‘The Worst of All Women’

Editor’s Note: Sept. 15-Oct. 15 is celebrated each year as Hispanic Heritage Month. Carlo Sosa-Ortiz, a pastoral assistant at First Central Presbyterian Church, wrote the following article on a 17th century Mexican nun named Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz in honor the month.

By CARLO SOSA-ORTIZ

A young girl is invited to the home of a prominent Mexican family. At the age of seventeen, this young woman had made quite a name for herself and had impressed the Mexican royal court with her intellect, wit, and turn of phrase. The illustrious viceroy of New Spain had invited the best theologians, philosophers, mathematicians, writers, and lawyers to the New World to test her knowledge and skill. Unprepared, she confidently answered every riddle, theorem, and philosophical quandary given to her with ease, astonishing all in attendance. 

The woman was Inés de Asbaje y Ramírez de Santillana, who would later change her name to Juana. Juana was a 17th century woman born in the Spanish colony in modern day Mexico. Like most European countries during this period, Mexico was highly stratified with a complex caste system. In the highest levels were those who came to the Americas from Spain, the Peninsulares. Juana, however, was born out of wedlock to a Spanish royal officer and a wealthy criolla (descendants of the peninsulares). Juana’s father abandoned his family when she was young which would have left the them poor and destitute. Fortunately, Juana’s grandfather allowed the family to live on his hacienda where they lived comfortably.

Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz

Juana was a precocious young child. Higher education during this time was something only afforded to young men, and upon learning this Juana begged her mother to allow her to attend school in disguise. Her mother refused. So, Juana would hide in her grandfather’s library and teach herself to read. At just three years old, she learned to read and write Latin. By the time she was an adolescent, Juana taught herself philosophy, rhetoric, Greek logic, and Nahuatl – the ancient Aztec language. She then began teaching other young girls Greek philosophy and Latin.

Juana had certainly drawn attention. In 1664, at the age of sixteen, she was invited to become a lady-in-waiting at the court of Viceroy Don Antonio Sebastián de Toldeo, Marquis of Mancera. It was here that Juana achieved the life she dreamed of. Under the viceroy’s protection, Juana became the unofficial court poet and amazed all with her plays, poems, musical compositions, and dramas. With so much attention, Juana garnered numerous marriage proposals but decided to join a convent. She later remarked on this decision saying, “I became a nun, because although I recognized it as having many ramifications…foreign to my temperament, still, given my completely negative feelings about marriage, it was the least disproportionate and most fitting thing I could do.”

So, at age 20 she joined the Hieronymite Convent of Santa Paula and changed her name to Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, working as the convent’s resident archivist and accountant. She was a model nun and caregiver for her fellow sisters. Sor Juana later wrote that she became a nun because she wanted “to have no fixed occupation which might curtain my freedom to study.” Thanks to her elevated status in the viceroy’s court and her convent’s resources, Sor Juana accumulated a large collection of books, remained unmarried, and retained her independence. 

Her work focused primarily on misogyny and sexism. Some of her well-known plays, for example, highlighted how often women were the expense of comedy. She boldly confronted dominant patriarchal norms in her day and once quipped: “What can we women know but kitchen philosophies? I say that if Aristotle had cooked, he would have written a great deal more.” Perhaps Juana’s most popular work is a poem entitled Hombres necios (Foolish Men). Here is a little excerpt:

You foolish men who lay 
the guilt on women, 
not seeing you’re the cause 
of the very thing you blame…
Patent is your arrogance 
that fights with many weapons 
since in promise and insistence 
you join world, flesh and devil.

Sor Juana’s vocal criticism of the status quo did catch up to her. In November 1690, disguised as a female superior under the pseudonym of Sor Filotea, the Bishop of Puebla published Juana’s scathing and private critique of a well-beloved sermon. In her critique, Juana had criticized the rigid hierarchical structure in Catholicism. Although the bishop agreed with Juana’s comments, he believed that women should not speak openly about such things and told the nun that she should instead devote her time to prayer and fasting.

Juana refused to remain silent and, in her defense, published an article advocating for women’s education and equality. She famously opined, “God would not have given women intellect if he did not want them to use it.” Despite her protests, Juana was censured by the church and agreed to undergo penance for attacking traditional teaching. Sor Juana was forced to sell her massive library of more than 4,000 volumes and her musical and scientific instruments. Over time she renewed her vows and signed the document with her own blood: “Yo, la peor de todas” (I, the worst of all women).

Without her treasured library and her scholarship pursuits restricted, Sor Juana focused her energies on caring for her convent. In 1695, Juana died while caring for sick nuns during a plague. She was only 46 years old. Of Juana’s over one hundred unpublished works, plays, treatises, and poems, only a few of her writings have survived.

Today, Sor Juana is remembered across Latin America as a bibliophile, prolific writer, educator, and staunch advocate of women’s rights. As Americans celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month, may we not forget this often-overlooked advocate who dedicated her life to principles we Americans value today. 

“I don’t study to know more,
but to ignore less.”
-Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz

Carlo Sosa-Ortiz

Carlo Sosa-Ortiz is a pastoral assistant at First Central Presbyterian Church

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