Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (1648-1695 CE, sor means “sister”) was a renowned poet and intellectual in the Viceroyalty of New Spain. An outspoken supporter of women’s education and a Roman Catholic nun, she is an icon for the Lesbian community and feminists worldwide, a popular historical figure in Mexico, and a literary icon in Spanish-speaking countries.
Sor Juana was born Juana Inés de Asbaje y Ramírez de Santillana in the village of San Miguel de Nepantla in what is now central Mexico. She was the illegitimate daughter of a Basque soldier and Isabel Ramírez, a criolla (woman of Spanish descent born in the Americas) who had six children from two men and did not marry either man. Sor Juana’s maternal grandfather, Pedro Ramírez de Santillana, had a large library that allowed her a broader education than that of most girls, even in the upper classes, since only a basic education was considered appropriate for women. After moving to Mexico City, she could not attend advanced classes, but later claimed that she begged her mother to let her dress as a boy so that she could study at the Royal and Pontifical University of Mexico. At about sixteen years of age, Juana Inés was taken under the care of Leonor Carreto, wife of the Viceroy, the most powerful office in New Spain (which encompassed roughly what is now Florida, the Caribbean, most of Central America, Philipines, and most of the USA west of the Mississippi River).
Rather than consent to being married, Juana Ramírez de Santillana became Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz and settled in the Convent of San Jerónimo. She would continue to receive support from the viceregal court for the next twenty-four years.
Juana Inés gained fame in both Mexico and Spain for her essays on theology, scientific treatises, plays, poetry, and music, especially in the Spanish folk music genre of villancicos. As much a celebrity as nun, she was given various names praising her skill, such as décima musa (“Tenth Muse,” a title she shares with Sappho) and fénix de Mexico (“Mexican Phoenix”). Although some of her superiors in the Roman Catholic Church were scandalized by her willingness to write on theological subjects and her skill defending her opinions, her friends at court protected her.
In 1688, Sor Juana lost support from the viceregal court when Viceroy Marqués de la Laguna and his wife, María Luisa, left that post and moved to Spain. Pressure increased on her to obey her spiritual superiors and abandon intellectual pursuits. In 1690, Manuel Fernández de Santa Cruz, Bishop of Puebla, published a book in Sor Juana’s name, featuring a negative theological critique she had written about a sermon by the famous Portuguese Jesuit priest, Antonio Vieira. Fernández called the book Carta Atenagórica (“Letter Worthy of Athena”). He prefaced the book with a letter warning Sor Juana to stop writing on intellectual subjects, and to become an obedient daughter of the Church. Refusing to reveal his true identity, the bishop pretended to be a fellow nun in his warning letter to Sor Juana, signing it “Sor Filotea” (Filotea is the feminine form of the name Filoteo, Greek for “Lover of God”).
Bishop Manuel Fernández was a friend and confidante of Sor Juana. She had only written the critique of Vieira because he had asked her, and she in turn asked him not to share it, even suggesting he destroy it.
Jesuits in Mexico who thought highly of Vieira condemned her for the book, which gave her ecclesiastical superiors even more reason to silence her. Not fooled by the pseudonym, Sor Juana wrote what is now acclaimed as a feminist classic, La Respuesta a Sor Filotea de la Cruz in 1691. In it, she defends the right of women to engage in intellectual inquiry, all the while addressing the bishop as if he were indeed a woman. Juana Inés makes it clear at the end of La Respuesta that she knows the true identity of the author. Without overtly revealing his name or gender, she says that the familiarity with which she speaks to a fellow sister of the veil would certainly not have occurred if she had seen “Filotea” unveiled.
Two years later, Sor Juana quit writing. She sold her vast library, scientific instruments, and musical instruments, and gave the money to charity. In 1695, she died while caring for other members of her order who were struck with the plague.
Philosophy of Cooking
In La Respuesta, Sor Juana says that she was once punished for her intellectual pursuits by being sent to the kitchen for a time. She turned the kitchen into a laboratory, and the art of cooking into a source for philosophical insight:
Pues ¿qué os pudiera contar, Señora, de los secretos naturales que he descubierto estando guisando? Veo que un huevo se une y fríe en la manteca o aceite y, por contrario, se despedaza en el almíbar… ¿qué podemos saber las mujeres sino filosofías de cocina? …Y yo suelo decir viendo estas cosillas: si Aritóteles hubiera guisado, mucho más hubiera escrito.
(What can I tell you, my Lady, of the secrets of nature I have discovered while cooking? I see that an egg becomes solid and fries in butter or oil, while on the contrary it dissolves in syrup… what can we women know if not philosophies of the kitchen? …And I say repeatedly when seeing these little details, if Aristotle had cooked, he would have written much more.)
Instead of being imprisoned, chastised, or limited by the kitchen, Sor Juana claimed it as a woman’s space, even more so, a source of women’s wisdom so valuable that a man like Aristotle (and presumably Manuel Fernández) would do well to set aside their masculine preconceptions and enter that space.
Juana Inés wrote Libro de Cocina (“Book of the Kitchen” or “Cookbook”) with 36 recipes, including desserts and a mole (“sauce,” from Nahuatl mulli or molli) called “clemole de Oaxaca” made with cilantro, garlic, cloves, pepper, cinnamon, and chiles anchos or pasillas (toasted in butter with sesame seeds) cooked together in a saucepan, with pork, sausage, or chicken added.
Leanor Carreto and María Luisa
Juana Inés originally gained favor in the viceregal court because of Leonor Carreto, and the two women appear to have loved each other deeply. When Carreto died in 1674, Juana Inés wrote three sonnets, one with this verse:
Pues si antes, ambicioso de gosarte
Deseo tener ojos para verte
Ya le sirvieran solo de llorarte
When before, wanting to please you,
Desiring to have eyes to see you,
Now they only serve to weep for you.
At the departure of María Luisa from the viceroyal court some fourteen years later, she writes:
Ser mujer, ni estar ausente
No es de amarte impedimento
Pues sabes tú, que las almas
Distancia ignoran y sexo
Neither being a woman nor your absence
Stops me from loving you
You well know that souls
Ignore distance and gender
Verses such as these have been interpreted by LGBTQ scholars as referring to more than just expressions of friendship. But there does not appear to be anything from Sor Juana’s enemies in the Church hierarchy condemning her for same-sex love. This could be due to conventions of the time that allowed women to express friendship in such strong terms. It could also be that, because the objects of Juana Inés’ affection were powerful women of the upper class, she was beyond reproach as long as nothing explicitly sexual was put into print. This would also be the case of the Ladies of Llangollen (two unmarried women who kept a single home and slept in the same bed, but never publicly discussed their intimate moments together) in Wales two centuries later.
Juana Inés and the LGBTQ Movement
Juana Inés has been adopted by the LGBTQ community in Mexico as the Lesbian equivalent of a patron saint. Her status as a nun and her fame as a Roman Catholic theologian have been used by Gay activists as a means of mediating between LGBTQ and Catholic identities.
El Clóset de Sor Juana (“Sister Juana’s Closet”) was started in 1992 by Patricia Jiménez and Gloria Careaga-Pérez in Mexico. The Lesbian organization is dedicated to civil rights for women and people with diverse sexual orientations. El Clóset de Sor Juana is one of several Lesbian-supportive organizations in Latin America such as Media Luna (“Half-Moon,” El Salvador), Colectivo Ciguay (Dominican Republic), Colectivo Lésbico Homosexual (Nicaragua), Convocatoria Lesbiana (Argentina), Las Entendidas (“Women Who Understand,” Costa Rica), Um Otro Olhar ( A Second Look,” Brazil), and Tal Para Cual (“Two of a Kind,” Ecuador).
Patricia Jiménez went on to become the first openly Gay member of Mexico’s legislature, and possibly the first in any Latin American legislature.
Regardless of controversy about her sexual orientation, Sor Juana is venerated in Mexico, so much so that she has been printed on Mexican money. Her picture, an iconic image of Sor Juana Inés seated in her library (painted by Miguel Cabrera), has been featured on the 1000 peso note and the 200 peso note. Her villancicos are still performed, and her poem “Hombres necios” (“Foolish Men” in which she scolds men who insult women for both refusing and allowing men to have sex with them) is still popular.
In Mexico City, the Universidad del Claustro de Sor Juana (“Cloister of Sister Juana University”) is situated in the space and buildings that once housed the Convent of San Jerónimo. Established in 1979, it is a small liberal arts educational institution with no political or religious affiliation. In Madrid, Spain, there is a statue of Sor Juana de la Cruz in Parque del Oeste (Western Park) that is modeled after Miguel Cabrera’s portrait. According to the inscription on its base, the statue was dedicated in 1981 by the people of Mexico to the people of Madrid.
Juana Inés de la Cruz. The Answer/La Respuesta: Including a Selection of Poems. New York: City University of New York, 1994.
Méndez Montoya, Angel F. The Theology of Food: Eating and the Eucharist. Malden, MA: Whiley-Blackwell, 2009.
Paz, Octavio. Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, o, las trampas de la fe. Mexico: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1995.