Who Inspires Me: Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz

“I don’t study to know more, but to ignore less.”

Juana Inés de la Cruz

The story of Juana Ines takes us way back, to the 1660’s in New Spain (Mexico). I remember the first time I read about Juana Ines I was still a little girl. And the one thing that caught my attention about her was the fact that she had decided to become a nun because she refused to get married. Juana Inés de Asbaje (her real name) was a feminist; a rebellious and “too outspoken” young lady for her time.

Juana Ines at age 15

She was known for being smart since she was very young, when at 3 years old she tricked her sister’s teacher so that she would teach her to read and write. She also learned Latin and Nahuatl (Aztec language) at a very young age. She educated herself in her own library (inherited from her grandfather), in a time where women weren’t supposed to be educated and books were forbidden for girls. I think for this story to make sense, it’s very important to understand the context of the time in which it took place:

It was in 1519 when Hernan Cortes started conquering the Aztec empire. Needless to say, they came in killing and forcing natives to work as slaves; stealing silver and gold from Mexico. They brought many diseases with them such as smallpox and influenza, that ended up killing many natives as well. Mexico became a colony of Spain; they forced natives to turn to Christianity that later on turned into Catholicism, and they were also forced to learn Spanish.

Now, as you can imagine, the church (as an institution and not a religion in specific) played a very important role back then. Not only did they had a very close relationship with the royals, they basically ruled the New Spain. In a way, they wanted people to stay ignorant. Whatever they said (like when they said the earth was the center of the Universe, and the rest of the planets including the sun revolved around it) was the absolute truth and no one should dare to go against their words because they’d be punished. They had the power to decide the books people could read and which ones were prohibited. They would burn the ones that weren’t “church-approved”. They said women were supposed to stay ignorant so that they could serve their husbands for life. So now you can imagine why Juana Ines was such a rebel. By reading her grandpa’s books and educating herself she was already breaking the rules.

Juana Ines is known for her poems; she wrote her first one when she was only eight years old, and she continued writing throughout her life in Spanish, Latin and Nahuatl. But the main reason why I want to write about her is because of her rebellious spirit and character. She put her education above everything, even if it meant going against the system. Even when she knew she could be punished. She learned Nahuatl even when natives were being forced to forget their language and learn Spanish. She asked her mom permission to disguise herself as a male student so that she could go to the University, and after her mother said no, she continued to educate herself in secret. The viceroy decided to test Juana’s intelligence when she was 17 years old, inviting several theologians, jurists, philosophers, and poets to a meeting where they asked her to explain several different points on different scientific and literary subjects. Needless to say, she ended up gaining the respect of every single man in that room. 

Not only did she defied the system by educating herself even though she “didn’t have the right to”, she also questioned the church; why should she obey an institution that brought suffering to innocent people? Why should she pay more respect to an institution than to God himself?

It was in 1667 when she became a nun, not only because she refused to get married, but because she said it was the only occupation that would allow her to continue with her studies full-time. She dedicated her life to her writing, often criticizing the misogyny and hypocrisy of men; this caused her to be forced to sell her collection of books in 1694. She died the next year after she caught “the plague” while treating other nuns. Only a few of her writings survived, after they were saved by the viceroy’s wife, who had a big affection and respect for Juana Ines because of her intelligence.

I could never write just one post about the life of Sor Juana, let alone her work. But I do recommend that you read Sor Juana, Or, The Traps of Faith by Octavio Paz in case you’re interested in learning more about this amazing character in Mexican’s history, that not only has inspired others through her writing, but also paved the way for the fight of women’s rights in this country.

“O world, why do you wish to persecute me? How do I offend you, when I intend only to fix beauty in my intellect, & never my intellect fix on beauty?
I do not set store by treasures or riches; & therefore it always brings me more joy only to fix riches in my intellect, & never my intellect fix on riches.
I do not set store by a lovely face that, vanquished, is civil plunder of the ages, & perfidious wealth has never pleased me,
for I deem it best, as one of my truths, to deplete the vanities of this life & never this life to deplete in vanities.” – Juana Ines de la Cruz, Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz: Selected Writings

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