What is now Mexico, used to be part of New Spain, a much bigger territory including much of the West Coast of America. Ruled by a Spanish viceroy, it repressed local regions, languages, practices and peoples, using the full might of the Spanish Inquisition.
Born into this constricting and conservative society was Juana Ines, the illegitimate daughter of a concubine.
Self taught and utterly brilliant, she has been called "the Tenth Muse". She had learned Latin by the age of three and later taught other children. Abandoned by her uncle she made her way to Court where her brilliance captured the attention of the Viceroy and his frustrated wife. She impressed the clergy at Court sufficiently to become tutor to the Viceroy's daughter.
The first great New World poet
In Spain and Spanish America, Sor Juana is an acknowledged classic of 17th-century letters. Her works stand at a point of historical privilege; she was the first great New World poet, the last of Spain's Golden Age, and she is part of an international, not just a Mexican, cultural tradition.
From a New York Times Review, found in full here.
Criticised by the Church for writing on topics beyond the religious, she responded with a feisty defence:
"One can perfectly well philosophize while cooking supper,"
A Mexican Television Series has serialised her life. The production values are excellent, and although it is a drama, the main elements of the story appear to stick reasonably closely to the truth.
Netflix are currently running this series Juana Inés with excellent subtitles.
It is highly recommended to those who like their history with a touch of melodrama!
Although some of her work has been translated into English she remains largely unknown in the English speaking world. except within Feminist Studies.
Here are the opening verses of one of her more famous poems.
You foolish men
who lay the guilt on women,
not seeing you’re the cause
of the very thing you blame;
if you invite their disdain
with measureless desire
why wish they well behave
if you incite to ill.
the full poem can be found here.
Murray Morison is a novelist living in Crete
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