Heretic or feminist?
The persistence of Sor Juana
AS a young woman in 17th-century Mexico, Juana Inés de Asbaje y Ramírez de Santillana had two choices: get married or join a convent. In comparison to the idea of having to obey a husband until death, to the woman who became Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, convent life came with perks — including a room of one’s own and the freedom to read. Juana Inés, who had been living as a lady-in-waiting at the colonial viceroy’s court for some years before this, took vows in 1669, when she was in her early twenties. More than 300 years later, we are still reading her poetry, essays, and plays. In Mexico, her visage has graced postage stamps and currency. There, Sor Juana, a cloistered nun whose writing was, against all odds, read widely during her lifetime, is a bona fide pop-culture icon with an enduring legacy of female empowerment.
Ilan Stavans, an author and the Lewis-Sebring Professor of Humanities and Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College, sets out to explain Sor Juana to the general reader in a slim volume called Sor Juana: Or, the Persistence of Pop, published by the University of Arizona Press. Stavans has written about Latin-American culture and literature in numerous books and articles; his work includes essays, fiction, historical accounts and biographies, a memoir, and graphic novels. In addition to Stavans’ rendering of Sor Juana in prose, The Persistence of
Pop contains a number of eye-catching illustrations and images that place Sor Juana in different guises. The first pages of the book feature illustrator Eko’s
Primero sueño series, which sets some of
Sor Juana’s iconoclastic writing into black-and-white plates that are part illuminated manuscript and part graphic novel.
Though they are separated by centuries, Sor Juana’s ubiquity in Mexico is similar to that of the painter Frida Kahlo (1907-1954). Kahlo was not considered a particularly important artist when she was alive. She famously struggled with enormous physical pain; her harrowing self-portraits, some of which she painted from her hospital bed, existed in the shadow of her more famous husband Diego Rivera’s politically oriented murals. “It seems to me that having Sor Juana on one hand and Frida Kahlo on the other is actually a very symbolic duality in Mexican popular culture,” Stavans said. “Both women, both suffering, both rebellious. One within the church, the other a political artist, both really committed to finding their own voice. Both very stoic, very hard, and harsh inside — which was the only way for them to survive. I would say there is a triumvirate of icons. [Sor Juana and Kahlo] are two, and the third one is the Virgin of Guadalupe. Mexican Catholicism is actually more committed to the Virgin than to the icon of Jesus. I think the image of the mother is very important in the Mexican psyche. And these three women are variations of what the defiant Mexican mother is. But Sor Juana and Frida did not have kids, so the country itself is their child.”
Not much is known about Sor Juana’s life or her motivations for the decisions she made other than what she put into writing. She was born out of wedlock around the fall of 1651 in San Miguel Neplantla and spent her early childhood on her maternal grandfather’s estate in Amecameca. “We know that she excelled intellectually very early,” Stavans said. When she went to live in Mexico City as a teenager, her intelligence caught the attention of the royal court. “Before she entered the convent, she managed to get herself invited by the wife of the viceroy to serve in the court. That is where she started doing her poetry. She became famous in the court and she might have had a lesbian relationship with the wife of the viceroy. We know that she entered the convent and almost immediately convinced the hierarchy there that she needed a private library. She had a maid and a servant; she was able to cook. She managed to carve a space for herself, as she had in the court, that was not quite traditional.”
As a proto-feminist, she became a source of inspiration for future women’s movements in Latin America. From within the church, she wrote about a woman’s right to intellectual and academic pursuits, and she often took men to task — in metered stanzas, no less — for their treatment of and assumptions about women. Her poetry was passed around by word of mouth as well as published and read as far away as Europe.
Some have speculated that Sor Juana was a crypto-Jew or had Jewish lineage, to which her rebellious nature is sometimes attributed. “In her poetry, when she deals with a topic, she kind of addresses it tangentially, not directly,” Stavans said. “I think that makes her poetry really valuable, but it also suggests that element that crypto-Jews have, that they needed to write against a kind of critical eye that would unveil them. Sor Juana is writing about one thing — but if you know what is underneath, you will see that the poem is telling a totally different story.” Stavans cited a sonnet, “Stay, shadow,” as particularly representative of this approach. Sor Juana writes, “Stay, shadow of my elusive prize/image of enchantment I most want/ fair illusion for whom I joyfully die,/sweet fiction for whom I painfully live.”
It is the story of a shadow, Stavans said, that shows up at night in order to possess her. “You have the impression that the shadow is tormenting her, but at the very end she tells you that the shadow is a prisoner of her, allowing her into her mind. You question who is controlling whom — and what is the story here? Who is the victim and who is the victimizer? Once you get to the end, you have to go back to the beginning and read it again.”
Sor Juana’s writing was controversial enough in her time that she was presumed by the church hierarchy to be a heretic. Some of her criticisms of the church and of women’s social status were published without her permission, and she was condemned by church hierarchy and even by her confessor for the waywardness of her thinking. In order to avoid official censure by the church, she had to give up her books and stop writing. “Never again would she participate in poetry contests, never would she accept commissions to celebrate a government official,” Stavans writes in The
Persistence of Pop. “Eventually this silence also meant selling her much-admired collection of indigenous and imported musical instruments and dismantling her considerable library, which contemporary scholars … have estimated to comprise four hundred to four thousand volumes … .” She died in 1695, during an outbreak of the plague. She spent her final days caring for the suffering before contracting and succumbing to the deadly illness.
Stavans said that though there are other nuns in the history of the Catholic church who became iconic figures, Sor Juana’s intellect was of such a caliber that her words and reputation traveled quickly. “It would not be an exaggeration to say that she is the most accomplished, the most complex, and the most lasting of all the poets Latin America produced up until the 20th century,” he said. “The fact that she was a woman adds an entirely other dimension at a time when men were in full control of the church hierarchy — not that much has changed. I love all the contradictions, the depth of her thinking. I feel very close to what she stands for.”
Sor Juana: Or, The Persistence of Pop by Ilan Stavans was published in 2018 by the University of Arizona Press.
“It would not be an exaggeration to say that she is the most accomplished, the most complex, and the most lasting of all the poets Latin America produced up until the 20th century.” — author Ilan Stavans