Juana Inés de la Cruz

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Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, O.S.H.
Sor Juana by Miguel Cabrera.png
Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz by Miguel Cabrera
Born Juana Inés de Asbaje y Ramírez de Santillana
12 November 1651
San Miguel Nepantla,
New Spain, Spanish Empire
Died 17 April 1695(1695-04-17) (aged 43)
Mexico City, New Spain,
Spanish Empire
Occupation Nun, poet, writer
Nationality Mexican
Literary movement Baroque
Relatives Pedro Manuel de Asbaje and Isabel Ramírez (parents)


Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, O.S.H. (English: Sister Joan Agnes of the Cross; 12 November 1651 – 17 April 1695), was a self-taught scholar, philosopher and poet of the Baroque school, and Hieronymite nun of New Spain, known in her lifetime as "The Tenth Muse." Because she lived in a colonial era when Mexico was part of the Spanish Empire, she is considered today both a Mexican writer and a contributor to the Spanish Golden Age. She stands at the beginning of the history of Mexican literature in the Spanish language. In consequence, she is honored by official government recognition and is an inspiration to artists in the modern era.


Hacienda Panoaya, in Amecameca, Mexico where Sor Juana lived between 1651 and 1656.

She was born Juana Inés de Asbaje y Ramírez de Santillana in San Miguel Nepantla (now called Nepantla de Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz in her honor) near Mexico City. She was the illegitimate child of a Spanish Captain, Pedro Manuel de Asbaje, and a Criolla woman, Isabel Ramírez. Her father, according to all accounts, was absent from her life. She was baptized 2 December 1651 and described on the baptismal rolls as "a daughter of the Church". She was raised in Amecameca, where her maternal grandfather owned an hacienda.

As a child, Juana often hid in the hacienda chapel to read her grandfather's books from the adjoining library, something forbidden to girls. She learned how to read and write Latin at the age of three. By age five, she reportedly could do accounts. At age eight, she composed a poem on the Eucharist.[1]

By adolescence, Juana had mastered Greek logic, and at age thirteen she was teaching Latin to young children. She also learned the Aztec language of Nahuatl, and wrote some short poems in that language.[2]

Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz by Friar Miguel de Herrera (1700-1789),

In 1664, at the age of 12, Juana was sent to live in Mexico City. She asked her mother's permission to disguise herself as a male student so that she could enter the university there. Not being allowed to do this, she continued her studies privately. She was a lady-in-waiting at the colonial viceroy's court,[3] where she came under the tutelage of the Vicereine Leonor Carreto, wife of the Viceroy of New Spain Antonio Sebastián de Toledo. The viceroy (whom Appletons' Cyclopædia of American Biography names as the Marquis de Mancera), wishing to test the learning and intelligence of this 17-year-old, invited several theologians, jurists, philosophers, and poets to a meeting, during which she had to answer many questions unprepared and explain several difficult points on various scientific and literary subjects. The manner in which she acquitted herself astonished all present and greatly increased her reputation. Her literary accomplishments garnered her fame throughout New Spain. Her interest in scientific thought and experiment led to professional discussions with Isaac Newton.[3] She was much admired in the viceregal court, and she received several proposals of marriage, which she declined.[1]

Life as a Nun[edit]

Monument of Sor Juana in Chapultepec.

In 1667, she entered the Monastery of St. Joseph, a community of the Discalced Carmelite nuns, as a postulant. She chose not to enter that order, which had strict rules. Later, in 1669, she entered the monastery of the Hieronymite nuns, which had more relaxed rules. She chose to become a nun so that she could study as she wished, saying she wanted "to have no fixed occupation which might curtail my freedom to study."[4]

In the convent and perhaps earlier, Sor Juana became friends with fellow savant, Don Carlos de Sigüenza y Góngora, who visited her in the convent's locutorio.[5] She stayed cloistered in the Convent of Santa Paula of the Hieronymite in Mexico City from 1669 until her death, and there she studied, wrote, and collected a large library of books.[4] The Viceroy and Vicereine of New Spain became her patrons; they supported her and had her writings published in Spain.[4]

One noted critic of her writing was the bishop of Puebla, Manuel Fernández de Santa Cruz, who in November of 1690 published Sor Juana's critique of a 40-year-old sermon by Father António Vieira, a Portuguese Jesuit preacher.[6] In addition to publishing this without her permission (under the pseudonym of Sor Filotea), he told her to focus on religious instead of secular studies.[4]

In response to critics of her writing, Juana wrote a letter, Respuesta a Sor Filotea de la Cruz (Reply to Sister Philotea),[7] in which she defended women's right to education saying, "Oh, how much harm would be avoided in our country" if women were able to teach women in order to avoid the danger of male teachers in intimate setting with young female students. Sister Juana said that such hazards "would be eliminated if there were older women of learning, as Saint Paul desires, and instructions were passed down from one group to another, as in the case with needlework and other traditional activities."[8] Sor Juana famously remarks, quoting an Aragonese poet and also echoing St. Teresa of Ávila: "One can perfectly well philosophize while cooking supper."[9] In response, Francisco de Aguiar y Seijas, Archbishop of Mexico joined other high-ranking officials in condemning Sor Juana's "waywardness". By 1693, Sor Juana seemingly ceased writing rather than risk official censure. However, there is no undisputed evidence of her renouncing devotion to letters, though there are documents showing her agreeing to undergo penance. Her name is affixed to such a document in 1694, but given her deep natural lyricism, the tone of these supposed hand-written penitentials is in rhetorical and autocratic Church formulae; one is signed "Yo, la peor de todas" ("I, the worst of all women") She is said to have sold all her books,[1] then an extensive library of over 4,000 volumes, and her musical and scientific instruments as well. Other sources report that her defiance toward the church led to all of her books and instruments being confiscated.[3] Only a few of her writings have survived, which are known as the Complete Works. According to Octavio Paz, her writings were saved by the vicereine.[10]

She died after ministering to other nuns stricken during a plague, on 17 April 1695. Sigüenza y Góngora delivered the eulogy at her funeral.[5]


The Dream[edit]

The former Convent of St Jerome in Mexico City.

The Dream, a long philosophical and descriptive silva (a poetic form combining verses of 7 and 11 syllables), "deals with the shadow of night beneath which a person[11] falls asleep in the midst of quietness and silence, where night and day animals participate, either dozing or sleeping, all urged to silence and rest by Harpocrates. The person's body ceases its ordinary operations,[12] which are described in physiological and symbolical terms, ending with the activity of the imagination as an image-reflecting apparatus: the Pharos. From this moment, her soul, in a dream, sees itself free at the summit of her own intellect; in other words, at the apex of an own pyramid-like mount, which aims at God and is luminous.[13]

There, perched like an eagle, she contemplates the whole creation,[14] but fails to comprehend such a sight in a single concept. Dazzled, the soul's intellect faces its own shipwreck, caused mainly by trying to understand the overwhelming abundance of the universe, until reason undertakes that enterprise, beginning with each individual creation, and processing them one by one, helped by the Aristotelic method of ten categories.[15]

The soul cannot get beyond questioning herself about the traits and causes of a fountain and a flower, intimating perhaps that his method constitutes a useless effort, since it must take into account all the details, accidents, and mysteries of each being. By that time, the body has consumed all its nourishment, and it starts to move and wake up, soul and body are reunited. The poem ends with the Sun overcoming Night in a straightforward battle between luminous and dark armies, and with the poet's awakening."[15]

Other notable works[edit]

Studies of Juana Inés de la Cruz[edit]

Sor Juana, by Juan de Miranda (circa 1680).

There is a vast scholarly literature on Sor Juana in Spanish, English, French, and German.

Her works have appeared in translation. An early translation of Sor Juana's work into English was Ten Sonnets from Sor Juana Inez de la Cruz [sic], 1651-1695: Mexico's Tenth Muse, published in Taxco, Guerrero, in 1943. The translator was Elizabeth Prall Anderson who settled in Taxco. One musical work attributed to Sor Juana survives from the archive at Guatemala Cathedral. This is a 4-part villancico, Madre, la de los primores.

An important translation to English of a work by Juana Inés de la Cruz for a wide readership is published as Poems, Protest, and a Dream in a 1997 Penguin Classics paperback, which includes her response to authorities censuring her.

Arguably the most important book devoted to Sor Juana, written by Nobel Prize laureate Octavio Paz in Spanish and translated to English in 1989 as Sor Juana: Or, the Traps of Faith (translated by Margaret Sayers Peden). This work examines and contemplates Sor Juana's poetry and life in the context of the history of New Spain, particularly focusing on the difficulties women then faced while trying to thrive in academic and artistic fields. Paz describes how he had been drawn to her work by the enigmas of Sor Juana's personality and life paths. "Why did she become a nun? How could she renounce her lifelong passion for writing and learning?"[16]

The first part of Sor Juana's complete works, Madrid, 1689.

In his book, Paz makes a thorough analysis of Sor Juana's poetry and traces some of her influences to the Spanish writers of the Golden Age and the Hermetic tradition, mainly derived from the works of a noted Jesuit scholar of her era, Athanasius Kircher. Paz analyses Sor Juana's most ambitious and extensive poem, "First Dream" ("Primero Sueño") as largely a representation of the desire of knowledge through a number of hermetic symbols, albeit transformed in her own language and skilled image-making abilities. In conclusion, Paz makes the case that Sor Juana's works were the most important body of poetic work produced in the Americas until the arrival of 19th-century figures such as Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman.

Tarsicio Herrera Zapién, a classical scholar, has devoted much of his career to the study of Sor Juana's works. Some of his publications (in Spanish) include Buena fe y humanismo en Sor Juana: diálogos y ensayos: las obras latinas: los sorjuanistas recientes (1984); López Velarde y sor Juana, feministas opuestos: y cuatro ensayos sobre Horacio y Virgilio en México (1984); Poemas mexicanos universales: de Sor Juana a López Velarde (1989) and Tres siglos y cien vidas de Sor Juana (1995).

Historical memory and influence[edit]

Statue of Sor Juana Inés in Madrid, España.

Sor Juana was a famous and controversial figure in the seventeenth century. In the modern era, she has been honored in Mexico as well as being the part of a political controversy in the late twentieth century. During renovations at the cloister in the 1970s, bones were found that are believed to be those of Sor Juana. Also found at the same time was a medallion similar to the one depicted in portraits of Sor Juana. The medallion was kept by Margarita López Portillo, the sister of President José López Portillo (1976-1982). During the tercentennial of Sor Juana's death in 1995, a member of the Mexican congress called on Margarita López Portillo to return the medallion, which she said she had taken for "safekeeping." She returned it to Congress on November 14, 1995, with the event and description of the controversy reported in the New York Times a month later. Whether or not the medallion is Sor Juana's, the incident sparked discussions about Sor Juana and abuse of official power in Mexico.[17]

Official recognition by the Mexican government[edit]

She was honored by the Mexican government in significant ways.

Inspiration and influence[edit]

Juana Ines de la Cruz in art by Mexican artist Mauricio García Vega.

Sor Juana has been the inspiration for film makers and authors of poetry, plays, opera, and literary fiction.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c Wikisource-logo.svg Wilson, James Grant; Fiske, John, eds. (1900). "Cruz, Juana Inés de la". Appletons' Cyclopædia of American Biography. New York: D. Appleton. 
  2. ^ "Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz". poets.org. Academy of American Poets. Retrieved 2016-04-15. 
  3. ^ a b c Murray, Stuart (2009). The Library: An Illustrated History. Chicago: Skyhorse Publishing. ISBN 978-0-8389-0991-1. 
  4. ^ a b c d "Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz Biography". Biography.com. A&E Television Networks. Retrieved 2016-04-15. 
  5. ^ a b Leonard, Irving A. (1960). Baroque Times in Old Mexico: Seventeenth-Century Persons, Places, and Practices (12th ed.). University of Michigan Press. pp. 191–192. ISBN 9780472061105. 
  6. ^ "Manuel Fernandez de Santa Cruz, bishop of Puebla". Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 2016-04-15. 
  7. ^ "Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz". www.ensayistas.org. 
  8. ^ Murray, Stuart A.P. (2009). The library : an illustrated history. New York, NY: Skyhorse Pub. ISBN 9781602397064. 
  9. ^ "Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, Mexican poet and scholar". Encyclopedia Britannica. 
  10. ^ Paz, Octavio (1988). Sor Juana, Or, The Traps of Faith. Harvard University Press. ISBN 9780674821064. 
  11. ^ In the final verse we come to know it is Sor Juana herself because she uses the first person, feminine.
  12. ^ Sor Juana is inspired by Fray Luis de Granada's Introducción al Símbolo de la Fe, where an extended verbal description of physiological functions is the closest match to what is found in the poem.
  13. ^ It must be understood that this light of intellect is Grace given by God.
  14. ^ This pinnacle of contemplation is clearly preceded by Saint Augustine (Confessions, X, VIII, 12), who also inspired Petrarch's letter about the contemplation of the world created by God from the summit of a mountain (in his letter Familiares, IV, 1)
  15. ^ a b Olivares Zorrilla, Rocío. "The Eye of Imagination. Emblems in the Baroque Poem The Dream, by Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz", Emblematica. An Interdisciplinary Journal for Emblem Studies, volume 18 (2010): 111-61: 115-17.
  16. ^ Paz p. 2
  17. ^ a b Depalma, Anthony (1995-12-15). "Mexico City Journal;The Poet's Medallion: A Case of Finders Keepers?". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2016-04-15. 
  18. ^ "Billete de 200 pesos". Bank of Mexico. Retrieved 2011-07-26. 
  19. ^ Spencer, Spencer (2012-02-10). "The Heresy of Love, RSC, Stratford-upon-Avon, review". Telegraph.co.uk. Retrieved 2016-04-15. 


Further reading[edit]

  • ALATORRE, Antonio, Sor Juana a través de los siglos. México: El Colegio de México, 2007.
  • BENASSY-BERLING, Marié-Cécile, Humanisme et Religion chez Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz: la femme et la cultura au 17e siècle. Paris: Editions Hispaniques, 1982. ISBN 2-85355-000-1
  • BEAUCHOT, Mauricio, Sor Juana, una filosofía barroca, Toluca: UAM, 2001.
  • BUXÓ, José Pascual, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz: Lectura barroca de la poesía, México, Renacimiento, 2006.
  • CORTES, Adriana, Cósmica y cosmética, pliegues de la alegoría en sor Juana Inés de la Cruz y Pedro Calderón de la Barca. Madrid: Vervuert, 2013. ISBN 978-84-8489-698-2
  • GAOS, José. "El sueño de un sueño". Historia Mexicana, 10, 1960.
  • JAUREGUI, Carlos A. "Cannibalism, the Eucharist, and Criollo Subjects." In Creole Subjects in the Colonial Americas: Empires, Texts, Identities. Ralph Bauer & Jose A. Mazzotti (eds.). Chapel Hill: Omohundro Institute of Early American History & Culture, Williamsburg, VA, U. of North Carolina Press, 2009. 61-100.
  • JAUREGUI, Carlos A. "El plato más sabroso’: eucaristía, plagio diabólico, y la traducción criolla del caníbal." Colonial Latin American Review 12:2 (2003): 199-231.
  • MERKL, Heinrich, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. Ein Bericht zur Forschung 1951-1981. Heidelberg: Winter, 1986. ISBN 3-533-03789-4
  • MURATTA BUNSEN, Eduardo, "La estancia escéptica de Sor Juana". Sor Juana Polímata. Ed. Pamela H. Long. México: Destiempos, 2013. ISBN 978-607-9130-27-5
  • NEUMEISTER, Sebastian, "Disimulación y rebelión: El Político silencio de Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz". La cultura del barroco español e iberoamericano y su contexto europeo. Ed. Kazimierz Sabik and Karolina Kumor, Varsovia: Insituto de Estudios Ibéricos e Iberoamericanos de la Universidad de Varsovia, 2010. ISBN 978-83-60875-84-1
  • OLIVARES ZORRILLA, Rocío, "The Eye of Imagination: Emblems in the Baroque Poem 'The Dream,' by Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz", in Emblematica. An Interdisciplinary Journal for Emblem Studies, AMC Press, Inc., New York, vol. 18, 2010: 111-161.
  • ----, La figura del mundo en "El sueño", de Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. Ojo y "spiritus phantasticus" en un sueño barroco, Madrid, Editorial Académica Española, 2012. ISBN 978-3-8484-5766-3
  • PERELMUTER, Rosa, Los límites de la femineidad en sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, Madrid, Iberoamericana, 2004.
  • PAZ, Octavio. Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz o las trampas de la fe. México: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1982.
  • PFLAND, Ludwig, Die zehnte Muse von Mexiko Juana Inés de la Cruz. Ihr Leben, ihre Dichtung, ihre Psyche. München: Rinn, 1946.
  • RODRÍGUEZ GARRIDO, José Antonio, La Carta Atenagórica de Sor Juana: Textos inéditos de una polémica, México: UNAM, 2004. ISBN 9703214150
  • ROSAS LOPATEGUI, Patricia, Oyeme con los ojos : de Sor Juana al siglo XXI; 21 escritoras mexicanas revolucionarias. México: Universidad Autónoma Nuevo León, 2010. ISBN 978-607-433-474-6
  • SABAT DE RIVERS, Georgina, El «Sueño» de Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz: tradiciones literarias y originalidad, Londres: Támesis, 1977.
  • SORIANO, Alejandro, La hora más bella de Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, México, CONACULTA, Instituto Queretano de la Cultura y las Artes, 2010.
  • WEBER, Hermann, Yo, la peor de todas – Ich, die Schlechteste von allen. Karlsruhe: Info Verlag, 2009. ISBN 978-3-88190-542-8

External links[edit]