She studies, and disputes, and teaches,
and thus she serves her Faith;
for how could God, who gave her reason, want her ignorant?
—Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, Villancico, or, “Carol”, in celebration of St. Catherine of Alexandria (1692)
The reason for this blog, and for writing it on this day, is to celebrate and remember the life and legacy of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz.
In 1994, I was exposed, by chance, to the life and writings of 17th century Novohispana feminist Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. I am the product of twelve years of Catholic education, eight years of which were in an all-women setting. Again, by chance, I learned about Sor Juana in a liberation theology class while studying feminist theology at Harvard Divinity School. In this class, I learned about Sor Juana’s bold advocacy of the right of women to be educated. This spurred me to learn more about this Catholic Latina theologian whom I would later discover was the last great author of El Siglo de Oro (Spain’s Golden Age), recognized in her era as an esteemed poet, mathematician, astronomer, and more. This was the beginning of my life-long passion to reclaim the legacy of Sor Juana and her-story within the Christian, non-Christian Western tradition, and in Spanish and Mexican history.
In this time, I have pondered the question as to why Sor Juana’s life and legacy remain virtually unknown to individuals of Mexican descent and to members of the Roman Catholic Church that she served for more than 25 years of her life as a professed nun. I pose this question after learning that poet Frida Kahlo’s life and legacy are better known in North America than is Sor Juana’s. In reality, Sor Juana’s writings are difficult for most readers to comprehend as they are written in Castilian Spanish. As a consequence, they are challenging for the average native Spanish-speaking individual to understand.
Students are exposed to Sor Juana either on a college level, or more recently in AP high school courses such as Spanish Literature, Mexican History, and Chicana/o Studies. Still, in Mexico City there are parochial schools and a university named after Sor Juana, which is actually on the grounds of the convent in which she resided during her lifetime. Nevertheless, individuals with limited access to education in Mexico often are exposed to, and they possibly memorize, verses of Sor Juana’s infamous poem called, Hombres Necios, or in English, “Misguided Men.” She wrote this poem as a young adult. It criticizes the unfair double standard which men and women endured in her patriarchal 17th century New Spain world.
Hombres necios que acusáis
a la mujer sin razón,
sin ver que sois la ocasión
de los mismo que culpáis:
si con ansia sin igual
solicitáis su desdén,
¿por qué queréis que obren bien
si las incitáis al mal?
Misguided men, who will chastise a woman when no blame is due, oblivious that it is you who prompted what you criticize; if your passions are so strong that you wish that they refrain when you incite them to do wrong? (English translation by Margaret Sayers Peden)
Moreover, in my career as an educator in the United States, I have worked in two settings where my students have primarily been of Mexican descent. The first was in East Los Angeles, California, at a parochial school for girls called Sacred Heart of Jesus. Currently, I teach at California State University in Los Angeles. In both settings, I have posed the question to my students, asking whether they know of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. Sadly, few students do. Most often, some students may raise their hands hesitantly and say they think they may have heard of her name before, but cannot recall the context. I also show my students Sor Juana’s image on the 200 peso Mexican currency. Then students recognize her image immediately. Still, they know little, if anything about Sor Juana. This was my major inspiration for writing this blog.
The timing of this blog is both to celebrate Sor Juana’s life and legacy and to highlight the new Juana Inés Netflix series co-produced by Patricia Arriaga Jordán, and published by the Mexican television series Canal Once and Bravo Films. It was released in January 2017, placing Sor Juana on a global stage. The Netflix series consists of seven episodes in one season. The historical trajectory of Sor Juana’s life, along with quotes peppered throughout the series, is faithful to Mexican Nobel Laureate Octavio Paz’ pioneering book, Sor Juana: Or, the Traps of Faith, published by Harvard University Press in 1988. In my opinion, Paz’ book brought Sor Juana across the Mexican border into the academic world of the United States. It is 500 plus pages in length and documents all aspects of Sor Juana’s life along with the historical influences on her writings in her 17th century New Spain world.
In 2014, I published a book on Sor Juana with the title Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz: Feminist Reconstruction of Biography and Text (Wipf & Stock). It is an estimated 100 pages and I believe it brought Sor Juana across the Mexican border for both the academic and non-academic alike. In it, I argue that Sor Juana, along with being the first feminist of all the Americas, was also a precursor ecofeminist who shared the value of a Mesoamerican worldview advocating not only for the rights of women and the disenfranchised poor but also of the earth that was exploited by a Spanish capitalistic mentality in a post-conquest world. The Netflix Juana Inés series has brought Sor Juana across many borders globally. I am indebted to them.
Today, the question I raise with my students is, “What, if any, is Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz’ relevance today?” Conversations on this topic with scholars in my field include Juan A. Tavárez in the Modern Languages department at California State University, and Dominguez Hills and Alan A. Barrera in the Linguistic Language department of California State University, Fullerton. We agree that, in the 21st century, Sor Juana is a champion of universal human rights, and I would also say of non-human rights because of her sensitivity to ecological issues.
The areas of focus in terms of Sor Juana’s advocacy are: compulsory education, gender equality, linguistic rights, and ecology. In terms of compulsory education, Sor Juana, in her lifetime, advocated not only for women’s right to be educated but for all people: women, men, rich, poor, and of all ethnic backgrounds. In this way, in Sor Juana’s 17th century world, she advocated for compulsory education for all individuals. Sor Juana comments, “Oh, how many abuses would be avoided in our land if the older women were as well instructed . . . and knew how to teach as is commanded by St. Paul and my father St. Jerome!” (Arenal & Powell, The Answer, 85). The logic is that if women were well educated then their daughters and servants would also be educated. In effect, affirming that all individuals would be educated.
Sor Juana also advocated for gender equality in the private sphere between men and women where there is a shared value of housework. Sor Juana believed that science and philosophy are an integral part of the kitchen, which she refers to as a laboratory. She states, “Well, and what then shall I tell you, my Lady, of the secrets of nature that I have learned while cooking?” She continues, “It was well put by Lupercio Leonardo that one can philosophize quite well while preparing supper. I often say, when I make these little observations, ‘Had Aristotle cooked, he would have written a great deal more’.” (Arenal & Powell, The Response, 75). In bringing Aristotle into her reflection on gender roles in the kitchen, Sor Juana affirms that men are invited to cook, and could learn from cooking in the kitchen. Sor Juana also equalizes the Spanish and the native language of her 17th century New Spain world. In this way, she encourages the preservation of dialects in her poetry and models in her era a respect for all different ethnic backgrounds and linguistics. In this poem, Sor Juana integrates Spanish and Nahuatl terms. Sor Juana states:
Tocotín (“theater”, Nahuatl)
Los Padres bendito (“The Blessed Fathers”, Spanish)
tiene ò Redentor; (“have a redeemer”, Spanish)
amo nic neltoca (“love”, Spanish; “to believe in something”, Nahuatl)
quimati (“he knows it”, Nahuatl)
no Dios (“not God”, Spanish)
Sólo Dios (“only God”, Spanish)
Piltzintli (“dear Son”, Nahuatl)
del Cielo bajó (“descended from Heaven”, Spanish)
tlatlácol (“forgive us”, Nahuatl)
nos lo perdonó (“forgave our sins”, Spanish).
The blessed fathers
have a redeemer,
I don’t believe it
I know my God.
Only God’s dear Son
descended from Heaven
and forgave us
(Translation by Theresa A. Yugar)
Lastly, Sor Juana is an advocate of human ecology that includes an interdisciplinary approach to the study of the universe. Sor Juana’s infamous poem Primero Sueño is an exemplar of this as it describes a metaphysical dream where las diosas (goddesses)—the moon, the sun, and the stars—reign. For myself, Sor Juana is a tlamantini, a term coined by the Nahua people that alludes to an esteemed wise person within the community. In Nahua culture, the tlamantini understood the world through interdisciplinary methods and experimentation, as Sor Juana alludes to in the kitchen above. Sor Juana states: “For there is no creature however lowly . . . all composing one single species.” She continues, “The laws found in the Bible dwell on relationships, not only among individuals but also with other living beings” (Arenal and Powell, 73).
In 1925, Sorjuanista scholar Dorothy Schons referred to Sor Juana as “The First Feminist in the New World” (Merrim, Feminist Perspectives on Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, 31). In 1974, Sor Juana was awarded this title in Mexico. In 2017, I argue that Sor Juana is a precursor ecofeminist and a champion of universal human, and non-human, rights.
Theresa A. Yugar is a Catholic feminist theologian. She has a Master’s degree in Feminist Theology from Harvard University and a Ph.D. from Claremont Graduate University in Women’s Studies in Religion. Currently, she is a Lecturer in the Liberal Studies, Chicana(o) and Latina(o) Studies, and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies departments at California State University, Los Angeles. She is the author of the book, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz: Feminist Reconstruction of Biography and Text (Wipf & Stock, 2014). Her research focuses on reclaiming ecological counter-narratives within Latin America, including re-interpretations of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
Electa Arenal & Amanda Powell trans., Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz: The Answer/La Respuesta, Expanded Edition (The Feminist Press at The City University of New York: NY, 2009).
Michelle A. Gonzalez, Sor Juana: Beauty and Justice in the Americas (Maryknoll: NY, 2003).
Edith Grossman, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz: Selected Works (W. W. Norton & Company: NY, 2014).
Stephanie Merrim (ed.), Feminist Perspectives on Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (Wayne State University Press: Detroit, MI, 1999).
Octavio Paz, Sor Juana: Or, The Traps of Faith (The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press: Cambridge, MA, 1988).
Margaret Sayers Peden, trans., Poems, Protest, and a Dream: Selected Writings (Penguin Books: NY, 1997).
Pamela Kirk Rappaport, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz: Selected Readings, The Classics of Western Spirituality (Paulist Press: New York, 2005).
Theresa A. Yugar, Feminist Reconstruction of Biography and Text (Wipf & Stock: Eugene, OR, 2014).
Categories: American History, Ancestors, Catholic Church, Catholicism, Christianity, Ecofeminism, Ecojustice, Education, Feminism and Religion, Film, Foremothers, Herstory, Human Rights, Indigenous Spirituality, Poetry, Social Gospel, Social Justice, Vowed Religious, Women and Scholarship, Women in the Church, Women Religious