The Mexican Phoenix

Juana Inés de la Cruz (1648-1695) was a self-taught scholar, philosopher, composer, poet, and nun who lived in colonial Mexico (then called New Spain). She was known for her remarkable intelligence, wit, and courage to challenge opinions and speak out for her beliefs, which is why she is known by such monikers as “The Tenth Muse”, “The Phoenix of America”, or the “Mexican Phoenix”.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Born an illegitimate child of a Spanish captain who was absent from her life, Juana was raised mostly by her mother and maternal grandfather. As a child, she often hid in her grandfather’s chapel and read books from the adjoining library, which was forbidden to girls. She was a child prodigy, learning how to read and write Latin by age three; do financial accounting by age five; and compose a poem by age eight. By the time she was a teenager, she mastered Greek logic, knew Latin well enough to teach it to children, and even learned the Aztec language of Nahuatl.

At the age of 16, Juana was sent to live in Mexico City. Her insatiable appetite for knowledge remained strong, and she even asked her mother’s permission to disguise herself as a boy so she could go to university. Having been forbidden from doing this, she continued to study privately. The Viceroy of Spain took interest in the precocious teen, and she was invited to a meeting of esteemed intellectuals of every background, where she managed to hold her own and answer various scientific and literary subjects unprepared. Her quick-thinking and intelligence were impressive for anyone, let alone a young woman, and she subsequently became well known through colonial Mexico (she garnered several marriage proposals, all of which she rejected).

Juana’s thirst for knowledge drove her to become a nun, wanting “no fixed occupation which might curtail my freedom to study,” since nuns were historically given far more autonomy and leeway than they would have in society. She joined the Hieronymite Nuns specifically, a Catholic order known for its relaxed rules. Far from being stereotypically quiet and pious, she continued writing, learning, and even challenging social norms through poetry and prose (note the sheer number of books in the portrait). She touched on topics such as love, religion, and feminism, criticizing the misogyny and hypocrisy of men in both religious and secular power.

Unsurprisingly, she earned the ire of clerical and political authorities who thought she should know her place and focus on quiet prayer. In response, she wrote “Oh, how much harm would be avoided in our country” if women were able to teach women in order to avoid the danger of male teachers in intimate setting with young female students, remarking that such dangers “would be eliminated if there were older women of learning, as Saint Paul desires, and instructions were passed down from one group to another, as in the case with needlework and other traditional activities.”

Juana was ultimately condemned by the Bishop of Puebla and forced to sell her collection of books and focus on charity to the poor. She died a year later after contracting the plague while helping the sick. Though many of her works have not survived, her legacy as an unusually outspoken proto-feminist lives on for women in Mexico and beyond.

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