Juana Ines de la Cruz – 17th Century Philosopher, Composer, and Poet Who Spoke For Women’s Rights
Juana Ines de la Cruz was a 17 th century nun from colonial Mexico. She was regarded during her lifetime as a prodigy, and was a renowned scholar, poet, and playwright. Juana Ines’ works brought her great fame and fortune, though she donated it all towards the end of her life. Her fame lived on long after her death and she is still celebrated as an icon in Mexico. In modern times, the story of her life has been distorted, intentionally or unintentionally, so as to fit certain agendas.
Juana Ines de la Cruz Could Read By 3 Years of Age
Juana Ines de la Cruz was born as Juana de Asbaje y Ramírez de Santillana around 1651 in San Miguel Nepantla, in what is today Mexico. She was the illegitimate daughter of a Spanish captain and a creole woman. Juana Ines is recorded to have learned to read by the time she was three years old and became a voracious reader.
The child prodigy, who had been living with her maternal grandfather in the countryside, was later sent to live with relatives in Mexico City. She requested to be disguised as a boy, so that she could attend school. This, however, was not granted, and Juana Ines had a scholarly priest as her tutor instead.
Nevertheless, Juana Ines caught the attention of Antonio Sebastian de Toledo, the Marquis of Mancera and the viceroy of New Spain and was invited to be a lady-in-waiting at the vice-regal court. At the age of 17, an oral exam was organized to test Juana Ines’ extensive knowledge. Her examiners were 40 members of the University of Mexico and she was tested on a variety of topics, all of which she aced.
Juana Ines as a young woman was invited to join the vice-regal court. (HombreDHojalata / Public Domain )
Juana Ines de la Cruz Continues Her Studies As A Nun
As Juana Ines desired to continue her studies, she had no desire to get married. During that period, the only way for a woman to do so was to become a nun, which was exactly what Juana Ines did. In 1667, Juana Ines joined the Order of the Discalced Carmelites. Two years later, she moved to the Convent of Santa Paula, which was under the less strict Order of Saint Jerome (known also as the Hieronymites), in Mexico City and took her vows there.
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Juana Ines joined the Convent of Santa Paula, under the Order of Saint Jerome. (SalomonCeb / Public Domain )
Although she remained cloistered for the rest of her life, she lived comfortably in the convent. She had an apartment that was maintained by servants and slaves and she was free to study and write.
Additionally, Juana Ines was able to maintain contact with other scholars and members of the vice-regal court. Furthermore, she created a personal library (one of the largest in the New World), which contained 4000 books on a variety of subjects, along with many scientific and musical instruments.
Juana Ines de la Cruz – A Prolific Writer
Juana Ines was a prolific writer and was known especially for her poetry. She mastered the full range of poetic forms and themes of the Spanish Golden Age and made full use of this mastery in her works. One of her most famous poems, for instance, is Hombres necios (‘Foolish Men’), which accuses men of the illogical behavior they criticize in women. Another of her well-known poems is Primero sueño (‘First Dream’), which is about the soul’s quest for knowledge.
Juana Ines also wrote various plays and composed carols to be sung in churches. An example of her plays is El divino Narciso (‘The Divine Narcissus’) which blends the Aztec and Christian religions.
The first part of Juana Ines de la Cruz’s complete works, Madrid, 1689. (Donn Q / Public Domain )
Juana Ines’ works were well received, as evidenced by the fact that they were already widely circulated during her lifetime. Additionally, she received the support of both the religious and secular authorities of the time. Amy Fuller, a lecturer in the History of the Americas at Nottingham Trent University, points out that “each of her volumes was praised by the Inquisition and prefaced with dedicatory letters and poetry from Spanish nobility and clergy celebrating her as an icon of the Spanish Empire”.
Juana Ines de la Cruz Renounces the World
In 1694, Juana Ines decided to renounce the world and to devote the rest of her life to God. She stopped writing, sold her library and collection, and gave the proceeds to the poor. A year later, Juana Ines herself fell ill while tending to the sick during an epidemic and died shortly after.
Although Juana Ines continues to be celebrated as a Mexican icon today, some details of her life story have been modified so as to make her a more appealing character. As an example, the fact that she received the support of the Spanish nobility and clergy makes her less attractive to proponents of post-colonialism, while her decision to end her literary career in 1694 is often blamed on the Church, thus transforming the nun into a sort of persecuted martyr. The focus on such distortions, however, serves only to overshadow Juana Ines’ real claim to fame, i.e. as a literary genius.
Statue of Juana Inés in Madrid, Spain. (Sanbec / CC BY-SA 3.0 )
Top image: Juana Ines de la Cruz Painting by Mauricio García Vega. Source: Thelmadatter / CC BY-SA 3.0 .
By Wu Mingren
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Fuller, A. 2015. A Mexican Martyr. [Online] Available at: https://www.historytoday.com/mexican-martyr
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