By Brooke Gazer
The illegitimate daughter of a Creole mother, Juana Inés de Asbaje y Ramírez was born in 1648 on a farm in central Mexico. By the age of three she had taught herself to read and frequently hid in the hacienda chapel engaging in an activity forbidden to girls, reading her grandfather’s books. She had an insatiable appetite for learning and devoured most of the available books before she was sent to live with relatives in Mexico City. Once she arrived she was unstoppable and had mastered Latin in just 20 lessons. Juana was as beautiful as she was brilliant and soon developed a kind of celebrity status in the court of the viceroy. The Marquis de Mancera found amusement on many occasions by inviting theologians, jurists, philosophers, and poets to test the abilities of this dashing 17 year old girl. Astonishing them all she was able to eloquently converse on various scientific and literary subjects. As her reputation grew throughout New Spain several marriage proposals were offered but instead she became a novice in the convent of Discalced Carmelite nuns. This particular order endured a rather austere punitive existence and she left it in the same year. Two years later however, she took her vows at the Convent of San Jerónimo, where she became known as Sor Juana.
In seventeen century Mexico, a proper woman’s choice was limited to that of wife and mother or to life in a convent. Since women were prohibited from attending university she begged to be allowed to dress as a man in order to attend classes. This idea however, was simply out of the question. As a wife she would be little more than her husband’s chattel, lacking control of her own destiny. Perhaps it was this understanding that drew her to the life she chose.
Depending on the order and one’s social standing, life behind the convent walls was not difficult to endure. At San Jerónimo, Sor Juana’s “cell” was a
suite that included a bedroom, a bathroom with hot water, a kitchen and a large comfortable library which also acted as a Salon. Her library had the best collection books in all of the Americas as well as various musical and scientific instruments.
At the convent she was responsible for keeping the accounts, attending religious services and teaching music to young girls but most of her time was free to study, write and hold court. She possessed an incredibly inquisitive mind and delved into a wide range of subjects including various scientific topics. While she was unable to leave the convent itself, many of Mexico City’s “intelligencia” made frequent visits to her salon.
Her writings and her unorthodox life were publicly criticized but as long as she had the patronage of the viceroy she was secure. As the king’s representative, Mexico’s viceroy held supreme power. Under the Marquis de Mancera, Sor Juana wrote a wide range of secular sonnets and other Baroque style poems, honoring both vice royal court and city figures. When the Marquis returned to Spain the Archbishop of Mexico acted as Viceroy and under his authority she received many ecclesiastic commissions. During the eight years when the Marquis de la Laguna was in power Sor Juana produced the bulk of her work and became bolder in her opinions. When Laguna returned to Spain, his wife, a particular intimate of Sor Juana, took some of her works with her and had them published. She became an instant success in Europe and a second book was subsequently published.
Some of her writing had a decidedly feminist bent. She was particularly vocal in her support of women’s right to education and other social issues relating to her gender. In one of her essays on prostitution she asked bluntly “Who is more to blame, the one who sins for pay, or the one who pays for sin?”
Although her life remained unchanged after the Lagunas returned to Spain, the political winds had altered direction. The city began to experience flooding, disease, food shortages and political unrest which weakened the vice royal court. The religious leaders were much less tolerant of this absurd nun who challenged the oppression of women and perhaps threatened their authority. The Spanish inquisition granted enormous power for the church to root out its enemies and the Bishop of Puebla instigated a rather underhanded campaign against her. Under his scrutiny, she became the subject of an ecclesiastical investigation which ultimately resulted in her censor.
Twenty five years after taking her vows, Sor Juana was compelled to sign, in blood, a statement of self- condemnation, and accepted a new vow of penance and self sacrifice. She donated most of her books and scientific instruments to be sold in order to help the suffering poor in the city. She ceased writing and devoted her time to nursing. Two years later year she died during an epidemic that killed most of the nuns at her monastery.
Despite the barriers she encountered and the hardship she suffered at the end of her life, Sor Juana is an excellent example of a woman succeeding despite monumental obstacles. Had she been born in another time who knows what she might have accomplished? As it is her ideas helped to create a Mexican identity and today Sor Juana is known as the “Intellectual Mother of Mexico”; she is also considered the last great author of Spain’s Golden Age.
Brooke Gazer operates a bed and breakfast in Huatulco, Agua Azul la Villa http://www.bbaguaazul.com