The succinct life of Mexican writer Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, a muse who was taken away by an epidemic from which she could not escape

12/07/2021

Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz was born on November 12, 1651, in San Miguel de Nepantla, State of Mexico, and was one of the most outstanding literary figures of Mexico. Also known as "the Tenth Mexican Muse" or "the Phoenix of America", she was the author of baroque dramatic works such as "Amor es más laberinto" ("Love is more labyrinth") and "Los empeños de una casa" ("The pawns of a house").

It was on February 24, 1669, when she took her final vows and became Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. In the convent, she wrote most of her work and reached literary maturity. The writer composed a great number of plays, among her most outstanding comedies is "Los empeños de una casa". Her first published book was "Inundación Castálida" in which she gathered a good part of her poetic work, it was published in Madrid, long before in New Spain.

About Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz

Juana Ramirez de Asbaje, a woman of the XVII century in New Spain, has been known by her religious name as Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, a name that is also related to other famous epithets that the nun bore during her lifetime: Tenth Mexican Muse, Phoenix of America and Phoenix of Mexico. The years of birth and death have been discussed, however, after several studies, it can be concluded that she was born on November 12, 1648 (it was thought for a long time on the date of 1651); she died on April 17, 1695.

The family history of Juana Inés begins with the arrival of her maternal grandparents, Pedro Ramírez de Santillana and Beatriz Rendón, who apparently came from Sanlúcar de Barrameda (Andalusia) and settled between the towns of Huichapan and Yecapixtla. From this couple was born, among eleven children, the poet's mother, Isabel Ramirez (an illiterate Creole born in Yecapixtla), who eventually met in San Miguel Nepantla the captain (of Basque origin) Pedro Manuel de Asbaje y Vargas Machuca, with whom she had three children: Maria, Josefa Maria, and Juana Ines. Sometime later the captain disappeared from Isabel Ramírez's life, and she joined another captain named Diego Ruiz Lozano, with whom she had other children: Diego (1656 or 1657), Antonia (1658), and Inés (1659).

The girl Juana Inés grew up mainly among the haciendas of Nepantla and Panoayán, in the library of her grandfather, who combined reading and culture with the planting of corn, wheat and raising cattle; it is known that at this time, some slaves (blacks and mulattoes) were used for farming. The years of learning her first letters were spent in these beautiful places that always look towards the Popocatepetl and Ixtaccihuatl volcanoes. Juana Inés' maternal grandparents, Pedro Ramírez de Santillana and Beatriz de los Reyes Ramírez, died between 1655 and 1657, and Sor Juana's mother took full charge of the haciendas. Towards those years her three half-siblings were born. She composed her first Eucharistic Loa to the Blessed Sacrament around 1656-1657. According to her biographer, Father Calleja, Juana Inés may have moved to the capital of the kingdom after the age of eight, where she was received by her maternal aunt María Ramírez, wife of Juan de Mata. However, we have more accurate information from the time the young girl was fifteen years old and especially from the time she had relations with the viceregal court.

Juana Inés' life was changing in the "very loyal and noble city of Mexico. At her aunt María's house, she learned feminine tasks, "labors that women do". Around the same time, she received her first 20 lessons of Latin grammar with the bachelor Martín Olivas (which were paid for by her confessor, Father Antonio Nuñez de Miranda). Sometime later she was already in the viceregal court around 1665, at the service of the vicereine, Marquise of Mancera. On August 14, 1667, she entered the convent of San José of the Discalced Carmelite nuns and on November 18 of the same year she left it, it is believed that it was for personal reasons not accepting the hardness of the Teresian order.

Around the year 1668, in February, Juana Inés entered as a novice in the convent of San Jerónimo, of the daughters of Santa Paula (founded in 1585) where the rule of St. Augustine was practiced. It is assumed that the dowry paid for her entrance may have been subsidized by her cousin-in-law Juan Caballero (husband of her cousin Isabel, daughter of Maria and Juan de Mata) who covered the amount of 3000 pesos in gold of the time. She professed as a nun in this same convent on February 24, 1669; where she protested as a Hieronymite nun of choir and veil: "Protest that, signed with her blood, she made of her faith and love for God". The first illness of typhus put her in real danger around 1671 or 1672. In this place, the young nun spent the rest of her life, approximately 27 years, of which she excelled more than in the religious exercise (which she fulfilled fully) in writing and in the administration of the convent of which she was the accountant for nine years. These were years in which Sister Juana lived fraternally with the Marquises of Mancera, whom she loved very much and dedicated part of her poetry to. Around 1673, her protector and patron, the Marquise of Mancera Leonor Carreto, died (in Tepeaca, Puebla, on her way to Veracruz).

The year 1680 will be very significant for the viceregal city as well as for the Hieronymite nun since she composes the Triumphal Arch of the allegorical Neptune of the recently arrived viceroys, the Marquises of La Laguna. From this moment on, the fame of the Hieronymite nun, as well as her maturity in letters, came one by one, in addition to receiving economic support for her personal and conventual projects. At the same time, her good relationship with the Court allowed her to write more every day. Prior to the publication of his complete works, some of his carols had already been published in 1676 and would continue until 1691. Not only did he write poetry, in 1683 he presented in the Mexican city, the winning comedy of a contest in which he participated and won: Los empeños de una casa ("The pawns of a house").

But not everything was triumphing in the life of Juana Inés, it seems that successes were interspersed with sorrows. In 1688 (January 3) her mother Isabel Ramirez died. The following year and thanks to the protection of the viceroy's wife, Doña María Luisa Manrique de Lara, Countess of Paredes, one of the most important compendiums of all her work was published in Madrid under the title of the Castalid Flood of 1689. In this Spanish edition, all of Sor Juana's beautiful poems are made known, which had already consecrated her as a poet of life, love, and the trials and tribulations of heartbreak, rather than as a nun. In this volume we can find her well-known sonnets, romances, redondillas, endechas, liras, and other lyrical genres, adding to the brilliance of the verses of the aforementioned Triumphal Arch of the allegorical Neptune.

Besides her poetry and her winning drama in the contest, Los empeños de una casa, she also wrote the comedy Amor es más laberinto (whose premiere was in 1689). The first is a work that is entirely due to the writer and the second was made in collaboration with Juan de Guevara (who was in charge of the second act). Both are typical comedies of cloak and sword or also called in the peninsula comedies of entanglement, they have the flavor of the true theater of the Spanish golden centuries with dyes ranging from the national theater of Lope de Vega to the more complex theater of Calderon de la Barca. From this last Spanish playwright, we also find correspondence with the other great genre worked by the Hieronymite: three auto sacramentals written by Sister Juana: El cetro de José (in Madrid, 1692), El mártir del sacramento San Hermenegildo (also from 1692) and El divino Narciso (published in 1690). The first of the autos sacramentals is biblical, the second historical, and the last mythological.

Sister Juana wrote, only one year after the "Castalid Flood" (of 1689) the well-known Athenagoric Letter of 1690, whose original name was The Crisis of a Sermon in which she answers a famous sermon of the Portuguese Father Antonio Vieyra (preached in Lisbon since 1650) and where she replies theologically about the finiteness of Christ, letter that cost her a strong scolding and hard assertions about her religious life and her leisure time in writing on the part of the Bishop of Puebla, whose pseudonym for the occasion of the scolding was that of Sister Filotea de la Cruz.

To answer the letter of Bishop Manuel Fernández de Santa Cruz, Sister Juana meditates and writes her Respuesta a Sor Filotea ["Reply to Sister Philothea"] (March 1, 1691), in this interesting text we can know several biographical and intellectual data of Sister Juana since she was a little girl. In the same year of the Respuesta, Sor Juana publishes in Puebla de los Angeles the villancicos a Santa Catarina ex profesos for the cathedral of Oaxaca. In the same way, in the Respuesta she declares to have written for her own pleasure a little paper "that they call El sueño" ("The Dream"). A philosophical poem of 975 verses written in a syllable that follows the rhetorical models of the time and in which Sor Juana herself declares that it was written in the likeness of Góngora's Las soledades ("The Solitudes"). Poem by the Cordovan poet written around 1613. However, the intention in Sor Juana's poem is to capture a journey of knowledge and the impotence of being able to possess everything at the end of the enlightened world. This enlightened world was perhaps also a way of naming future knowledge; the century that would soon arrive and which Sor Juana would no longer enjoy (18th century).

Towards the year 1692, the "Second volume of the Works of Soro Juana Inés de la Cruz" (Seville, 1692) is published. Between this year and the following one (1693), she writes her interesting Enigmas for the Portuguese nuns' Casa do placer. From this date onwards we find already a resounding separation and a retreat in the nun writer, she stops going to the parlor and begins a silence without return. Finally, in the year before her death, on February 8, 1694, she signed her "Profession of Faith" and ratified her religious vows with her blood; she reiterated her defense of the Immaculate Conception.

By the year 1695, on April 17, she died as a result of the typical epidemic disease of the time, typhus. Very well it was not known to name the disease was compared to a disease that struck the plantations with strong and large spots, this was the tabardillo Typhus or tabardillo, it is not known but that same year, it is known, seven nuns died (in the month of April were three of this). Their confessor, Father Antonio Núñez de Miranda, also died. Juana Inés was buried in the lower choir of the church of the temple of San Jerónimo, currently, the former temple of San Jerónimo de la Universidad Claustro de Sor Juana, where she received the name of Auditorio "Divino Narciso" (Divine Narcissus Auditorium). In 1700 was published in Madrid: "Fama y Obras phóstumas del Fénix de México, décima Musa, Poetisa Americana Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz" (Fame and Posthumous Works of the Phoenix of Mexico, tenth Muse, American Poetess Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz).

This succinct life of Sister Juana serves to remind us 325 years after her death of the vulnerability of the human being. The prodigies, the charms, and all the wisdom of our muse was taken away by an epidemic from which she could not escape by serving her community within the convent.

By Lourdes Aguilar Salas, Antología Sor Juana y su mundo, University of the Cloister of Sor Juana, Mexico. Source: Ministry of the Interior