Saturday, April 17, 2010

Sor Juana: Nun who loved a countess

Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz by Miguel Cabrera, 1750 (Wikimedia Commons)

Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz was a 17th-century Mexican nun whose critically acclaimed writings include lesbian love poetry. She is considered one of the greatest Latin American poets, an early advocate of women’s rights, and some say, North America's first lesbian feminist writer. Her feast day is today (April 17).

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Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz: Nun who loved a countess in 17th-century Mexico City

Sor Juana (Nov. 12, 1648 - April 17, 1695) was born out of wedlock near Mexico City in what was then New Spain. She was a witty, intellectually gifted girl who loved learning. Girls of her time were rarely educated, but she learned to read in her grandfather’s book-filled house.

When she was 16, she asked for her parents’ permission to disguise herself as a male student in order to attend university, which did not accept women. They refused, and instead she entered the convent in 1667. In her world, the convent was the only place where a woman could pursue education.

Sor Juana’s convent cell became Mexico City’s intellectual hub. Instead of an ascetic room, Sor Juana had a suite that was like a modern apartment. Her library contained an estimated 4,000 books, the largest collection in Mexico. The portrait from 1750 shows her in her amazing library, surrounded by her many books.

Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz
By Lewis Williams, SFO

She turned her nun’s quarters into a salon, visited by the city’s intellectual elite. Among them was Countess Maria Luisa de Paredes, vicereine of Mexico. The two women became passionate friends. It’s unclear whether they were lesbians by today’s definition, but Maria Luisa inspired Sor Juana to write amorous love poems, such as:

That you’re a woman far away
is no hindrance to my love:
for the soul, as you well know,
distance and sex don’t count.

Click here for more of Sor Juana’s lesbian poems in English and Spanish.

The romance between Sor Juana and Maria Luisa has long been an inspiration for authors and film makers. Poet and Chicano studies scholar Alicia Gaspar de Alba writes about it vividly in her novel “Sor Juana’s Second Dream.” The novel became the basis for the play “The Nun and the Countess” by Odalys Nanín.

Gaspar de Alba also writes about Sor Juana in her new book “[Un]framing the ‘Bad Woman’: Sor Juana, Malinche, Coyolxauhqui, and Other Rebels with a Cause.” It was published in 2014 by the University of Texas.

María Luisa Bemberg, one of Latin America’s foremost female directors, explored the love between the nun and the countess in “I, the Worst of All” (Spanish: Yo, la peor de todas). The 1990 film was Argentina’s Academy Award entry for Best Foreign Language Film that year. The DVD cover uses a quote from the Boston Globe to describe the film: “Lesbian passion seething behind convent walls.” It includes woman-to-woman eroticism without objectifying the women. The movie is based on “Sor Juana: Or, the Traps of Faith” by Nobel Prize winner Octavio Paz of Mexico.

Production began in fall 2014 on a movie based on Gaspar de Alba's novel. Mexican actress Ana de La Reguera will play Sor Juana in "Juana de Asbaje," the film adaptation of Gaspar de Alba’s novel. She co-wrote the screenplay with the film's director, Rene Bueno.

Church authorities cracked down on Sor Juana, not because of her lesbian poetry, but for “La Respuesta,” her classic defense of women’s rights in response to opposition from the clergy. Threatened by the Inquisition, Sor Juana was silenced for the final three years of her life. At age 46, she died after taking care of her sisters in an outbreak of plague.

She is not recognized as a saint by the male-dominated church hierarchy that she criticized, but Sor Juana holds a place in the informal communion of saints honored by lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people of faith and our allies.  She is especially revered as a role model by Latina feminists.

The icon that appears with this post was painted by Colorado artist Lewis Williams of the Secular Franciscan Order (SFO). Sor Juana sits between Mexico City’s two volcanoes, the male Popocatépetl and the female Iztaccíhuatl, symbolizing the conflict between men and women that she experienced in trying to get an education. She holds a book with a quote from her writings: “The most unforgivable crime is to place people’s stature in doubt.”

Related links:

Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz at the Legacy Project

Sor Juana de la Cruz: La monja le encantó la Condesa en la Cidade do México en el siglo 17 (Santos Queer)

Related books:

Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz: Feminist Reconstruction of Biography” (2014) by Theresa A. Yugar with a foreword by Rosemary Radford Ruether

Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz: Selected Works” (2015), translated by Edith Grossman with an introduction by Julia Alvarez

This post is part of the LGBTQ Saints series by Kittredge Cherry. Traditional and alternative saints, people in the Bible, LGBTQ martyrs, authors, theologians, religious leaders, artists, deities and other figures of special interest to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender and queer (LGBTQ) people and our allies are covered.

Copyright © Kittredge Cherry. All rights reserved. presents the Jesus in Love Blog on LGBTQ spirituality.

Icons of Sor Juana de la Cruz and many others are available on cards, plaques, T-shirts, mugs, candles, mugs, and more at Trinity Stores


Trudie said...

Wow, what an absolutely remarkable post! This time my friend Shirley in Birmingham beat me to it, Hallelujah!

Kittredge Cherry said...

Thanks, Trudie, I spent a long time working on this post -- longer than I planned, because I became so fascinated by Sor Juana. I find her to be an especially positive role model. Sometimes I feel upset that so many official saints died violently, and I am glad that Sor Juana had a long life and natural death.

I don’t understand what you mean “my friend Shirley in Birmingham beat me to it.” ???

Audrey said...

This post was so inspiring, my favorite one I think. I saw Odaly's Nanin's incredible play "The Nun and the Countess."
To me, her life exemplifies the idea of lesbian sainthood, what elevates, inspires and transforms women across the centuries.
In Nanin's play, the countess and Sor Juana are definitely portrayed as lovers, intellectual compatriots and passionate friends.

Audrey said...

P.S. For another book that contains Sor Juana's poetry, take a look at "The Essetial Gay Mystics" edited by gay mystic and teacher Andrew Harvey.

You'll find a wealth of other spiritual leaders, poets and sages in this book as well. It should be on all bookshelves in EVERY lesbian and gay home worldwide in my opinion.

Leonard said...

In Tapachula, Chipas, Mexico there is a wonderful Guest House named Casa Mexicana...I´ve stayed in the beautiful Sor Juana room and intend to get back´s haughtingly romantic (as is the rest of the hotel)...the whole place is poetic. Really nice.

Trudie said...

Well, now I've ordered another book referenced on this blog! This is getting to be a major source of my reading material! By the way, I've finished reading the novel about Perpetua that you linked. Although the book doesn't suggest a lesbian angle, it is a wonderful and inspiring story about the early days of Christianity. I'm as delighted with it as I was with the original post and icon.

Kittredge Cherry said...

Sor Juana is such an inspiration! Thanks for all the comments and recommendations. I also got a Facebook comment about an epic novel called “Hunger’s Brides” about Sor Juana.

Trudie, I appreciate hearing how the Perpetua novel was, and am glad to be providing more material for your reading list.

Turtle Woman said...

I'm just about to begin reading a couple of books on Sor Juana-- her writings and a novel based on her life. Sometimes, you read about the life of women like that, and it just amazes my lesbian soul. Think of it, a lesbian had the largest library in Mexico in the 17th century!

Kittredge Cherry said...

I’m sure that Sor Juana would be pleased that she is inspiring so many women to read more books. Thanks, Turtle Woman, for sharing your thoughts and your literary journey.

Trudie said...

Well, now that I've finished reading the novel Sor Juana's Second Dream, I've got to give a quick review: Powerful, powerful, powerful! And -- folks, we think we've got it bad with the repressive patriarchal hierarchy? If this story is true to life, and I believe it is, besides being a masterful piece of writing, all I can say is, we've come a long ways, baby. Whenever I feel frustrated about the narrowness of the fundamentalists again, I'm going to thank God I'm in 21st century America, not seventeenth century New Spain!

Kittredge Cherry said...

Trudie, thanks for your report on the novel “Sor Juana's Second Dream.” I’m glad to know that it is a powerful book illustrating how far we have progressed on women’s rights. I haven’t heard from you for a couple weeks, so it’s good to know that you were still out there, reading away about a lesbian nun!

I gave a T-shirt with the Sor Juana icon to my life partner Audrey for her birthday recently. She loved it and plans to wear it to a LGBT Pride celebration next month.