Rediscovering a Revolutionary
She chose a career over family life. She fought for a woman’s right to an education. Her brilliant literary talents went largely unrecognized during her lifetime. And powerful men silenced her for her troubles.
The scenario may sound familiar, but this is no 19th or 20th century feminist we’re talking about. It’s Sor (Sister) Juana Ines de la Cruz, a 17th century Mexican nun, poet, theologian, essayist and dramatist of secular and religious plays.
Widely regarded as the greatest lyric poet of the Mexican colonial period, Sor Juana is a hero today. Revered throughout Latin America, and to a lesser extent in the American Latino community, she looms as a model of what a determined woman can do, even in the most repressive of social climates.
“Every person who speaks Spanish knows Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, more [for her] verse than for the plays, because she wrote more poems,” says director Margarita Galban. “In Mexico, she was always a hero, especially for women. We know of a lot of men in the classical theater, but the only woman I know is Sor Juana.”
“She’s a literary hero,” adds Lina Montalvo, a translator and adapter of Spanish drama. “She wrote volumes and volumes of poetry and sonnets, intellectual works measuring her world as she saw it.”
Yet despite such formidable achievements, American schoolchildren--Latino, Anglo and otherwise--haven’t traditionally been taught about Sor Juana. “I went to school here [in Los Angeles] and never heard anything about Sor Juana,” says Montalvo.
What’s more, Sor Juana is all but unknown in the local English-speaking community, except among specialists and scholars. Now, however, that’s starting to change, thanks in part to the efforts of the Bilingual Foundation of the Arts[.
The Lincoln Heights theater is presenting Sor Juana’s “The Misfortunes of a House,” playing alternate weeks in Spanish and English, and opening in English on Friday. The production is directed by Galban, who adapted the play with Montalvo, from a translation by Michael McGaha.
A farce about a group of young men in search of virtuous maidens, the play concerns itself with the contrast between love matches and those based on convenience, convention or lack of a better option. It’s a 17th century take on the pop bromide “If you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with.”
Montalvo says, “Now schoolchildren will have a chance to come here to the Bilingual Foundation and learn about Sor Juana.”
While Sor Juana remained largely undiscovered for centuries after her death in 1695, she enjoyed a rediscovery around 1900 when many of her works were first published in Mexico; her complete works were published there in the 1950s.
In more recent years, Sor Juana languished in obscurity, even in academic circles. That changed somewhat with the 1982 publication of Octavio Paz’s study “Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, o Las Trampas de la Fe.”
That book was translated into English in 1988 (“Sor Juana, or, the Traps of Faith”), bringing the playwright to a new American audience. Paz’s work was expanded upon and continued with translator Alan S. Trueblood’s 1988 “A Sor Juana Anthology.”
Born Juana Ramirez in 1651, she was taken into the court of the viceregent when she was a young girl. There, she began to experiment with her intellectual powers, including writing short pieces meant to serve as funny courtly entertainments.
Hungry to learn, Juana is even said to have tried to pass herself off as a 17th century Yentl. “When she was very young, she [wore a] disguise, like a boy, to go to the school,” Galban says during a rehearsal break at the Bilingual Foundation. “Women weren’t allowed in the school, of course.”
At 16, Juana decided to take her vows, to be able to pursue her studies and writing. “When women weren’t allowed to go to the university or to have any studies, she chose to go to the convent, because then she would be free to pursue her studies,” Montalvo says. “She was the first feminist.”
Indeed, “She criticized men a lot,” Galban notes. “Her poem ‘Hombres Necios’ [“Obstinate Men”] puts men in their place and men didn’t like her for it. It’s very famous.” Sor Juana was no mere polemicist though. She’s probably best known for her lyric poetry, including the villancicos, which pay homage to the lives and celebrations of peasant men and women.
Her longest, and some say best, poem is the 1680 epistemological meditation “First Dream.” In this lyrical and strikingly modern work, Sor Juana expresses her desire to comprehend not only the order of the universe, but also her place in it.
Sor Juana is also famous for her 1691 “Reply” to the Bishop of Puebla, a lengthy letter that makes the case for women’s right to pursue a life of the mind, and a controversial 1693 theological treatise in which she argued in favor of a radical notion of free will.
The latter work is considered her greatest accomplishment in prose. The scriptural study generated so much controversy, however, that Sor Juana was forced to renounce her studies and dedicate the rest of her life to religion.
“The clergy was all-powerful and they did her in in the end because they thought that she was too revolutionary,” Montalvo says.
“She was taken by the Inquisition, prohibited to write anything more,” Galban says. “And that’s the moment when she decided to die.”
Sor Juana lived only two more years, in silent protest of her fate. She died during a smallpox epidemic in 1695.
Her voice hasn’t died though, and for good reason. In addition to her poetic virtuosity and prescient worldview, Sor Juana is the kind of spirit that today would be called plucky.
There’s evidence of that in her reply to a Peruvian man who sent her some small clay pots and suggested she should become a man:
Sir, in reply to your note,
No help is at hand.
. . . Helicon cries “Whoa!”
. . . lest it should dawn on the Muses,
as the springs go babbling away,
that in view of the verse you write,
they might as well call it a day.
“THE MISFORTUNES OF A HOUSE,” Bilingual Foundation of the Arts, 421 N. Ave. 19, Lincoln Heights. Dates: Thursdays to Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 3 p.m. Alternates weekly in English and Spanish. Ends March 23. Prices: $17-$20. Phone: (213) 225-4044; after 5 p.m. and on weekends, (213) 226-1170.
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