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 might slake her thirst for material knowledge, but when she sought to become more ascetic by depriving herself of her books, her mind became even more active. She thrived on experimentation. She became torn between reason and passion, and was instilled with guilt. Toward the end of her life, this guilt became severe. Mexico was suffering from both natural and political problems: rain, flood, famine, pestilence, a total solar eclipse, and riots that almost ended Spanish authority.
At the same time, Sor Juana’s supportive confessor withdrew, and she was harassed by his successor. In 1693, the second edition of a volume of her poems appeared in Spain, and copies soon appeared in Mexico. These circumstances worked against her spiritual life, causing her, on February 8, 1694, to pen a reaffirmation of her faith, written in her own blood, and renew her vows. Her library, said to number some four thousand volumes, and her other personal possessions were sold for charity. Mortification of the flesh became part of her life in the ensuing months. A pestilence struck the city, and as a result of her ministrations to her sick sisters in the community, she met her death on April 17, 1695. The “Muse of Mexico” had ceased to sing. Her passing must have been some satisfaction to her, for her last years were tormented by the mental conflict and turmoil caused by her passion for religion and secular matters, and she yearned to die.
Juana Inés de Asbaje y Ramírez de Santillana was born in November, 1648, in San Miguel Nepantla, some sixty kilometers southeast of Mexico City. She was the illegitimate child of a Spanish captain and a Creole mother. In the charming The Answer, she tells how she learned to read at the age of three and tagged along with one of her sisters to La Amiga, an elementary school, where she took her first formal lessons. She says that, at the age of eight, she begged her mother to let her cut her hair and dress like a boy so she could attend the university. That being denied her, she continued her self-education by reading the classics she found in her grandmother’s house. Around 1659, she was allowed to go to Mexico City and live with the family of one of her aunts. Although not enrolled in the university, Juana privately continued her studies, which included twenty lessons in Latin. Twenty was apparently sufficient, for subsequently she was able to write Latin poetry as well as anyone in the viceroyalty.
By 1664, Sor Juana was a member of the viceregal court and was the darling of the vicereine. She so impressed the viceroy, the marques de Mancera, with her knowledge, that he arranged for forty professors from the university to give her tests. Sor Juana passed them all, amazing the local elite. Her several years of court life must have been intense, emotional years. She was a beautiful woman and was doubtless wooed by gentlemen of some wealth and position. Nevertheless, by 1669, she had entered the convent and had taken religious vows, as much from aversion to marriage as from attraction to the celibate life. It was her desire to be free to learn, she states in The Answer, that was the primary motivation for her vocation.
For the next twenty-three years, Sor Juana was the major literary figure in colonial Spanish America, composing everything from love sonnets to a treatise on music, almost all her writing being done on request from high-ranking officials of the Roman Catholic Church or the state. She wrote elaborate pieces for performance at liturgical functions, occasional verse for political events, and scenarios and scripts for afternoons of royal entertainment. Not long after the brilliant defense of her studies in The Answer, and at the height of her career, when her collected works were beginning to be published and acclaimed in Spain, pressures by her religious superiors induced her to give away her library of more than four thousand volumes and all her scientific and musical instruments and to abandon writing altogether. Several years later, on April 17, 1695, she died in an epidemic that swept Mexico City.