What if the only way you could pursue an education and have time to write was to take a vow of abstinence and poverty and enter a monastery or convent? That was the decision Juana Inés de Asbaje y Ramírez de Santillana made when she became Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (Sister Juana Inés of the Cross) to pursue studies and writing poetry in Colonial Mexico. For a woman or man in the 21st Century, who has access to education and the freedom to write, that path is difficult to imagine. But I think Virginia Woolf would understand, who championed the idea of a “Room of One’s Own” as a key resource for a writer.
Sor Juana was born in 1648 to parents Isabel Ramírez de Santillana and Captain Pedro Manuel de Asuaje y Vargas-Machuca. Juana Inés was a child prodigy who began to read at three years old. When her parents split up, she, her sister and mother lived with her maternal grandfather. Juana Inés studied her grandfather’s extensive library. When he passed away, Juana Inés went to live in the capital with her mother’s sister. There Juana Inés famously learned Latin in 20 lessons. This allowed her to read books about philosophy, science and religion. She wanted to dress like a man to go to University but her family forbade it. Her intellect was celebrated in the court of the Viceroy. Señorita Juana Inés spent time as a lady in waiting for his wife Leonor María Correto. The two women were very close friends. Although Juana Inés received several marriage proposals, she preferred her independence and freedom to study.
In 1667, she entered a Carmelite convent; in 1669 she changed to the less strict Convent of Santa Paula of the Order of San Jerónimo. Her rooms in the Convent included a library where she collected some 4000 books; one of the largest libraries in the Americas at the time. She studied, met with intellectuals, and wrote poetry, philosophy, plays and music. Her poems were published in Spain. Sor Juana taught drama and music in the convent school.
In 1690, after her powerful friends the former Viceroys left for Spain, the Archbishop of Puebla betrayed her confidence by publishing her critique of a priest’s sermon without her permission. Then the archbishop wrote an anonymous letter where he criticized Sor Juana’s secular writings. Her brilliant reply to that letter championed education for all girls and women. Pressure from the church forced Sor Juana to stop writing and studying non-religious topics. She sold her library of books to earn alms for the poor. Sor Juana died in 1695 after attending to her convent sisters suffering from the plague.
Hers was the best life possible for a 17th Century female writer. Even now, women often begin writing upon their retirement from their first careers when their children are grown, if they have chosen to have kids. I wonder at our progress.
Sor Juana remains honored as one of the foremost women writers in Latin America. She is known as the “tenth muse.” Her image is on the Mexican 200 Peso Bill ($10 bill). What woman in United States history might hold that sort of honor? (Hope Harriet Tubman will be portrayed on the $20 in 2026 as planned.) Who would you like to see on the US $10 bill? Imagine Maya Angelou, Sandra Cisneros or Willa Cather…
Gracias for visiting Fake Flamenco. Olé! –Rebecca