The remarkable life of Juana Inés de la Cruz (1651–1695)

articles History & People

Jim Tuck

On the surface, no two people ever appeared more dissimilar than John Stuart Mill and Juana Inés de la Cruz. One was a great rationalist, an apostle of individual liberty, an enemy of dogma and a believer in empiricism as the source of all knowledge; the other was a Mexican nun who lived her entire life in the closed, authoritarian society that was colonial empire of New Spain.

Yet the two had more in common than meets the eye. First, they were both child prodigies. Mill, considered by many to be the most intelligent human being that ever lived, was reading Greek at the age of three and by 14 had mastered Latin, classical literatura, logic, political economy, history and mathematics. Mill was rigorously educated by his father, James Mill, co-founder with Jeremy Bentham of the philosophy of utilitarianism, one whose guiding principle is “the greatest good for the greatest number.” John Stuart Mill, expanding the utilitarian doctrine, became known as an advocate of proportional representation, labor unions, farm cooperativas and — most important — as a pioneer of women’s rights. It was in this area, as we shall see, his views most dovetailed with those of his seemingly dissimilar counterpart.

Juana Inés de la Cruz was born on November 12, 1651, to a Spanish father and a creole mother. Place of birth was a hacienda at San Miguel Nepantla, today in the state of Mexico. She was raised mainly by Pedro Ramírez, her paternal grandfather.

As a child genius, she came as close as anyone to rivaling Mill. She could read and write at the age of three and at age eight she composed a loa, or short dramatic poem, in honor of the Blessed Sacrament. By that time she had already been enrolled for five years in a primary school at Amecameca. Having by then read every volume in her grandfather’s extensive library, she begged her family to send her to the University of Mexico. They refused on grounds of her tender age but did send her to Mexico City to be further educated by a scholarly priest named Martín de Olivar. To the good father’s astonishment, Juana mastered Latin in 20 lessons. Throughout this period of instruction, Juana’s severest critic was herself. She adhered to such a strict regimen of self-discipline that she cut her hair short as punishment when she felt she wasn’t learning fast enough.

By now Juana’s fame as a youthful prodigy had grown to the extent that the Spanish viceroy, Marqués de Mancera, took her into his court as a maid of honor to his wife. It amused the viceregal couple to invite professors from the university and doctors of the arts and sciences to question the gifted young woman on almost any subject. Juana invariably held her own with these learned interlocutors.

Juana took the veil at 16 and entered the convent of Santa Teresa la Antigua. She left it six months later because of illness but on February 24, 1669 she joined the convent of San Jerónimo, where she remained the rest of her life.

At the convent, Sor Juana served as an accountant and librarian. Though several times nominated for prioress, she repeatedly declined the honor. But the real marvel was her literary output. She wrote both poetry and prose, and on worldly as well as religious themes. Exploring different forms, she wrote loas, plays, comedies, historical vignettes and imaginative tales of mythology. A long poem, written in 1680 and translated into English as First Dream, is considered her leading work. Three other major works were published in Spain — Inundación Castálida (Madrid 1689), Segundo Volumen de las Obras de Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (Seville 1992) and Fama y Obras Póstumas (Madrid 1700).

Sor Juana also displayed an independence of spirit unusual for a woman — to say nothing of a nun — living in such a male-dominated society as l7th century colonial Mexico. After criticizing a sermon by a well-known pulpit orator named Padre Vieyra, she received a stern rebuke from Manuel Fernández de Santa Cruz, Bishop of Puebla. Curiously, the bishop issued his philippic under the pseudonym of Sor Filotea de la Cruz. But there was nothing “sisterly” about the message, which urged Sor Juana to giveup writing and devote herself entirely to religion. Sor Juana responded with a remarkable letter in which she gave a complete resumé of her life, character, literary preferences and of a program of self-mortification that she had been practicing. More significantly, the letter also contained statements in favor of “the culture of Mexican women” and “the right to dissent.” This document, titled Respuesta a Sor Filotea, was dated March 1, 1691.

Shortly afterwards, however, she prepared two affirmations to the effect that she planned to get rid of all her books, maps and instruments and henceforth dedicate herself entirely to the poor. These affirmations were signed with her own blood.

For the four years that remained of her life, she remained faithful to this commitment of sacrificing intellectual activity to purely religious duties. How well she kept her word is evinced by the manner of her death. While nursing infected sister nuns during an epidemic, she herself died on April 17, 1695.

On April 17, 1995, three hundred years after her death, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz received a tribute from a more contemporary creative spirit when Nobel Prize-winning writer Octavio Paz read a funeral prayer in her honor.

Published or Updated on: October 9, 2008 by Jim Tuck © 2008


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