Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz: Mexico’s Great Literary Pioneer and Feminist

Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz was a pioneering feminist poet and scholar from the 17th century

Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz

Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz by Miguel Cabrera

This time of year is all about remembering, acknowledging, and celebrating the many contributions women have made in various fields including STEM, activism, and the humanities. To celebrate, we’re looking back on our collective history and highlighting some important Latinas that everyone should know. One historical figure in particular who is well-known around the world, especially in Latin America, is Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. She was a groundbreaking nun, feminist poet, musician, composer, philosopher, and scholar who regularly broke the social conventions of her time and paved the way for the next generations of Latina intellectuals and poets. She’s often credited as the first published feminist literary figure in the Americas and one of the most famous and brilliant Spanish-language writers in Mexico and the larger LATAM region. In honor of Women’s History Month we’re recognizing powerful Latinas throughout history including this pioneering feminista from Mexico. Her legacy continues to be felt today and she deserves to be honored for her historic work. Read on to learn about Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, the first published feminist poet of the New World.

Early Life

Born Juana Inés de Asbaje y Ramírez de Santillana in 1648, she grew up in the rural Mexican town of San Miguel Nepantla, back then known as New Spain. From an early age, her family saw that she had the makings of a child prodigy even though as a girl, she wasn’t allowed to receive a formal education. In fact, by the time she turned three, she could already read and write. Besides Spanish, she also became fluent in Latin and Nahuatl soon after.

When her mother sent her to live in Mexico City, a government official noticed her talent and invited her to become a lady-in-waiting in the official ruling court. But she had her own plans for her life and knew that she didn’t want to get married or have a job that would take time away from her academic studies. She decided she would become a nun and over the next few years, tried living at a few different convents before choosing the Convent of San José de las Carmelitas de México in 1667 before returning to the Viceroyals‘ court. Sor Juana joined the Convent of San Jerónimo in Mexico City on February 15, 1669 where she would stay for the rest of her life. It was around this time that she chose her new name, becoming the now iconic Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz.

Career and Setbacks

While at the convent, Sor Juana was able to thrive intellectually and emotionally. She had her own space and time to write poems, prose, and plays, and was able to teach music and drama at the local all-girls school. She wrote about a number of topics including love, religion, and women’s rights. She was also an avid reader and collected thousands of books for her private library, which quickly became one of the largest book collections in the New World. From what historians can conjecture, she may have had over 4,000 books, alongside her musical and scientific instruments. That’s right, she was a musician as well. She became so well-known and respected that her work was even published in Spain and displayed at state festivals.

But her work wasn’t without its critics. Church officials including priests and bishops were heavily disapproving of her work because of how it criticized the church. Once, the bishop of Puebla, Manuel Fernández de Santa Cruz, published her critique of a sermon given by Jesuit preacher António Vieira without her knowledge, consent, or permission, attempting to punish her for being so outspoken. He also advised her to stop focusing on the secular aspects of her work and to focus on religion instead, basically telling her to keep quiet and not attempt to disrupt the status quo. Instead, she wrote him a letter, Respuesta a la Ilustre Sor Filotea de la Cruz, that not only perfectly countered his argument but also defended her right to education and knowledge as a woman, citing the fact that her secular studies helped her better understand religious texts. Her fighting words helped elevate her status in society as a well-educated, well-read, and thought-provoking Mexicana. It’s this seminal work that is considered to have helped pave the way for the many waves of feminism that would take place in the years to come.

Prominent Works

Sor Juana wrote hundreds of works throughout her life including sonnets, ballads, plays, dramas, songs, and other poems of all kinds. Her work was quite complex, as it made a lot of references to myths, classical works, and biblical stories. One of her most famous poems, “Hombres necios que acusáis” or “Foolish Men,” points out the hypocrisy of men when it comes to how they want women to “behave” in society: “Foolish men who accuse / women without reason / without seeing that you are the occasion / of the same thing you blame.” Using references to mythological stories, she pins the blame on men for the reason women are held to impossible double standards of beauty, attitudes, and behavior, and how they will always stay unsatisfied.

But one of her most well-known and complex poems was “Primero sueño” from 1692, which follows a soul as it journeys towards knowledge, freeing itself from its human body, basically its vessel, to dream and attain philosophical wisdom. Over the course of almost 1,000 lines, it’s a reflection of her own need and desire to gain knowledge and continuously learn no matter how much time passes. She also composed some works in Nahuatl and wrote about indigenous cultures and religions in her Loa (prologue) to Divine Narcissus, two plays she composed in 1689.

Death and Legacy

Religion leaders Antonio Nuñes de Miranda and Don Francisco de Aguiar y Seijas in Mexico City developed a case against her intellectual pursuits. Her written renunciation, El libro de profesiones de la fé (Book of Vows) is signed in her blood per tradition. She was forced stop her studies, sell her library collection, and return home to nurse her fellow sister nuns who fell ill with the plague. She died on April 17, 1695 and her body is believed to be buried in the Convent of Santa Paula of the “Hieronymite Order” of Saint Jerome. The Claustro de Sor Juana (formerly San Jerónimo Convent) is home to the Claustro de Sor Juana University, a Site Museum, and the Celda Contemporánea art space and gallery.

History has remembered her as a prominent and noteworthy Latina, a pioneer in literature in Mexico and throughout LATAM. Many places have been named after her including her hometown, today known as Nepantla de Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. She can also be seen on the 100-peso bank bill in Mexico, becoming a national symbol of the country’s identity. Once her works were published in the 1900s, she gained greater acclaim and many of her works are studied in schools throughout the world. The series Juana Inés was released on Netflix and explored her rise as a feminist leader and her alleged love affair with a woman. In Sor Juana Or, the Persistence of Pop author Ilan Stavans explores the cultural impact of Sor Juana centuries after her death.

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