Sister Juana Inés de la Cruz

Sister Juana Inés de la Cruz (1651-1695) was a Mexican nun renowned for her phenomenal knowledge of the arts and sciences of her day, her devotion to scientific inquiry, and her lyric poetry.

Sister (or Sor) Juana Inés de la Cruz was born Juana Inés de Abasje Y Ramirez de Santillana on the Hacienda of Nepantla of respectable although unmarried parents. She was placed in the custody of her maternal grandfather. By the time she was 3, she had learned to read. At 8 she wrote a respectable short Eucharistic drama. At about the same time she moved to Mexico City to live with relatives, where she soon learned enough Latin to write excellent verse in that language.

Juana's talents came to the attention of the vicereine, who named her maid-in-waiting in the viceregal court. Here Juana's intellectual and literary capacities continued to develop, along with an equally precocious physical beauty which devastated the young men of Mexico's high society.

Monastic Life

Ultimately, Juana found the worldly life not to her taste. In 1667 she joined the ascetic Order of Discalced (barefoot) Carmelites in Mexico City, motivated, perhaps, less by religious convictions than by her need for a sanctuary in which to pursue her intellectual and literary interests. The rigorous existence of the Carmelites brought on a severe illness and forced her to change to the less demanding Jeronymite order, in which she spent the rest of her life.

Surrounded by her library of some 4,000 books and her musical and scientific instruments, Sister Juana continued to develop and refine her knowledge of theology, philosophy, astronomy, mathematics, literature, painting, and music. She corresponded with the best minds of Mexico and Europe and was a friend of savants in the viceregal capital.

Sister Juana wrote morality plays, Christmas carols, allegorical essays, worldly three-act comedies, and, above all, love lyrics, which were her greatest source of fame. The meter and rhyme of her poetry varied, and the style of her writings was florid, ornate, and obscure, as dictated by the prevailing baroque fashion. Yet beneath these artificialities, her work reveals a profound and subtle intellect as well as a spirit deeply troubled by internal tensions and pressures from her external environment. Sister Juana was torn between intellectuality and emotionality; her interests placed her at odds with a value system which for women condoned only marriage, childbirth, and religiosity; her emphasis on secular knowledge conflicted with her status as a bride of Christ; her insistence on rational inquiry challenged sanctified scholastic modes of thought resting on revealed truth.

Sister Juana's social and intellectual deviancy inevitably generated hostility among her monastic associates and opprobrium from her ecclesiastical superiors. Criticism reached a climax in 1690 in the form of a letter from the bishop of Puebla, posing as "Sister Philotea," which admonished her for neglecting religious literature. In her "Reply to Sister Philotea," written the following year, Sister Juana vigorously defended her interests and methods of inquiry. Nevertheless, hurt by such criticisms and perhaps burdened by feelings of guilt, she abjectly reaffirmed her faith in 1694, renounced the world, disposed of her books and instruments, and devoted herself to penance and mortification of the flesh. She died the following year while ministering to sisters stricken by an epidemic.

Despite her great literary talent, modern scholars tend to place greater emphasis on the variety of Sister Juana's intellectual accomplishments. Her passionate devotion to knowledge and her insistence on rational methods of inquiry place her above all contemporary Mexican savants, except perhaps Don Carlos de Sigüenza y Góngora, and identify her as a precursor of the 18th century Enlightenment.

Further Reading on Sister Juana Inés de la Cruz

There are no major studies in English of Sister Juana. Useful introductions to her life and work, however, are in Arturo Torres-Rioseco, New World Literature: Tradition and Revolt in Latin America (1949), and in Irving A. Leonard, Baroque Times in Old Mexico (1959).