Illegitimate child Juana Inés de Abaje became Sor Juana de la Cruz, a celebrated seventeenth-century writer. Falling in love with Sor Juana de la Cruz is easy when you view the Netflix series called Juana Inés. In her lifetime, her intellectual gifts were recognized in both the Old World and the New. Not without a price to pay.
|Unattributed portrait at https://www.biography.com/writer/sor-juana-ines-de-la-cruz|
Many details and intimacies of her life ‒ four hundred years ago ‒ are opaque or unknown. Clearly her humble birth (circa 1650) did not hold her back; sent to relatives in Mexico City, she flourished in self-learning. Her devotion to scholarship attracted the attention of the Spanish vice-regal court where she became a lady-in-waiting. At one point she ‒ this anomalous female prodigy ‒ was tested on a range of advanced knowledge by doubting Church authorities, leaving them astonished at her erudition.
Consumed with learning and writing, and with no interest in the customary path of marriage and domesticity, Juana's destiny was the convent. She chose to be cloistered within the Hieronymite order at Santa Paula convent, Mexico City (aka San Geronimo convent), where she also taught. The convent was not terribly strict; inhabitants were allowed visitors and gifts. Sor Juana and her apartment were "protected" for years by the vice-regents Marquis and Marquise de la Luna who published her works in Spain. It's reported that she had one of the largest private libraries on the continent.
|San Geronimo convent|
|The convent was next door to our AirB&B lodgings. Fittingly, today, it is an active hive of university programs.|
Over the years she created a prodigious amount of writing: poetry, philosophy, hymns, letters, theatrical drama. Among other attributes, her sharp wit and staged plays gained a popular following. Secular love as well as sacred is evident in her poetry. If the Netflix script were to be believed, gossip hinted at a special relationship with the marquise. Sor Juana's distrust of men being all-dominant in every walk of life was not hidden; she was a pioneer feminist who deliberately challenged conventional ideas of women's nature and "place" in the world, advocating their right to access education and knowledge.
Such an unequivocal attitude did not sit well with the Church, of course. As her stature and admirers grew, so did disapproval in the religious hierarchy. Among other events, an argument with her confessor and the departure of her vice-regal supporters in 1688 left her vulnerable to criticism of her spiritual commitment. She was not without humility and self-reflection. By 1694 she had retired as a public figure.
A few quotes are scarcely sufficient to give the flavour of her varied output:
"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 will die."
"I believed, when I entered this convent, I was escaping from myself but alas, poor me, I brought myself with me!"
"In my opinion, better far it be to destroy vanity within my life than to destroy my life in vanity."
"I walk beneath your pens, and am not what I truly am, but what you'd prefer to imagine me."
"You foolish men who lay the guilt on women, not seeing you're the cause of the very thing you blame –"
The Cabrera portrait is the usual image associated with Sor Juana. A curiosity is the breastplate, or shield, on her habit. Typical of Hieronymite nuns of the time, the shield displayed a pictorial devotion to the Virgin Mary.
A celebrated (and sometimes castigated) person, no one can deny the stunning integrity and magnitude of her opus — words and thoughts that reverberate today. "A woman of genius" is the common judgment, as per Britannica, which has an excellent biographical sketch (https://www.britannica.com/biography/Sor-Juana-Ines-de-la-Cruz).
© 2019 Brenda Dougall Merriman