded this religious order a century earlier. But the discipline of the Carmelites was extremely rigid; Juana Inés was unable to bear it and ended up ill.

Her confessor advised her to enter the Order of Saint Jerome, where the discipline was somewhat less strict. In that convent, Juana had at her disposal a two-story cell and servants.

Church Saint Jerome
Facade of the church of San Jerónimo. In this convent complex, Sor Juana lived most of her life. Credit: Wikipedia

The statutes of this Jeronimo Order were very flexible. They allowed her to study, write, hold gatherings and receive visitors. The viceroy Leonor de Carreto, who never left her friendship with the poet, visited her frequently.

In this convent of San Jerónimo, in Mexico City, she professed as a religious with the name of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz.

In those years, as a woman, only monastic life could allow her to dedicate herself to studying and developing a literary activity.

Sor Juana received a payment from the Church for inventing carol lyrics. She also obtained generous financial compensation from the viceregal court when she composed poetry, songs, and a play.

It was the viceroys of New Spain who published the first two volumes of the works of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz in peninsular Spain.

In 1674, the young Sor Juana suffered a severe blow: the viceroy of Mancera and her wife were relieved of their charges. And during the trip to Veracruz, Doña Leonor de Carreto died.

Sor Juana Inés dedicated several elegies to her great friend and protector. Among them, “Of the beauty of Laura in love” stands out in a special way. In this sonnet she demonstrated her knowledge and mastery of the prevailing Petrarchist guidelines and topics.

Juana Inés de la Cruz
Portrait of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, made by Miguel de Cabrera around 1750. Credit: Wikipedia

Literary work of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz

In 1680 the inauguration of Don Tomás de la Cerda y Aragón took place at the head of the Viceroyalty of New Spain.

Sor Juana was entrusted with the preparation of the “Arc de Triomphe” that would adorn the entrance of the viceroys to the capital. On this occasion, she wrote her famous allegorical “Neptune“.

The new viceroys were pleasantly impressed by Sor Juana’s extraordinary intelligence and sensitivity. From the first day they gave her their protection and friendship.

The viceroy María Luisa Manrique de Lara y Gonzaga, countess of Paredes, had great admiration for this exceptional poet.

She had a portrait of the nun and a ring that she had given her. When she returned to Spain, she took the texts of Sor Juana to order that they be printed.

During the government of Don Tomás de la Cerda y Aragón (1680-1686), Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz developed a large part of her literary work.

In this golden age she wrote sacred and profane verses, Christmas carols for religious festivals, sacramental cars and two comedies.

She also agreed to be the administrator of the Jerónimos Convent.

She composed a wide variety of plays:

  • Los empeños de una casa” is a comedy that, in some of its scenes, is reminiscent of the work of Lope de Vega.
  • Love is more labyrinth” is a play that was highly praised for the interesting characterization of characters.

Her sacramental records reveal the theological knowledge that Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz possessed:

  • The martyr of the sacrament” is a praise to Saint Hermenegildo,
  • “The scepter of Joseph” wrote it to be represented in Madrid.
  • The divine Narcissus” was a sacramental order commissioned from Madrid.

However, half of her production is love poems. In her lyrical work, she widely resorted to the disappointment suffered in love.

Some poetic compositions, Sor Juana Inés wrote in honor of various characters of the time.

Sor Juana received numerous letter commissions for Christmas carols. Therefore, her fame as a poet became very popular, both in Mexico and in Spain.

The viceroy María Luisa asked her to compose some poems that challenged the ingenuity of a group of Portuguese nuns who were fond of reading.

Sor Juana Inés called them “Ridless“. These nuns were already great admirers of her work, but they were even more so after this unique gift.

Last stage of the life of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz

After 1686, New Spain’s civil and religious authorities changed. Her friends and protectors had died: the Count of Paredes, Juan de Guevara and ten nuns from the Convent of San Jerónimo.

At that time, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz was subjected to the harsh criticism of a Jesuit preacher, supported by the Bishop of Puebla himself.

In a writing by this Jesuit, which was made public, it was said that Sor Juana should limit her ingenuity to writing about religious matters.

The bishop prefaced the publication of the Jesuit, with the pseudonym “Sister Filotea“. In this prologue, he also recommended to Sor Juana that she stop dedicating herself to “human letters”. Instead, he asked her to dedicate herself to the divine ones, from which, according to the bishop, she would take greater advantage.

This provoked the poet’s angry reaction. As a defense, she published the writing “Response to Sister Filotea de la Cruz“.

This is a fiery defense of her intellectual work. In it Sor Juana mentions wise women from history and the Bible, such as Saint Catherine or Hypatia of Alexandria, with whom she comes to feel identified; She criticizes the envies of which she is the object and claims the right of women to study and knowledge.

The “Response to Sister Philotea de la Cruz” could be considered the first feminist writing in America.

This response started a controversy whose violence Sor Juana could hardly have foreseen. In the end, she was isolated and alone.

Towards the year 1693, Sor Juana Inés stopped writing and decided to dedicate herself more to religious work.

The reason for such a change is not precisely known; Catholic critics appreciate a greater dedication to supernatural issues after the renewal of their religious vows in 1694.

The truth is that she was forced to stop writing. She had no choice but to fulfill what the ecclesiastical authorities considered a nun’s own tasks.

Thanks to Juan Ignacio María de Castorena Ursúa y Goyeneche, Bishop of Yucatan, the work that Juana Inés de la Cruz had was unpublished when she was condemned to destroy her writings is known.

Last days in the life of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz

In early 1695 a typhus epidemic broke out, wreaking havoc throughout the capital of New Spain. In the convent of San Jerónimo nine out of ten sick religious died.

Sor Juana Inés fell ill a short time later, because she collaborated taking care of the sick nuns.

At four in the morning of April 17, 1695, Juana Inés de Asbaje Ramírez died. She was 43 years old.

In the will of Father José de Lombeyda, a former friend of Sor Juana, a clause was discovered where he refers that she commissioned him to sell her books and give the money to Archbishop Francisco de Aguiar to help the poor.

Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz left 180 volumes of selected works.

She was buried on the day of her death, with the assistance of the cathedral chapter. The funeral was chaired by Canon Francisco de Aguilar and the funeral prayer was performed by Carlos de Sigüenza y Góngora. The following inscription was placed on the tombstone:

In this enclosure, which is the lower choir and burial place for the nuns of San Jerónimo, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz was buried on April 17, 1695“.

Statue Juana Inés de la Cruz
Statue of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, in the Plaza de España-Calle de Ferraz in Madrid. Credit: Wikipedia

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