She is considered the most outstanding figure of 17th-century colonial Latin America, as well as one of the best poets of Spain's Golden Age. Until recently, there were no specific data on Sor Juana's life other than her autobiographical letter Respuesta a Sor Filotea de la Cruz (written 1691; Response to Sor Filotea de la Cruz). Her recently discovered baptismal certificate states that Juana Inés Ramírez de Asbaje was born in San Miguel de Nepantla, Mexico. Juana was raised in the house of her maternal grandparents, where she secretly learned to read at age three.
When she was about seven and already completely literate, she wanted to study at the University in Mexico City; upon her mother's refusal, Juana quenched her thirst for learning by reading a variety of books borrowed from her grandfather's library. Several years later, she was sent to the city under the care of wealthier relatives. There, she devoted herself to studying Latin, a language she mastered in only 20 lessons. Her beauty and intelligence gained her a position as lady-in-waiting in the viceroyal court under the patronage of the Marquise of Mancera. At age17, Juana brilliantly proved her intellectual genius by successfully passing a public oral examination conducted by several Mexican scholars of her time.
On August 14, 1667, determined to pursue her academic interests, Juana entered the Convent of the Discalced Carmelites of Saint Joseph. Unable to adapt to the rigorous confinement and highly restrictive rules of convent life, she left the order three months later to rejoin the court. On February 21, 1669, Juana entered the Convent of the Order of St. Jerome, where she adopted the name Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. Her intellectual and scientific curiosity gained her the admiration of the most outstanding scholars and writers of the New World. At a time when few men could read and write, Sor Juana owned a vast personal library exceeding 4,000 volumes. Members of the viceroyal court constantly commissioned her to write poetry and drama, which she did with great success.
Despite her fame as a poet and playwright, Sor Juana had to constantly defend her intellectual vocation within a society where the Spanish Inquisition was still active in the colonies and the realm of academia was strictly reserved for men. In 1690, an anonymous person commissioned her to compose a critique on a sermon delivered in 1650 by Portuguese Jesuit Antonio de Vieyra. In this essay, later published under the title of Carta Atenagórica (Athenagoric Letter), Sor Juana questioned and challenged Father Vieyra's theological views. The bishop of Puebla, Manuel Fernández de Santa Cruz, replied to Sor Juana's letter with one of his own, signed under the pseudonym Sor Filotea de la Cruz. The letter reveals his admiration of the nun's erudition and rhetorical dexterity, but it aims to discourage her interest in profane literature. This attack resulted in Sor Juana's famous autobiographical essay, Respuesta a Sor Filotea de la Cruz (c. 1692; Response to Sor Filotea). Here, the Mexican nun tactfully, yet sarcastically, justifies her scholarly vocation as a natural impulse God laid upon her, while at the same time admitting that convent life was the most decent path she could follow since she felt total abhorrence toward marriage.
In this firsthand account, Sor Juana reveals several aspects of her personality as she vehemently defends women's right to receive an education. In 1692, the first edition of the second volume of her works was successfully published in Seville; however, the Mexican nun had already decided to give up her studies and writing and devote herself completely to religious life. She disbursed all her possessions, forsaking a life-long pursuit to attain universal knowledge, and finally entered the spiritual path. She sold her books and her musical and scientific instruments, donating all proceeds to charity. A year later, she contracted cholera in an epidemic that plagued Mexico, and died on April 17.
Sor Juana's work reflects the influence of the main literary, philosophical, theological, and scientific tendencies of 17th-century European intellectual thought. Her work embraces a wide variety of poetic styles and encompasses a diverse array of such literary genres as carols, eulogies, essays, comedies, and secular and religious plays. Each of her writings offers a genuine example of the linguistic, rhetorical, and mental games typical of euphuism and conceptism (17th-century literary movements that often used such stylistic literary devices as riddles, euphemisms, conceits, and puns). In her excellence, Sor Juana joins the Spanish Golden Age's greatest writers, including Lope de Vega, Francisco Quevedo, Luis de Góngora, and Pedro Calderón de la Barca.
See also Convent Writing in Spain and the New World; Feminism in Spanish America; Inquisition and Literature in the Hispanic World.
Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz Project. http://www.dartmouth.edu/~sorjuana/.
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