Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz was a 17th-century Mexican nun whose critically acclaimed writings include lesbian love poetry. She is considered one of the greatest Latin American poets, an early advocate of women’s rights, and some say, North America’s first lesbian feminist writer. She died on April 17, 1695.
Interest in Sor Juana is running high now, thanks to the 2016 television series “Juana Inés,” which was produced in Mexico and available on Netflix.
Sor Juana (Nov. 12, 1648 – April 17, 1695) was born out of wedlock near Mexico City in what was then New Spain. She was a witty, intellectually gifted girl who loved learning. Girls of her time were rarely educated, but she learned to read in her grandfather’s book-filled house.
When she was 16, she asked for her parents’ permission to disguise herself as a male student in order to attend university, which did not accept women. They refused, and instead she entered the convent in 1667. In her world, the convent was the only place where a woman could pursue education.
Sor Juana’s convent cell became Mexico City’s intellectual hub. Instead of an ascetic room, Sor Juana had a suite that was like a modern apartment. Her library contained an estimated 4,000 books, the largest collection in Mexico. The portrait from 1750 shows her in her amazing library, surrounded by her many books.
She turned her nun’s quarters into a salon, visited by the city’s intellectual elite. Among them was Countess Maria Luisa de Paredes, vicereine of Mexico. The two women became passionate friends. It’s unclear whether they were lesbians by today’s definition, but Maria Luisa inspired Sor Juana to write amorous love poems, such as:
That you’re a woman far away
is no hindrance to my love:
for the soul, as you well know,
distance and sex don’t count.
Church authorities cracked down on Sor Juana, not because of her lesbian poetry, but for “La Respuesta,” her classic defense of women’s rights in response to opposition from the clergy. Threatened by the Inquisition, Sor Juana was silenced for the final three years of her life. At age 46, she died after taking care of her sisters in an outbreak of plague.
She is not recognized as a saint by the male-dominated church hierarchy that she criticized, but Sor Juana holds a place in the informal communion of saints honored by LGBTQ people of faith and our allies. She is especially revered as a role model by Latina feminists.
Progressive artists and writers portray Sor Juana
The romance between Sor Juana and Maria Luisa has long been an inspiration for authors and film makers. Poet and Chicano studies scholar Alicia Gaspar de Alba writes about it vividly in her novel “Sor Juana’s Second Dream.” The novel became the basis for the play “The Nun and the Countess” by Odalys Nanín.
Gaspar de Alba also writes about Sor Juana in her new book “[Un]framing the ‘Bad Woman’: Sor Juana, Malinche, Coyolxauhqui, and Other Rebels with a Cause.” It was published in 2014 by the University of Texas.
María Luisa Bemberg, one of Latin America’s foremost female directors, explored the love between the nun and the countess in “I, the Worst of All” (Spanish: Yo, la peor de todas). The 1990 film was Argentina’s Academy Award entry for Best Foreign Language Film that year. The DVD cover uses a quote from the Boston Globe to describe the film: “Lesbian passion seething behind convent walls.” It includes woman-to-woman eroticism without objectifying the women. The movie is based on “Sor Juana: Or, the Traps of Faith” by Nobel Prize winner Octavio Paz of Mexico.
An icon of Sor Juana was painted by Colorado artist Lewis Williams of the Secular Franciscan Order (SFO). Sor Juana sits between Mexico City’s two volcanoes, the male Popocatépetl and the female Iztaccíhuatl, symbolizing the conflict between men and women that she experienced in trying to get an education. She holds a book with a quote from her writings: “The most unforgivable crime is to place people’s stature in doubt.”
Resources related to Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz
Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz at the Legacy Project
To read this article in Spanish, go to:
Sor Juana de la Cruz: La monja le encantó la Condesa en la Cidade do México en el siglo 17 (Santos Queer)
Books by and about about Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz
“Poems, Protest, and a Dream: Selected Writings” by Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz (Penguin Classics)
“Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz: Feminist Reconstruction of Biography” (2014) by Theresa A. Yugar with a foreword by Rosemary Radford Ruether
“Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz: Selected Works” (2015), translated by Edith Grossman with an introduction by Julia Alvarez
Books about lesbian nuns
“Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy” by Judith C. Brown
“Lieutenant Nun: Memoir of a Basque Transvestite in the New World” by Catalina De Erauso
“Lesbian Nuns: Breaking Silence” by Nancy Manahan and Rosemary Keefer Curb (editors)
Top image credit:
Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz by Miguel Cabrera, 1750 (Wikimedia Commons)
This post is part of the LGBTQ Saints series by Kittredge Cherry. Traditional and alternative saints, people in the Bible, LGBTQ martyrs, authors, theologians, religious leaders, artists, deities and other figures of special interest to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender and queer (LGBTQ) people and our allies are covered.
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