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Streets of Poets (Sor Juana)

25 March 2007

The Unapologetic Mexican was kind of happy to see I’d written on the Mexican slaves – and ex-slaves (and I’m happy to point people to Dr. Ted Vincent’s Black Indian Mexican for even more information), so I guess it’s my turn to bounce off one of his posts:

IT’S NOT OFTEN that you’ll hear me say “I sure wish I were in Houston!” But this is an exception.

Concerts, exhibitions and performances are only part of the National Sor Juana Festival: A Tribute to Mexican Women, which begins Sunday and continues at venues across the city through April.

The festival celebrates Mexican-born Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (1648-1695), a poet, playwright, rebel nun — and the first feminist of the Americas. […]

What a woman! Come on. Poet, playwright, rebel nun? Damn.

Nun. Yup. Mexican-born. Yup. Also Mexican lived and died. I had the advantage of having lived in Santa Maria de la Ribera, where the streets are named for Mexican writers and poets. Specifically, I lived next to the fruit vendor (it was a farmacia while I was there) behind the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ empanda stand on Dr. Enrique Gonzales Martinez (who is best know… if known at all… in English for translating T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” into Spanish) and calle Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz.

I don’t understand why Sor Juana isn’t better known in the United States… other than she was Spanish-speaking and Mexican. She was the continent’s first real feminist (what got her in trouble with the Church was defending women’s education), writing philosophy, theology, drama and… when she had the time… poetry.

Her English contemporaries, Donne, Marvell, John Milton, also speculated on God and man and mixed the erotic and sacred in their writing. Though the English think their “metaphysical poetry” is unique, it is all part of the same Baroque mindset. In Spanish literature, she’s at the top of most lists, somewhere between Cervantes and Garcia Lorca. Octavio Paz (who knew something about poetry, and about world literature) once said, the first, and best, American poet.

While I’ve focused my own Mexican history on the foreigners, Sor Juana is one of the people, like Benito Juarez or Santa Ana, just can’t overlook…

The greatest of Mexico’s colonial intellectuals produced mystical and erotic poetry, feminist tracts and philosophical studies. If that wasn’t enough, she defended scientific education in a religious age. This was an unusual combination of talents, especially for a nun.

Juana Inés María del Carmen Martínez de Zaragoza Gaxiola de Asbaje y Ramírez de Santillana Odonoju was a child prodigy. Born in 1651, she could read and write by the time she was three. The only place for a prodigy like Juana was Mexico City. She was sent to live with relatives. She was a talented writer and musician by the time she was a teenager, and was a beauty on top of everything else. The Viceroy’s wife heard about this amazing country girl, and moved her into the palace. The girl could hold her own with scholars and fended off would-be boyfriends with witty verses. Some of her most erotic poetry was addressed to the Viceroy’s wife, which some people take to mean she was a lesbian.

She may have been, but the only career paths for respectable women were as wives or nuns. A housewife wouldn’t be able to pursue intellectual interests, so she joined the Carmelite nuns, taking the religious name Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. The Carmelites practiced strict discipline with no personal comforts – they would only sleep for an hour of two on cold floors between religious services, and never ate hot meals. Sometimes they whipped themselves as a religious practice. This nearly killed Juana, and the Viceroy’s wife rescued her once again, sending her to the Jeronomytes, whom the Carmelites probably considered slackers. The Jeronomyte convents were more women’s residential hotels with religious obligations. Juana collected books, wrote and, shocking the entire Mexican clergy, wrote theology and defended science studies, and women’s education in general.

When the Viceroy and his wife returned to Spain, Juana lost her powerful defenders. Visitors dropped off and the Jeronomyte superiors were suspicious of the radical nun. Cut off from her friends, she either became depressed, or developed serious religious ideas. She gave up her studies, put away her papers and books, moved into an isolated room in the convent and took up the Carmelite practices. In her own blood, she wrote out religious vows, signing them “Juana, the worst of all”. Two years later, at age 43, she died in a cholera epidemic, one of the major intellectuals and writers of the 17th Century1.

Rosa divina II (translated by B. Limosneros)

Rose, heaven’s flower versed in grace,

from your subtle censers you dispense

on beauty, scarlet homilies,

snowy lessons in loveliness.

Frail emblem of our human framing,

prophetess of cultivation’s ruin,

in whose chambers nature beds

the cradle’s joys in sepulchral gloom.

So haughty in your youth, presumptuous bloom,

so archly death’s approaches you disdained.

Yet even as blossoms soon fade and fray

to the tattered copes of our noon’s collapse –

so through life’s low masquerades and death’s high craft,

your living veils all your dying unmasks.



1 Sor Juana is probably the only pre-Independence woman (other than the Virgin of Guadalupe) who’s name you see on street signs. Her portrait is on the 200-peso note. Fittingly, the convent where she lived is now Universidad del Claustro de Sor Juana.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. 26 March 2007 6:02 am

    fantastico! thanks for la historia lección!

  2. 27 March 2007 10:15 pm

    Great insight into Mexican history and the REAL people who made it!

  3. mariachi mama permalink
    30 March 2007 11:45 am

    It’s interesting that Mexico has three poets on our currency, Sor Juana on the $200, Octavio Paz on the $20 coin and Nezahualcoyotl on the $100. Sharped eyed observers will note that one of his poems also appears on the note:

    Amo el canto de zenzontle
    Pájaro de cuatrocientas voces,
    Amo el color del jade
    Y el enervante perfume de las flores,
    Pero más amo a mi hermano: el hombre.

    Thanks, mm… I wrote about that once before. Why does the U.S. have dead presidents, and not poets and philosophers on OUR currency? What does that say about us as a people?

  4. sergio permalink
    30 March 2007 8:41 pm

    I have always admired Sor Juana. By the way, where is Santa María de la Ribera?

  5. 30 March 2007 9:46 pm

    El D.F…. between Insurgentes and the Normal School, north of San Rafael.

  6. Carley permalink
    22 November 2008 7:47 pm

    Can anyone tell me who the artist of the above painting of Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz is?
    This is my favorite painting of her and I wish to own a copy of it.
    This is an early painting of her. And to describe it she is wearing a striped gown and is holding a book in one hand and the other hand is outstretched.
    Thank you!


  1. 16 Anécdotas de Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz « Ciencia e Historia Divertida
  2. The poet in your pocket | The Mex Files

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