Juana de Asbaje y Ramírez de Santillana was born November 12, 1651, in San Miguel Nepantla, Mexico. Southeast of Mexico City and within view of two of its most impressive volcanoes, Popocatepetl and Ixtaccihuatl, this sleepy town produced one of Mexico’s greatest lyric poets. Juana’s baptism took place in the equally beautifully situated town of Amecameca.
Juana entered religious life at an early age and thus is best known by the name of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. She was a precocious child, learning to read at the age of three. She was born of a Spanish father and a Creole mother and registered on the rolls of the church as “a daughter of the Church” because her parents were not formally married.
A desire for learning nudged her early; she yearned to know Latin and, after twenty lessons, continued studying on her own so that she was later even able to write verses in Latin. She stopped eating cheese because it was said that it made one stupid. Living with her maternal grandparents, she eagerly read her grandfather’s library. In her eagerness to learn, she would cut off a few inches of her hair, and if she had not reached her learning goal by the time her hair regained its previous length, she cut it again. She believed that a head so devoid of learning should also be devoid of hair.
She begged her mother to let her go to Mexico City, dress as a boy, and enter the university. At eight, she did go to Mexico City to live with relatives. About the same time, she wrote a dramatic poem to the Eucharist. In the capital, this child prodigy caught the eye of the vicereine, the Marquesa de la Laguna, who brought her to live as her lady-in-waiting in the luxurious viceregal palace. Her wit and knowledge caused the viceroy to invite professors from the University of Mexico to examine her in various areas of knowledge; they marveled at her composure and learning. She was envied by the women and courted by the men because of her beauty and worldly wisdom.
In the seventeenth century, a woman had a choice of either marriage or the convent. Sor Juana announced herself completely disinterested in marriage. Fortunately for her, at that time in most sisterhoods, discipline was not severe and within the walls one could find many of the comforts and amenities of secular life. Thus Sor Juana’s choice at sixteen years of age to take her religious vows may not have been so much her desire for an ascetic life, as for an opportunity to continue unhampered in her search for knowledge. Urged by a zealous confessor, she decided to leave the ease and stimulating activities of the viceregal palace.
On August 14, 1667, she entered the Convent of the Discalced Carmelites of Saint Joseph. The strict life there and her inner conflict resulted in ill health, however, and she withdrew on November 18 of that year. On February 24, 1669, she took the first vows in the Convent of the Order of Saint Jerome. This was a less severe and strict life—a virtual haven of calm and culture, a social and literary center. Here she had the occasional companionship of the Manceras, Paredes, and Galves, and in the interlocutory of the convent could visit with the learned Don Carlos de Sigüenza y Góngora, professor of mathematics in the University of Mexico, who could inform her about many of the scientific advances of the time. By this date, many of the European ideas of the early 1600’s were reaching Mexico; there was even comparatively free circulation of nontheological books in Mexico during this period. Sor Juana voraciously sought and exploited all this learning. In addition, she wrote her poems and plays and carried on an extensive correspondence. In this convent she spent the rest of her life, surrounded by her extensive library, until a few years before her death.
The religious institution she had entered, however, was basically identified with the old ways of thinking and concern was felt about her salvation. Sor Juana had hoped that entrance into the convent...
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