During the 17th century in Latin America, many women were often restricted in their actions and stripped of a voice due to men’s influence.
This profound influence over women resulted in limited options for women, becoming either a wife or a nun. One specific example was Sor Juana Ines De La Cruz, a young Mexican nun of the Catholic Church. Like many other women, Sor Juana Ines De La Cruz was confined to the rules of the Catholic Church despite firm beliefs in God and respect for Christianity; determined to strive for a better life, she believed in an education for women, yet unfortunately the criticism from the men of her church resulted in her submission and the end of her career as a composer and writer.
Juana Ramírez de Asbaje was born to a Creole mother and Spanish father on November 12, 1651 in the Viceroyalty of New Spain, currently known as Mexico, during Latin America’s colonial period. Sor Juana’s parents lead modest lives and although they remained unmarried, they were respected by within their community. At the age of three, believing it to be best for her, Sor Juana’s parents placed her in the custody of her maternal grandfather in Mexico City. Unable to attend school and having limited access to an education, she self taught herself how to read, write and speak Latin by the young age of eight.
As a child who took her studies very seriously, Sor Juana was extremely ambitious and motivated in excelling further in academics. Juana recalls “I remember that in those days, though I was as greedy for treats as children usually are at that age, I would abstain from eating cheese, because I heard tell that it made people stupid, and the desire to learn was stronger for me than the desire to eat.” Her intelligence and perseverance in her education gained the attention of Antonio Sebastián de Toledo, a viceroy in Mexico City.
Similar to every other person who met Sor Juana, Antonio was amazed at the young girls talents. In 1664, Sor Juana was invited to court as a lady-in-waiting and even had her knowledge tested by forty recognized scholars. Along with Sor Juana Ines De La Cruz, many women in Latin American culture were expected to abide by the rules of the church, which were greatly influenced by divided gender roles. Patriarchy played a major role in the everyday life of Latin American people; fathers had complete legal control of their wives and children. Individuals followed an honor system in which men played a dominant role in society, a social norm. Men and women both obeyed the social rules placed in order to receive “honor”. For men, honor was defined as a sense of masculinity. Men were to be strong, fearless and the breadwinner for families while women were to be submissive and take care of the home.
This system enabled men to own their wives and daughters’ bodies, protecting their virtues. Women were expected to stay pure until marriage, whereas men were able to have premarital sex without repercussions. Under very special circumstances were women allowed to work, such as extreme poverty. Women who did not abide by these social rules were deemed “witches” who were greatly susceptible to sin, resulting in severe consequences; punishments varied from beatings to death sentences . In addition to patriarchy, religion played a large hegemonic force in everyday Latin American life. The Catholic church had an immense amount of power and controlled all aspects of life, starting from birth.
Churches owned land and controlled agricultural, calendars, and holidays. The lives of the civilians were centered around the rules and regulations of the church, resulting in limited options for women as either a married woman or a nun. After spending some time in court as a lady-in-waiting, marriage was not an option for Sor Juana; she joined a convent with aspirations to continue her education as she would have more freedom than if she were married.
Depicting her immense motivation towards striving for a better life, she stated, “given my complete aversion to marriage, this was the most seemly and decent choice I could make, for the security I wished and for my salvation … wanting to live alone, not wanting to have an obligatory occupation that would hamper my study, nor the sounds of a community to intrude upon the peaceful silence of my books.
“Initially Sor Juana Ines De La Cruz began her life as a nun by joining the convent Order Of The Discalced Carmelites in 1667. As the convent was much stricter than most others, Sor Juana was permitted to pursue her studies, restricting her capable to further pursue her academic goals. This lack of freedom resulted in her transfering to the Convent of Santa Paula of the Hieronymite in New Mexico in 1669. Although convent life was a representation of specifically a women’s role in society, it allowed her to expand her realm of knowledge by studying, writing, and teaching; she quickly became known as a devoted scholar, musician and poet. As she lived at the convent, Sor Juana experienced different professions normally denoted to men, such as accounting; she was able to expand her resources, gaining one of the largest private libraries and being able to communicate with other knowledgeable professional of the court.
As she progressed throughout her studies at the convent, she became known to many, such as the viceroy of New Spain, and gained more freedom. Many recognized and appreciated her academic achievements, such as poems and music composed in Europe.