Juana Inés de Asbaje y Ramírez also known as Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, was born in Nepantla Mexico in 1651.
She was a Mexican writer who influenced greatly Hispano-American literature of the 17th century. She was known in her lifetime as “The Tenth Muse“, or “The Phoenix of America.”
Her work was greatly original, writing lyric and drama influenced by the Spanish Baroque. She challenged conventions due to her eagerness to know and her restless spirit. At the time it was frowned upon if a woman manifested independence of thoughts and intellectual curiosity. She often questioned social values and became an early proponent of women’s rights.
Sor Juna was the illegitimate daughter of a Spanish father and Creole mother. Her maternal grandfather owned an hacienda in Amecameca and Juana spent her early years living with her mother on his estate.
At age three she learned to read and write, and at eight she wrote her first poem. As a child, Juana often hid in the hacienda chapel to read her grandfather’s books from the adjoining library, this was forbidden to girls.
In 1659 she moved to the capital of the New Spain with her family and at fourteen became the maid of honor of the wife of the viceroy Antonio Sebastián de Toledo, Leonor Carreto. Juana shinned in the vice regal court of New Spain for her lively intelligence, erudition, and poetic ability.
In 1667, in spite of the fame she enjoyed in the royal court, she decide to enter a convent of the Carmelite order of Mexico in which she spent only four months due to health problems.
Two years later she entered the convent of the Order of St. Jerome. Sor Juana didn’t really have a strong religious vocation but knew that by becoming a nun instead of getting married she would be able to pursue her intellectual goals.
Her cell in the cloister became the meeting place of many intellectuals and poets; she performed scientific experiments, composed musical works, and wrote extensively from theater to poetry and also collected a large library. Her interest in scientific thought and experiment led to professional discussions with Isaac Newton.
Sor Juana’s most important plays include bright and strong women, and her famous poem, “Hombres Necios ” -“Foolish Men “-, she accuses men of being hypocrites, holding women to the highest moral standards and at the same time inciting them to “sin”.
“You foolish men who lay
the guilt on women,
not seeing you’re the cause
of the very thing you blame;”
In 1690, the bishop of Puebla one of her fiercest critics, Manuel Fernández, published La Carta Athenagórica, the work of Sor Juana Inés, in which the nun criticized the Jesuit Antonio Vieira.
The bishop did so without Sor Juana’s permission and added to her work a text written by him, called Letter of Sor Filotea, in which he chastised Sor Juana Ines, recognizing her talent, but instructing her to dedicate herself to the monastic life and to leave theological reflection to men.
Sister Juana Ines de la Cruz responded to the bishop of Puebla, that is, “Sister Filotea de la Cruz” his pseudonym, making clear the right of women to learn, since knowledge is not only lawful but also rewarding. The answer contains many biographical data and shows her beautiful prose.
Despite her forceful and accurate reply, the bishop’s criticism affected her so deeply that after a short time she sold all her possessions, including her amazing library with more than 4,000 books, and devoted herself completely to the religious life. She donated all the proceeds of the sale to charity.
She died helping her cholera stricken sisters during the epidemic that spread in Mexico in 1695 when she was 44 years old.
With Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, Baroque poetry reached its highpoint and introduced as well reflective and analytical elements that influenced the poets and thinkers of the 18th century. Her work was published in Spain consisting of three volumes:
The Mexican government honored Sor Juana: