To live alone—to have no obligation that would hinder the freedom to study—not even a communal murmur that would intrude on the peaceful silence of my books.
–Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz
It is December 2009, and my friend Jane and I are wandering the aisles of the massive Feria Internacional del Libro in Guadalajara, the second largest book fair in the world. It is an annual eight-day event where almost two thousand publishers exhibit in a hall that covers 40,000 square meters. That is about ten acres, and we’re tired, overwhelmed not only by the size of the space, but also by the crowd and the level of enthusiasm. Most of the people here are under thirty.
I retreat to the precincts of some university press exhibit and make connection with a bright young woman—one who’s been dead for over three hundred years. It is her name emblazoned across a pure white volume two inches thick that catches my eye: Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz: Obras Completas. Her complete works in one book, I think. Wow! I lift it to take a closer look. Volume I, it says. Beneath it lie Volume II, Volume III, and Volume IV. Wow, indeed! I had heard her work described as voluminous. The publisher’s display brings the fact home. This woman was smart—and prolific. All of it was accomplished before her mid-forties. Not just “Wow!” Whew! I’ve just turned sixty and am trying to get just one book written.
Marisabia. Mary Sage. That’s the Spanish term for a female know-it-all. I suppose I acted like one when I was very young. Until I was seven, we lived on a red-brick paved street in an old part of Lubbock, Texas, just a block off Broadway. There were no other children around to play with, and my social skills were formed through talking with our neighbors, all of whom were elderly. To their credit, they seemed to think I was brilliant, a purview I carried with me into the first grade and beyond. This opinion of myself had largely disappeared by the time I hit puberty, as is often the case with young women. Every society has ways of encouraging young girls to keep quiet. It’s always encouraging to see one break out and just keep getting better and better. Sor Juana was one of those.
She’s world-famous, and in Mexico her picture graces the 200-peso note. That would put the image of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz in greater circulation than that of the Virgin of Guadalupe. Maybe. At least Sor Juana’s experience of having her picture engraved on national currency hasn’t paralleled that of the Susan B. Anthony dollar, whose coin in the United States, the only U.S. currency to bear a feminine image, now serves as either an object of curiosity or an irritating inconvenience without a designated compartment in the cash drawer—probably because of its 11-sided rim.
For a seventeenth-century nun, Sor Juana still gets around.
Of course, she was not always a nun. Juana Inés de Asbaje y Ramírez was born in New Spain (Mexico) in November 1648. She learned to read when she was three years old, by sneaking off to school with her older sister. At eight, she wrote her first publicly performed literary work, and prior to becoming a teenager, she mastered Latin in only twenty lessons. When she was fourteen, she became maid of honor to the wife of the Spanish Viceroy in Mexico City, and delighted the court with her erudition and learning. But at twenty-one she entered a convent because in order to continue her life of writing, musical composition, scientific and mathematical studies, and vast correspondence with other literary personages of the day, that was the only option available to her. She became Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, a daughter of the church and a bride of Christ.
She was not particularly religious. Many scholars (mostly males) have speculated on her reasons for going into a convent—did she have an unhappy love affair, some ask? But she wrote and said repeatedly that she only wanted to be by herself—happily studying, without having to fix dinner for anyone or share the bed of a demanding husband.
“Ah, then!” others exult. “She must have been a lesbian!” Her rapturous love poetry is indeed addressed not to any man, but to several women who acted as her patronesses. It is, however, doubtful that any enduring physical relationship could have been indulged among so many witnesses. For her “cell” in the convent was in actuality a salon, where she received daily visits from anyone in the upper classes of seventeenth century Mexico City interested in having an erudite conversation. Sor Juana had opinions and never failed to voice them, either verbally, or in her prodigious writings. How did she get away with that? Well, she didn’t. Not for long. This is how it happened.
Picture this. You’re Sor Juana and you’re having an interesting conversation with friends who have called on you in your cell at the convent. These are men and women of Mexico City who share an intellectual bent, and the subject is a theological point. As usual, you state your perspective clearly, logically, and with an articulate skill that draws admiration from others. One of your friends makes a request: “Sor Juana, you’ve obviously given this matter a good deal of thought, and you express yourself so well on the subject. Might I have a draft of your ideas, so I can study them further?” Your friend happens to be a bishop, one who has supported and defended you in the past, so you hate to refuse him.
“The paper is incomplete!” you respond. “I’ve just been jotting my thoughts down, and they are far from ready to be presented publicly.”
“Oh, this is something just between the two of us,” he responds. “I would never dream of making them generally available. They are just for my own personal study. Oh, please, do let me have a copy. You can trust me completely.” (Heh, heh, heh.)
Because you are, after all a nun, and a very good girl, you acquiesce, and send the Bishop of Puebla your incomplete work.
The next thing you know, your rough little essay appears in print, just as it was written. Alongside it is a letter, which appears to be written by one of your sisters in the order of Carmelites, a certain Sor Filotea, though she is unfamiliar to you. Does such a person really exist? You think not. The only person who has had access to your manuscript is your “friend,” the Bishop of Puebla.
“Sor Filotea” proceeds to chastise you for stepping outside your role as a nun and daring to express your opinion on matters that should not concern women at all. It is also obvious, she continues, from the rudimentary nature of your essay, the incomplete sentences and far-from polished language you use, that you don’t have the capabilities to express yourself well at all. But isn’t that common for all women? Give up trying to be a scholar, “Sor Filotea” counsels, and devote your life to what you are best suited—the quiet contemplation of Christ and ministry to others.
Perfidy! You have been twice deceived! Not only has your trusted friend done what he promised not to do, but, hiding behind the persona of a woman, he has rebuked you as a woman for being what you are. Double betrayal! Sor Juana’s response, Respuesta a Sor Filotea, is a classic text in defense of woman’s intelligence and right to education. It is acknowledged as a literary work of genius, full of double meanings, ironic twists, and humor that is revealed level upon level depending on the familiarity the reader has with Bible texts and cultural mores of the 1600s. She addresses “Sor Filotea,” sardonically and with exaggerated humility, but also takes a familiar tone that would have not been possible had she been writing directly to a bishop of the Church, as in fact she was. She takes the opportunity to gender-switch, imploring “Sor Filotea” to “imagine herself a man.” But she also draws parallels to her own situation and that of the Virgin Mary, making word plays on, for instance, the heavenly “signs” that foretold Mary’s experience and her, Sor Juana’s, own present day “insignificant” life. In another place, she compares the magnificat that the Virgin was inspired to raise in praise with “Sor Filotea’s” own “magnificently written” critique of Sor Juana’s work.
Response to Sor Filotea has a distinct place in the library of feminist thought. It rises significantly above the vast amount of her other work, which is compiled in the four large volumes I’ve found at the book fair. That Mexico now gives her such honor, that her image is still (ahem) “current,” speaks volumes itself for the respect accorded women’s learning. Though Mexico is often depicted as a macho society—and I’m not disputing that at all—there are as many Mexicans who can quote the first words of her poem “Hombres Necios,” (“Foolish Men”) as there are Americans who can quote verses from the prologue of Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. Maybe it’s because the first verse of “Hombres Necios” is printed right on the Mexican 200-peso note, just under the words “Banco de México.”
However, La Respuesta was Sor Juana’s last great effort. Shortly after its publication in 1695, she sold all her musical and scientific instruments, as well as the library of over 4,000 books she had collected. Giving the proceeds to charity, she renewed her religious vows, and devoted herself to serving the poor alongside the other sisters in her order. Three months later she died while nursing the sick during a cholera epidemic.
Did the bishop’s criticism indeed strike some vulnerable spot in the psyche of this incredibly intelligent woman? In her mid-forties with a large body of work under the girdle of her habit, it is unlikely that the bishop’s words would have spawned a cloud of self-doubt in the heart of one so grounded. It is a question scholars have puzzled over for centuries. Her seeming capitulation has been a disappointment to feminists, and has provided fuel for those who would say, “See? Told you so!”
Perhaps there is a simpler explanation for Sor Juana’s retreat and subsequent demise. Maybe it wasn’t a retreat at all. I have another friend, a woman much older than I, who has seen her share of battles on the women’s intellectual freedom front. It’s a war that can seem tediously repetitious. “Sometimes,” she confided to me, “you wonder if things will ever change. You just get worn out dealing with dodos.”
–Excerpt from Virgin Territory: How I Found My Inner Guadalupe, Porsimisma Press