Heretic or fem­i­nist?

The per­sis­tence of Sor Juana

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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

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