Born: Juana Inés de Asbaje y Ramírez de Santillana
, in Panoyan
, November or December of 1648.
Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, in Mexico City
, April of 1695.
What passed in between:
Inés mastered the form of baroque
secular Spanish poetry
, publishing 65 sonnet
s, as well as several ballad
s and occasional poem
s; she also published 2 staged comedies
, 16 villancicos
(in which she invoked not only European
languages but also African
dialects and the words of the native Nahuatl
s), 3 autos sacramentales
, 32 loa
s, a philosophical treatise
entitled The First Dream
, and a defense of women's claims to intellectual and spiritual freedom entitled Answer to Sor Filotea
Sor Juana was born illegitimate, the child of the daughter of a wealthy landowner and an army officer who was serving in New Spain (now known as Mexico). We know this due to a baptismal record, for an infant named "Inés", that lists her aunt and uncle as godparents; because illegitimate children were not admissible to convent life during this period, at some point before her admission to the convent of Santa Paula in 1669, Inés changed her name to "Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz", and from then on claimed that her parents had been married, and that her birthdate was November 12, 1651. She was raised in Panoyan, a provincial town, on her grandfather's estate. She learned to read at a very young age and was a voracious reader as a child. When she first heard about the universities and schools of Mexico City, which only admitted boys, she begged her mother to let her dress like a man and move to Mexico City so that she could enter a university there. Sor Juana was denied this path, and got punished and scolded for reading her grandfather's books, but she had an excellent memory and a thirst for knowledge that would not be denied. In 1659, she was sent to live with relatives in Mexico City.
In 1664, Sor Juana joined the court of the vicereine, doña Leonor Carreto, marquisa de Mancera, and accordingly she moved into the home of the viceroy. She remained the close acquaintance of Mexico City's aristocrats, especially its viceroys and vicereines, for the rest of her life.
In 1666 Sor Juana joined the Carmelite convent of San José. She left after three months due to health problems, but was convinced that the convent was the right path for her and sat for an examination of her religious knowledge (meant to confirm her suitability for religious life) that was performed by the serving viceroy and forty assembled scholars. The priest who wrote her first biography, Diego Callega, reports that she weathered this examination "like a royal galleon attacked by canoes", and the convent of Santa Paula accepted her.
Sor Juana was able to support her servants from Santa Paula, and despite being cloistered she received guests, studied, wrote, and published. Between the years of 1680 and 1686, the vicereine Maria Luisa Manrique de Lara y Gonzaga inspired Sor Juana's poetry; Manrique arranged to have Sor Juana's first volume, Inundación Castálida, published in 1689. By 1690, Sor Juana was by far the most accomplished secular and philosophical writer in the Americas.
Throughout her career, officials of the Catholic Church pressured her to be more 'feminine'-- that is, passive and quiet. Her original confessor at Santa Paula thought that writing was an improper profession for a woman, and consistently told her so. Eventually she was able to dismiss him from his capacity as her confessor, but after this he agitated higher-ups such as the archbishop Francisco Aguian y Seijas, a known misogynist. In 1690, a 'friend' of Sor Juana (the bishop of Puebla) published her theological critique of a 40-year-old sermon, without Sor Juana's permission to do so, under the title Carta atenagórica (Letter Worthy of Athena). The bishop's chief motivation for doing this was so that he could append his own negative opinion of Sor Juana's words, under the pseudonym 'Sor Filotea' (Lover of God).
This act, and the resulting bad publicity for Sor Juana, provoked her to write the passionate Answer to Sor Filotea de la Cruz, in which she defends her intellectual life and its contribution to her faith. The Answer was written in 1691, but was not published until 1700, after Sor Juana had died. In the meantime, Sor Juana had finally bowed to her Church; in 1692, her last set of villancicos was performed, in the cathedral of Oaxaca. She sold all of her musical instruments, as well as her extremely extensive library, and in 1694 she signed in blood a re-declaration of faith, in which she also swore to give up her secular studies. She died the following year during an epidemic that swept Mexico City.
For more information on Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, read the 1988 biography Sor Juana, or, The Traps of Faith, by Octavio Paz.
Chief source for this writeup: The Harcourt Brace Anthology of Drama, 3rd Edition.