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Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz

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Sister Juana Ines de la Cruz lived in the certainty that “all things come from God, who is the center and at the same time the circumference from which all the lines of creation issue and where they stop.” Such was the life of this religious woman of 17th-century New Spain, who not only left her mark on Spanish-American literature but whose cry of revolt over their inferior position of women is timely even today.

Born Juana Ramirez de Asbaje in 1648 near Mexico City, she was the daughter of an illiterate woman who managed her own hacienda and had six children without ever marrying. From infancy, the child was thirsty for knowledge and learned to read before the age of three. As a teenager, Juana was presented to representatives of the Spanish court in Mexico, who were, the editor of the new anthology, Maria Luisa Perez, says, “captivated by her talent, grace, and beauty. Her appealing and striking personality led her to present what [a priest] described as a ‘scientific tour de force’ before a gathering of 40 intellectuals. They questioned her on various subjects, and the precocious young woman left the learned audience astonished.”

As an adolescent, Juana was drawn to a religious vocation. As she explained: “Given my complete aversion to marriage, this was the most seemly and decent choice I could make, for the security I wished and my salvation…wanting to live alone, not wanting to have an obligatory occupation that would hamper my study, or doings in the community that would intrude upon the quiet calm of my books.” She entered a Carmelite convent at 16 but stayed only six months and left after an illness. Two years later, she entered the Convent of the Sisters of Saint Hieronymus, where she became treasurer, archivist, and secretary and fulfilled a number of other tasks. The Hieronymite nuns were less strict than the Carmelites and allowed Juana to pursue her studies and keep up friendships with writers and scholars, especially with royalty.

Hours of rest after duties at the convent were devoted to reading. Sister Juana wrote, “This was for me a labor of love, love of letters.” But she also spoke of the hardship of not having anyone with whom to share her knowledge. She said humbly, “I have studied many things, and I know nothing, because some things get in the way of others.” From an early age, Sister Juana had shown great skill at writing poetry. Her poems, sonnets, epigrams, and plays are famous in Latin America, as are the letters from her voluminous correspondence with friends.

However, her inclination toward secular writing and the fact that she was both a woman and a nun led to virulent attacks by certain clerics. A former friend, the bishop of Puebla, incited Sister Juana to criticize a sermon by a Jesuit priest. That gave rise to her famous Carta Athenagorica (Athenian Letter, written in 1690), in which she fell into his trap: The bishop immediately published it with his own critical introduction charging Sister Juana with intellectual vanity. But she answered in 1691 in her extraordinary Reply to Sister Filotea, in which she presented her views on the rights of women and their intellectual endeavors. “Not to have written much about matters sacred has not been due to lack of faith,” she wrote, “but to great fear and the reverence that is due those sacred writings.” She wrote with great pain that her church superiors “have gone so far as to prohibit me from studying.” She obeyed, but in her own way. She did not study from books but from “all the things that God created,” since there is nothing “that does not focus the mind if it is considered in the proper way.”

Finally, a victim of constant pressure from the church and of the social and political crisis in Mexico in 1692, Sister Juana gave up intellectual pursuits. When Mexico was wracked by the plague, the young nun cared for the sisters of her convent until she herself caught the disease and died in 1695.

World Press Review, Oct 1994 Beatriz Berger