One of Mexico’s most accomplished women is someone I definitely missed in history class. I learned a little bit about Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz during my women’s studies classes in college, but I really have my friend Nina to thank for bringing her to my attention as a remarkable woman who deserves recognition. She was born Juana Inés de Asbaje y Ramírez de Santillana on November 12, 1651, the illegitimate child of a Spanish father and a creole mother. She was a very precocious child, and is believed to have learned to read by the age of three. Growing up, she had an insatiable thirst for knowledge, and read all the books in her grandfather’s library. By the time she was a teenager her intellect had earned her attention and acclaim in the Royal Court. She received several proposals of marriage from prominent members of the court, but turned them all down. Though she was expected to accept one of her many proposals eventually, she chose a different path and became a Hieronymite nun in 1669.
In the convent, she had plenty of time to continue her study of theology, history, science, and literature, and she began writing poetry of her own as well. She earned the patronage of the Viceroy and Vicereine of New Spain, who supported her and published her work. Some of her most famous poems were “Primero sueño” (First Dream) and “Hombres necios” (Foolish Men), in which she argues for the rights of women and calls out the hypocrisy of misogynistic men. Her poetry dealt with topics of love, feminism, religion, and philosophy, among others. Her work was mostly well received, although she did have quite a few critics who believed a woman should not be studying, writing, and publishing on such topics. One of her fiercest critics was the bishop of Puebla, Manuel Fernández de Santa Cruz, who wrote her an angry letter under the pseudonym of Sor Filotea.
As a response, Sor Juana wrote what many consider to be the first published feminist manifesto, “Respuesta a Sor Filotea de la Cruz” (Response to Sister Filotea). In it, she defended the rights of women and stood up for the education of women and girls, saying “Who has forbidden women to engage in private and individual studies? Have they not a rational soul as men do?…I have this inclination to study and if it is evil I am not the one who formed me thus – I was born with it and with it I shall die.” The response of the church was harsh and negative. High-ranking church officials condemned her “waywardness” and threatened her with official censure. Rather than risk harsh punishment from the church, Sor Juana seems to have stopped writing in 1693, but there is no evidence that she ever abandoned her studies. She died a few years later in 1695, succumbing to a plague while caring for her fellow nuns.
As controversial as she was during the 17th century, she is now considered one of the most important and respected figures of early Mexican literature, as well as the literature of the Spanish Golden Age, and her image has been immortalized on Mexican currency. The rise of feminism in the 20th century brought Sor Juana’s work back into prominence, and she continues to be a popular subject of Latin American literary discourse. The Mexico City convent where she spent much of her life is now the University of the Cloister of Sor Juana, named in honor of the New World’s first published feminist.