Mexico is unusual in having portraits of poets and artists featured on its currency. Literature Nobel laureate Octavio Paz (1914-1998) is on the twenty peso coin. Nahuatl poet and ruler of Texcoco Netzahualcoyotl (1402-1472) is on the hundred peso bill. Poet Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (1648-1695) is on both versions of the two-hundred peso bill. Artists Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera are on the five-hundred peso bill.
Sor Juana's birthday is this Saturday, November 12th. She may be a Valentine’s baby; particularly appropriate for a love-child. Juana’s mother, criolla Isabel Ramírez, was born on the slopes of Popocatépetl and baptized in Yecapixtla in present-day Morelos. Her first three children were born out of wedlock. Juana Inés de Asbaje y Ramírez de Santillana is registered on her birth certificate as a “daughter of the Church,” a euphemism for the unmarried state of her parents. The paternal figure in Juana's life was her highly literate maternal grandfather.
Though an hacendado, Juana’s grandfather Pedro Ramírez de Santillana didn't own his two haciendas. They were leased from the church for the span of three “lifetimes.” This interesting arrangement was typical of the time. Juana's mother inherited the contract for the second generation, Juana's sister Maria, the third. It was a family of strong women and Juana was no exception.
Juana Inés was born in Nepantla, now in the state of Mexico, in 1648, though some say 1651. There she lived for three years before she and her family moved to Hacienda Panoayan, at a higher elevation and closer to both Popocatépetl and Iztlaccíhuatl.
Unless they were cloud-covered, Juana saw those snow-capped peaks every day of her life. The corridor running from Yecapixtla through Nepantla and Panoayan to the historical center of Mexico City was the extent of the area she lived and traveled during her 46 (or 43) years. Yet even in her lifetime, her poems, plays, and prose permeated the Spanish-speaking world and have grown ever more appreciated through the following centuries.
By all accounts Juana devoured knowledge from the earliest age. Bilingual in Spanish and Nahuatl, she read by the age of 3. She had access to her grandfather’s extensive, esoteric, and multi-lingual library allowing self-education in many academic subjects. Through the library Juana gained access to a world mostly unknown to women of that day. At the precocious age of 8 she won a town prize for a surprisingly mature poem about the Eucharist.
Juana was soon sent to Mexico City to live with her aunt and uncle, Juan de Mata, a man of influence in the viceregal palace. At 15 she was presented at court. From ages 16 to 20 she lived at the palace as the personal companion to the vicereine and soon was well-known for both intellect and beauty. When she was 17 the Viceroy Marquis de Mancera famously tested Juana’s learning and intelligence by inviting great minds from New Spain to examine her on theology as well as various scientific and literary subjects. Her performance is legendary. The viceroy celebrated the accomplishment by saying “she defended herself as a galleon against a slew of canoes.”
Juana resisted pressure to marry. At 19 she chose the other available option -- entering religious life. Her first incursion was harsh and did not allow intellectual development. She returned to the court and after some months a wealthy donor provided the required dowry for her to enter the more comfortable Order of San Jeronimo.
San Jeronimo required seclusion but allowed visitors and in the case of Sor Juana, the continued pursuit of her intellectual activities. Indeed, Sor Juana’s multi-storied “cell” with an extensive library, scientific and musical instruments was a sought after salon for discussion and learning -- the world came to Sor Juana. Convents of that day enhanced the cultural lives of the aristocracy by providing theater, concerts, and schools. Juana became known as the Tenth Muse. Her life and work have made her a model for modern-day feminists.
Sor Juana enjoyed protection and friendship of successive viceroys, one of whom was also archbishop. The departure in 1686 of Viceroy Marquis de la Laguna and Vicereine Countess of Paredes led to Juana’s poetry and drama being published in Spain to enthusiastic reviews. Unfortunately their exit also led to closer scrutiny of Sor Juana’s work by a misogynistic, jealous clergy and she became a target of the Inquisition.
In 1693 Juana signed a penitential document in her own blood. “Yo, la peor de todas.” I, the worst of all. Promising to no longer write, she allowed the church to sell her library of 4000 books and her musical and scientific instruments and requested proceeds be donated to charity. Octavio Paz, among others speculates that instead of being an act of penitence this was the last act of an unrepentant, cornered intellect. On April 17, 1695, after nursing her fellow nuns, Sor Juana died of the plague.
Delve into your pocket for 200 peso bills. Not for a donation but to see some views of Sor Juana’s life. Both old and new bills have Miguel Cabrera’s portrait of the poet. Background to the portrait on both bills are books and writing materials, symbols of her literary life. There are even five miniature lines of one of her most famous poems! On the back of the new 200 peso bill is Hacienda Panoayan framed by her beloved Popocatépetl and Iztlaccíhuatl. On the old bill is the Convent of San Jeronimo. It is noteworthy that both bills use her secular name Juana de Asbaje. Might that have been her preference?