Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz Yo la peor de todas I , I the Worst of All

Colonial Mexico

The area was now known as El virreinato de la Nueva España—the Viceroyality of New Spain. Created in 1533 it encompassed the territory from present-day Guatemala, the Caribbean islands and the current southwestern states of the US, plus the Phillipines, with Mexico at the center.

The virreinato was headed by a Virrey [Viceroy}, who represented the royal family of Spain.

This system introduced the famously inefficient Spanish bureaucratic system to The Americas, where it remains today.

The Viceroyalty was divided into “audiencias”, which were tribunals that had administrative and legislative functions. The “audiencias” were further divided into “gobernaciones”, like provinces. Those “gobernaciones” under military threat from rebellious indigenous groups, pirates, or hostile foreign powers like the British, were grouped into “capitancias generales” There were, furthermore, over 200 districts which were headed by a mayor or a town council.

From a centralized office in Spain [the Council of the Indies, working through the Viceroy, the government, church and military forces were controlled. All explorations had to be approved, all riches acquired had to be accounted for

Spain incurred tremendous debt exploring, conquering and colonizing the New World. Despite the riches taken from the vanquished indigenous civilizations, melted down and sent back to Spain, the country was not getting rich. Spain didn’t have the infrastructure to produce all that was need for the conquests and colonizations, and had to outsource, buying ships and supplies from other European nations.

Mexico/ Nueva España in the mid 1600s

From a high of possibly 25 million people, the indigenous population of Nueva España was now at around 1.5 million In the course of the seventeenth century, the calamitous decline of the indigenous population of Mexico continues, reaching its nadir of 1.5 million inhabitants in 1650 (from a baseline at the time of the Conquest variously estimated to range from 5 to 25 million). Conflict over ministry and control of indigenous peoples continues, pitting the regular clergy (Franciscans and other mendicant orders, pioneers of the early missionary activities) against the increasingly powerful secular clergy, who are allied with the criollos (American-born people of European descent). This growing class of Spaniards born in New Spain begins to formulate a distinct identity even as the crown of Castile continues its efforts to regulate the economic activities of their burgeoning society. The crown maintains its right to skim 20 percent (the Royal Fifth) of silver mined in the colonies and keeps control of trade in the hands of peninsular Spanish merchants. As a further restraint, those not actually born in Spain continue to be barred from the highest civil and ecclesiastical offices, although the sale of lower-level offices by the

Christianization of Mexico

Convents, monasteries and churches [all Catholic] sprung up all over Mexico

Spain vs. Protestant Europe

In 1517 the German monk Martin Luther posted his 95 theses on the church door in Wittenberg, challenging some of doctrines of Roman Catholicism, and a number of specific practices. This was the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, a movement with great repercussions within Spain and its possessions.

This movement, which among other things posited that the Bible, and not the pope, was the central means to interpret religious belief, quickly spread in Germany, the Netherlands, Scandanavia, Scotland and part of France. These countries were some of Spain’s more important competitors in the New World and in Spain’s control within Europe [King Charles/Carlos was the head of the Holy Roman Empire].

A Counter-Reformation movement began in Spain, which at the time was still the world’s most dominant power. Spain, under the reign of Felipe / Philip II was to defend Catholicism at all costs, and the costs of attempting to prevent the spread of Protestantism in the northern part of the Empire bankrupted Spain . The Inquisition, begun in 1478 to identify and punish heretics [i.e. those Jews and Muslims who didn’t leave Spain or convert, or those who weren’t deemed Catholic enough by the representatives of the fanatically Catholic queen Isabel], increased its efforts in order to squelch any Protestant movements within Spain. Most victims however, were not Protestant, since the movement never really gained any ground within Spain. The Inquisition, known as the Santo Oficio or the Holy Office, arrived in Nueva España in 1571.

Although the Inquisition was created to suppress heresy, it also occupied itself with a wide variety of offences that only indirectly could be related to religious heterodoxy. Of a total of 49,092 trials from the period 1560–1700 registered in the archive of the Suprema, appear the following: judaizantes [those suspected of being practicing Jews (5,007); moriscos [those practicing Islam] (11,311); Lutherans (3,499); alumbrados [those who had some kind of religious vision or calling without the aid of a priest (149); superstitions (3,750); heretical propositions (14,319); bigamy (2,790); solicitation (1,241); offences against the Holy Office of the Inquisition (3,954); miscellaneousto interrogate the accused, the In order (2,575)
Inquisition made use of torture, but not in a systematic way. It was applied mainly against those suspected of Judaism and Protestantism, beginning in the 16th century. For example, Lea estimates that between 1575 and 1610 the court of Toledo tortured approximately a third of those processed for heresy.[52] In other periods, the proportions varied remarkably. Torture was always a means to obtain the confession of the accused, not a punishment itself. It was applied without distinction of sex or age, including

The inquisitorial process consisted of a series of hearings, in which both the denouncers and the defendant gave testimony

Auto de fe: if the accused was found guilty [most were] and the sentence was punishment, he or she had to participate in this ceremony that indicated either their return to the Church, or their punishment. These were public events and in time became a public spectacle, taking place in large areas like the Plaza Mayor in Madrid. These were religious events; any execution by burning at the stake that took place was not officially part of the auto de fe, although for those present this may have seemed a mere technicality..

Censorship Spanish Inquisition worked actively to impede the diffusion of heretical ideas in Spain by producing "Indexes" of prohibited books. The Indexes included an enormous number of books of all types, though special attention was dedicated to religious works, and, particularly, vernacular translations of the Bible [the “correct” version was in Latin]. Included in the Indexes, at one point, were many of the great works of Spanish literature. Also, a number of religious writers who are today considered saints by the Catholic Church saw their works appear in the Indexes

So the threats about the Inquisition that you’ll hear in the film are something that those involved would have taken very seriously. As opposed to:

La leyenda negra / The Black Legend

An image of Spain circulated through late sixteenth-century Europe, borne by means of political and religious propaganda that blackened the characters of Spaniards and their ruler to such an extent that Spain became the symbol of all forces of repression, brutality, religious and political intolerance, and intellectual and artistic backwardness for the next four centuries.

All of this coincided with what is called the Siglo de Oro or Golden Age of arts and literature in Spain. The writers Miguel de Cervantes, Lope de Vega, Pedro Calderón de la Barca,and the artists El Greco, Diego Velázquez, Bartolomé Murillo, Francisco de Zurbarán, Claudio Coello enjoyed a patronage system administered by the government and the Church, and produced works of fiction, theater and paintings that have been popular and respected for 400 years.

The life of women and girls in the 1600s Spanish and criolla women had the options of marrying at a young age and living a domestic life, serving the court of the Viceroy [if she were well-connected enough to have this be an option] or entering a convent. Education beyond the elementary level was almost non-existent, and not seen as at all necessary. Those skills taught were either practical and beneficial to others [cooking, sewing, administering to the sick] or of entertainment value [singing, dancing, playing instruments. Indigenous women often worked as domestics in both homes and convents.

Except not all women were content with these options.

Juana de Asbaje y Ramírez was born in San Miguel Nepantla, outside of Mexico City, in 1648. She was the illegitimate daughter of Isabel Ramírez de Santillana [a criolla] and Pedro Manuel de Asbaje, a minor Spanish nobleman. By the age of three she had already learned to read and write [having followed her sister to school], and wrote her first poem at the age of eight. She grew up in her grandparents’ house and had access to her grandfather’s library, which she devoured.

She attempted to attend the university in Mexico City— forbidden to women—dressed as a boy, but was caught and stopped by her mother.

The books in her grandfather’s library were her teachers and she was her own task master, cutting off her hair when she felt that she wasn’t learning quickly enough. At the age of 16 she was taken in as a maid-in-waiting by Leonor Carreto, the wife of the newly arrived Viceroy, Antonio Sebastián, where she spent five years. During that 5 year time period she became known for both her extreme intellect as well as her beauty. She was at one point subjected to a by a panel of learned men. She was theology, philosophy, math, poetry, performance laid to rest any doubts intellectual brilliance. test put to her grilled on history, and her about her

As she was now in her early 20s, the time came to either marry or choose a religious life, and she chose the latter, although not out of any overwhelming religious conviction. Her intellectual urges were too strong, and she must have assumed that the chores and structures of convent life would afford her more time to think and write than would being home with a bunch of kids, along with the requisite cooking, cleaning and sewing. She first entered the Convent of the Discalced Carmelites of St. Joseph [las carmelitas descalzas] but found their way of life too harsh and disciplined. [The fact that they’re barefoot should have been her first clue!] She leaves after 3 months. She later enters the more relaxed Order of St. Jerome [San Jerónimo], where she lives out her life.

Nuns here had private cells, often occupying two stories, complete with a kitchen, parlor, and bath. Many nuns, including Sor Juana, had servants [indigenous women]. The lifestyle in this convent allowed Sor Juana to reflect in solitude and work on her writings. She also amassed what came to be the largest private library in the Americas at that time. She regularly held tertulias, a gathering of similarly intellectual friends and acquaintances, who gathered outside of her cell to discuss literature, philosophy and the issues of the day. She had teaching duties within the convent, and gave music lessons and taught drama to the girls who attended school there.

In her early years at the convent she was protected and defended by both the hierarchy of the convent as well as by the new Viceroy and his wife.

Tomás Antonio Manuel Lorenzo de la Cerda y Aragón, Marqués de la Laguna de Camero Viejo; Virrey from 1680-1686. María Luisa Manrique de Lara, his wife was related to the poet Jorgé Manrique de Lara, who wrote “Coplas por la muerte de su padre”, containing one of the most Nuestras vidas son los ríos famous stanzas in Spanishque van a dar en la mar language poetry: ,qu´es el morir.

Sor Juana and the virreina become close friends. Sor Juana, as was the custom of the day, wrote a number of poems in honor of her benefactors, praising them in ways that to use may seem over the top, but which in those days were standard, if not downright formulaic. Remember this point. It seems to have been overlooked by critics of this film… This film is a biography, and is based on a book written by Octavio Paz [Nobel Prize winning Mexican poet and essayist] called Sor Juana y las trampas de la fe / Sor Juana and the Traps of Faith]. He has also overlooked this literary convention

Another close friend and protector was Carlos Sigüenza y Góngora, considered one of the first intellectuals born in Mexico. He was an historian, studied math and astronomy, and wrote extensively on life in Mexico during and prior to colonization. He wrote poems dedicated to the Virgin Mary, drew maps of the lands around the Gulf of Mexico, identified an insect that caused the wheat crops to fail, preserved colonial documents from a fire set by an angry mob, and wrote the funeral elegy for Sor Juana.

Sor Juana and her writings:

She wrote both sacred and lay texts, poetry, theater, philosophy, villancicos [Christmas carols], loas [short plays at the start of a longer play], letters. One would think that her non-religious work was what got her into trouble, but that was not the case.

Sor Filotea y la respuesta/ The Reply to Sor Filotea This series of events is pivotal to Sor Juana’s life and writings, and also to the film. It’s highly complex and convoluted, and I’ll summarize as best I can the basics so you can get the gist of what’s going on!

I. In 1650, Antonio de Vieyra, a Portuguese Jesuit, gave a sermon that was later published in 1690. In it he refuted the teachings of Church leaders such as Sir Thomas Aquinas, as to what the greatest acts of kindness of Christ were [or what were the greatest expressions of his love for humankind], claiming Christ’s actions were motivated by love without requiring or expecting a response. St. Augustine—to die for humankind / Vieyra—to absent himself Aquinas—to remain with believers via the Eucharistic sacrament / Vieyra—remaining in the sacrament without use of his senses John Chrysostom—the washing of the feet of the disciples the greatest gesture / Vieyra—the cause behind the washing was greater

II. Sor Juana was asked by her friend, the Bishop of Puebla, to write a retraction to this sermon when it first came out in print form. He told her that this would be a spiritual exercise, and would remain confidential. She did so, arguing that Vieyra’s affirmations were mistaken, defending the three authorities and then offering her own opinion as to what was the greatest expression of Christ’s love [the kindness is in the benefits that he does NOT grant to people, knowing the evil and ingratitude with which they will be repaid].

I. The Bishop published her response, which was titled “Carta Atenagórica” { Letter Worthy of Athena—the Goddess of knowledge] and attached to it a letter admonishing her to abandon her worldly studies and to devote herself entirely to the study of Sacred Scripture. However, perhaps because he had broken his promise about keeping her letter a secret, he signed the critique “Sor Filotea”.

IV. In 1691 Sor Juana pens what is know as the Respuesta or Reply to Sor Filotea [whom she of course knew was the Bisop]. In it, she defends herself, claiming not to write about sacred subjects out of fear and reverence [this being improper material for a mere woman to tackle]. The letter is an autobiographical account of her intellectual formation, as well as a pointed defense of thinking women in general. She cites her experiences in the kitchen “women’s work” as akin to science experiments, a walk outside is a biology or astronomy lesson, that her brain never rests, and she cites classical, Old and New Testament and other women whose brains worked in the same way. She concludes that a Mexico filled with educated women would be a much more progressive place than the current

V. Sor Juana had already run afoul of the decidedly misogynist Archbishop of Mexico, Francisco de Aguiar y Seijas, who , aside from being a big fan of Vieyra’s, had long resented Sor Juana’s literary and “worldly” activities. During his time in office, his severely moralistic attitude was applied to actions outside of the convent too. He banned cockfights, bullfighting and theatrical performances within Mexico.

VI. Pressure was put on Sor Juana to give up her more worldly practices. Her library was closed and all of her secular books and possessions were sold or given away. In the end, she had no choice. Her last few years were lived outside of the public eye. She wrote nothing that wasn’t required of a nun, nursed her sisters through an epidemic of the plague, and eventually succumbed to the plague herself.

False advertis ing: How to entice audiences to a film about a nun in a convent in 17th century Mexico?

for and think about:
The application of the poem “Hombres necios / On Men’s Hypocrisy” to the events shown. Do you think that Sor Juana brought any of her problems upon herself? or that any of them could have been avoided? Give examples. How do you interpret “put beauty in your thinking rather than thinking about beauty”? What evidence of “seething passion” did you detect?
Note the last names in the credits as they scroll by. This is an Argentine production, and their immigration patterns are similar to those of the US.