Portrait of Juana Inés de la Cruz at age 15
Juana Inés de la Cruz de Asuaje y Ramirez was born in San Miguel Nepantla, near Mexico City. She was the illegitimate child of a Spanish Captain, Pedro Manuel de Asuaje, and a Criollo woman, Isabel Ramirez. Her illegitimacy was due to her mother’s refusal to marry.
She learned how to read and write at the age of three. By age five, she could do accounts, and at age eight she composed a poem on the Eucharist. By adolescence, she had mastered Greek logic, and at age thirteen she was teaching Latin to young children. She also learned the Aztec language of Nahuatl, and wrote some short poems in that language.
In 1664, at age sixteen, Juana was sent to live in Mexico City. She asked her mother’s permission to disguise herself as a male student so that she could enter the university. Not being allowed to do this, she continued her studies privately. She came under the tutelage of the Vicereine Leonor Carreto, wife of Viceroy Antonio Sebastián de Toledo. The viceroy, wishing to test her learning and intelligence (she being then seventeen years old), invited several theologians, jurists, philosophers, and poets to a meeting, during which she had to answer, unprepared, many questions, and explain several difficult points on various scientific and literary subjects. The manner in which she acquitted herself astonished all present, and greatly increased her reputation. Her literary accomplishments soon made her famous throughout New Spain.
She was much admired in the vice-royal court, and declined several proposals of marriage, for in the spirit of her mother, she refused to marry. In 1667, she entered the Convent of the Discalced Carmelites of St. Joseph as a postulant. In 1669, she entered the Convent of the Order of St. Jérôme.
In Juana’s time, the convent was often seen as the only refuge in which a female could properly attend to the education of her mind, spirit, body and soul. It was Juana’s only refuge from marriage. Nonetheless, she wrote literature centered on freedom. In her poem Redondillas, she defends a woman’s right to be respected as a human being. Therein, she also criticizes the sexism of the society of her time, poking fun at and revealing the hypocrisy of men who publicly condemn prostitutes, yet privately pay women to perform on them what they have just said is an abomination to God. Sor Juana asks the sharp question in this age-old matter of the purity/whoredom split found in base male mentality: “Who sins more, she who sins for pay? Or he who pays for sin?” For these works, she is regarded as one of the first feminists.
Foolish men who wrongly accuse women, Without seeing that you are the cause of what you fault them for; You want with unthinking presumption to find in the woman you seek… Either love women for what you force them to be, or fashion them according to what you want them to be.