Friday, November 5, 2010

In History: Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz

This is the 50th post in a weekly feature here at Spare Candy, called "In History." Some posts might be little more than a photo, others full on features. If you have any suggestions for a person or event that should be featured, or would like to submit a guest post or cross post, e-mail me at rosiered23 (at) sparecandy (dot) com.

Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz lived a long time ago: she was born in either 1648 or 1651, near Mexico City, and died in 1695. She was a self-taught scholar, poet of the Baroque school, and nun of New Spain (hence the "sor," which means "sister"). Although she lived in a colonial era when Mexico was part of the Spanish Empire, she is considered today a Mexican writer. You might also see her name as Juana Inés de Asbaje y Ramírez de Santillana or Juana Ines de la Cruz de Asbaje y Ramirez.

Juana Inés de la Cruz's accomplishments were many:
  • She was a devoutly religious child who hid in the hacienda chapel to read her grandfather's books from the adjoining library, something forbidden to girls. She learned how to read and write at the age of 3. By age 5, she could do accounts, and at age 8 she composed a poem on the Eucharist. By adolescence, she had mastered Greek logic, and at age 13 she was teaching Latin to young children. She also learned the Aztec language of Nahuatl, and she wrote some short poems in that language.
  • At age 16, Juana was sent to live in Mexico City. She asked her parents' permission to disguise herself as a male student so that she could enter the university. Not being allowed to do this, she continued her studies privately.
  • In 1667, she entered the Convent of the Discalced Carmelites of St. Joseph as a postulant. In 1669, she entered the Convent of the Order of St. Jérôme.
  • Juana was widely read in Spain, being called "the Tenth Muse". She was lauded as the first great poet of Latin America. Her work was also printed by the first printing press in Mexico City.
  • Juana wrote a letter titled Respuesta a Sor Filotea (Reply to Sister Filotea), in which she defended women's right to education. In response, the Archbishop of Mexico joined other high-ranking officials in condemning Juana's "waywardness."
She was "wayward," of course, because she was a woman pursuing education and writing in a time when that wasn't allowed or popular. In her poem "Redondillas," she defends a woman's right to be respected as a human being. She also criticizes the sexism of the society of her time, poking fun at and revealing the hypocrisy of men who publicly condemn prostitutes, yet privately pay women to perform on them what they have just said is an abomination to God. Juana asks the question "Who sins more, she who sins for pay? Or he who pays for sin?" (I love that.)

Juana also wrote a romantic comedy titled "Los empeños de una casa," about a brother and a sister entangled in webs of love, elucidating the themes of love and jealousy. She inquired how these deeply emotional matters shaped and carved a woman's pursuit of liberty, knowledge, education and freedom to live her life in self-sovereignty.

You can read some of Sor Juana's poems here (they are in Spanish and English); not a lot of her work has survived over the years. And you can read more about her life here.

Photo source.

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