Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, the first great Latin American poet, is still considered one of the most important literary figures of the American Hemisphere, and one of the first feminist writers. In the 1600s, she defended her right to be an intellectual, suggesting that women should be educated and educators and accusing men of being the cause of the very ills they blamed on women.
Credit: Portrait of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz by Miguel Cabrera (painted in 1750), courtesy of Wiki Commons | Retrato de Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz de Miguel Cabrera (pintado en 1750), cortesía de Wiki Commons
“It turned out that the hair grew quickly and I learned slowly. As a result, I cut off the hair in punishment for my head’s ignorance, for it didn’t seem right to me that a head so naked of knowledge should be dressed up with hair, for knowledge is a more desirable adornment,”
—from The Reply to the Very Illustrious Sor Philotea de la Cruz, written in 1691
Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz is considered the first great Latin American poet and one of the most important Hispanic literary figures. She wrote following the complex style of the Spanish Golden Age masters, particularly Luis de Góngora y Argote, and produced some of the most beautiful sonnets in the Spanish language, while excelling also as a dramatist. To learn more about Sor Juana, students and teachers can consult the EDSITEment-created timeline of her life.
Sor Juana was published in different parts of the Hispanic world during her lifetime and she enjoyed the reputation of being the premiere Baroque poet in New Spain (Mexico), which earned her both praise and vicious misogynistic attacks. Sor Juana was persecuted for being an intellectual and a woman, a nun, and a writer who wrote quite provocatively in the very Christian New Spain of the 1600s. The two lesson plans in this academic unit will introduce students to the life of Sor Juana and to some of her work. Students will gain an understanding of why Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz is considered one of the most important poets of Latin America, and why she is also considered a pioneering feminist writer and poet.
In the two lessons of this unit, students will
Sor Juana is also known as “El Fénix de América” (the Phoenix of the Americas) or “La Décima Musa” (the Tenth Muse). As a writer, she continues to inspire artists and to be present in Mexico as an important cultural and literary icon. Students and scholars alike continue to be amazed by the works of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, who was the first great poet of Latin America. As a 17th- century Mexican nun, Sor Juana dared to criticize a prominent theologian, for which she was persecuted. As a response, she wrote a key document in defense of a woman’s right to have intellectual freedom and an education, this is called La Respuesta a la muy ilustre Sor Filotea de la Cruz (La Respuesta or The Reply is available through the Proyecto Ensayo Hispánico website). This document is commonly recognized as the “first feminist” writing of the American hemisphere which challenged the patriarchal and Christian establishments of her time.
During the time when Sor Juana was alive, 17th-century Mexico was a colony of Spain called La Nueva España (New Spain) and it was a part of the Nuevo Mundo (New World). Mexico City was established where the capital of the Aztec Empire had been built, atop of the great Aztec city of Tenochtitlán, and it was the seat of a Virrey (Viceroy), who represented the King of Spain. During Sor Juana’s time, Mexico City had a population of roughly 100,000 people, out of which only 20,000 were castizos or criollos, or Spanish-blooded, and 80,000 were of other ethnicities, including mulattoes, indigenous, or mestizos, thus creating a caste system in New Spain. To learn more about this society and the caste system, students can visit the website of the NEH-funded PBS series, When Worlds Collide: Origin of the Caste System. This time period is called the La Colonia, or the Colony (more can be learned about this time period through The Border Interactive Timeline from the PBS Series website). La Colonia started when the Aztec Empire was defeated by the Spanish Conquistadores led by Hernán Cortés on August 13, 1521, ending when Mexico obtained its Independence in 1821. La Colonia is also known as the time of the Viceroys’ rule: el Virreinato (or Viceroyalty).
During la Colonia, social status, economic and educational opportunities were determined by gender, national origin, and ethnicity. The most powerful individuals in society were the castizos, people of Spanish-blooded parents born in Spain. They are also called peninsulares or Peninsulars (from the Iberian Peninsula). Following, were the criollos, people of white, Spanish blood but born in the New World. The people who were product of a Spanish-blooded parent, and an Indigenous one (usually a Spanish-blooded father and an Indigenous woman), were known as mestizos, or mixed-blooded. Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz was a criolla, which gave her access to limited education, to the Viceregal Court, and to the educated elite. Most importantly, Sor Juana was able to enter a convent, where she was able to nurture her talent and knowledge, because she was a criolla. Only criollas and castizas could become nuns in New Spain (For more information on the caste system you can consult “The United States of Mestizo” in the NEH’s Humanities magazine.)
Gender also played an extremely important role during La Colonia. Because education and knowledge were entirely reserved for men, the education women could have was very basic, furthermore, women were not allowed to pursue higher studies. Sor Juana broke this rule. She learned Latin when she was still a child, and later, joined the Order of San Jerónimo, taking her vows and entering the Convent of Santa Paula where life was not austere. in 1669. To learn more about this and other key dates in the life of Sor Juana, you can use the EDSITEment-created timeline of her life. Here, she was able to amass her own library, not an easy feat in the New World, and pursue her own writing and education, learning, as she would later recall, with no other teacher than her silent books. In some of the most memorable portraits we now have of Sor Juana, she appears before us in this very setting: surrounded by her precious library, pen in hand, and wearing the unmistakable habit of her order. To study in detail the habit that Sor Juana is wearing in most portraits, you can work with the EDSITEment-created interactive “What Is Sor Juana Wearing?”
This unit will introduce students to the works of Sor Juana by studying, in Lesson 1, samples of her poetry in the sonnets “A su retrato” and “En perseguirme, Mundo, ¿qué interesas?” one of which the students will compare to a sonnet written by Spanish Golden Age poet, the great Luis de Góngora y Argote (1551–1627), whose work Sor Juana deeply admired. Students will also read, in Lesson 2, fragments of Las Redondillas and Sor Juana’s groundbreaking Respuesta a la muy ilustre Sor Filotea de la Cruz (The Reply to the Illustrious Sor Philotea de la Cruz). Together, these lessons will help students build a foundation for the serious and in-depth study of literature and teach them about the Spanish Baroque, a literary period that Sor Juana so excellently represents. Students will also learn about the society and culture that produced Sor Juana and formed a background to her art.
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