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Every once in a while, you are presented with a gift so big that it takes a while for your mind to compute its magnitude. You experience so many feelings at once that your spirit floats up to limbo, numb for a while. Well, that was me last week, and I am still day dreaming about what happened. The Benson Latin American Collection invited a small crowd (including yours truly) to a conversation about Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, known also as Mexico’s Tenth Muse. In the invitation they said that they were showing a selection of her rare books and manuscripts. I was so excited!
Before I continue with my story, let me tell you about Sor Juana. She was born in Mexico in 1648. From an early age she displayed signs of an amazing intelligence. She learned to read at age three and started writing at age eight. She taught herself Latin, and Nahuatl, and read voraciously everything she could get her hands on. The Marquis of Mancera, viceroy in Mexico at that time, took her under his wing. Wanting to know how much the young Juana knew, she was fifteen at that time, the Marquis asked 40 scholars to test her orally on various topics ranging from theology to science. To their surprise, she responded correctly to all the questions and her reputation grew in the vice-royal court.
But let’s remember, we are talking about a woman in the seventeenth century with many things against her: she was illegitimate, her family wasn’t rich, she was very pretty (yes, this could be bad in those days) and finally, she was female. Because the only other option left to her was to get married and stop studying, Juana joined the convent of the Discalced Carmelite as a nun. Later she transferred to the Convent of the Order of St. Jerome. She wrote poems, essays, plays and papers, both secular and religious, which were mostly published in Spain. But Sor Juana's writings were dangerous. She criticized the hypocrisy of society, its double values and sexism. Many admired her, but also many hated her, and in 1694 she was forced to give up her desire for learning in a document which she signed in her own blood: I, the Worst of All.
And last week, there I was, in a small room in the Benson Latin American Collection, standing in front of that very same document, the one she signed with her blood more than three hundred years ago. I could only imagine what was going through her mind and soul while signing that document. A document that curators only let you peak at for a couple of minutes every 50 years or so, and a manuscript that made me feel grateful for my freedom and the opportunity I have had to learn what I want, whenever I want. What an inspiration Sor Juana is still for us today! I now have a good story for my grandkids to tell.
At Austin Public Library you can find:
I, the worst of all (DVD)
The divine Narcissus poems by Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz
Treasury of Mexican love poems, quotations & proverbs : in Spanish and English
A reader in Latina feminist theology: religion and justice