Juana Inés de Asbaje y Ramírez de Santillana, la Décima Musa, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, looms large in the study of the literature of the Siglo de Oro. Hers is often the first woman’s voice we find, in a litany of men; forcefully Juana Inés reminds us of a woman’s genius, and a woman’s perseverance, against great—and ultimately insurmountable—odds. She is, in short, much more immediately important to me than is Simón Bolívar, libertador and subject of a flagrantly inaccurate adaption—but I have watched María Luisa Bemberg’s Yo, La Peor de Todas, and I’ve read Octavio Paz’s Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz: O, Las Trampas de la Fé,1 as one does—and now, finally, an age after it showed up in my queue, I’m watching the new Netflix/Canal Once production of Juana Inés. I know how this story must end—all of us do, and all of us know her confession, some of us by heart—and so the interest here lies in how this new show will depict Juana Inés’s life, and her genius, and her eventual doom.
The first episode of Juana Inés is a command: “Miradme Al Menos,” which I would translate as “At least look at me!” and which Netflix has translated as “At Least Look Unto Me.” (Okeydokey, Netflix.) Our young protagonist will repeat the phrase, repeatedly, in various forms but always as a command, throughout that first episode: at least look at me, she demands, as men ignore her, and turn away from her, and try to decide her life without ever acknowledging her humanity, let alone her mind.
This Juana Inés is not yet the Décima Musa, the woman whose salons were known through Mexico’s cultured elite—and, though they were held in a convent, attended by many of the country’s greatest minds, criollos and peninsulares2 alike. Instead, she’s a child, a genius who happens to be a woman in an era in which women are, as the vierrey periodically reminds his court, supposed to be more decorative motif than greatest mind of the century.
We follow Juana Inés from her aunt and uncle’s home—she’s been sent there by her mother, who lives in the country, as one does when one has been the mistress of a soldier and has his illegitimate children—to the viceregal court in Distrito Federal, through streets littered by the officials of the Santo Oficio (the Inquisition, also known as the Santa Inquisición), led by one Antonio Núñez de Miranda, a Jesuit priest who is definitely gonna be a problem later one (Juana Inés lets us know this right away, so even if we didn’t already know Juana Inés’s story, we’d know Padre Núñez de Miranda was bad news. After all, the bugger is burning books when we meet him—if it’s not on the okay list, it goes.) We also meet Carlos de Sigüenza y Góngora3—it’s his books that Núñez de Miranda is burning. He’s another who will figure in throughout Juana Inés’s story—I’m curious to see how the writers will develop him, and their friendship, as the series goes on.
Juana’s youth is framed by an older Juana, on her deathbed, remembering her life. It’s pretty jarring, at least for me: the hero, brought low, as a framing device for the heroic journey. But her youth itself is a framing device: the show rather brilliantly puts in place the pieces that will make up the adult Juana Inés, from her pride in her Mexican identity (“soy criolla,” she tells a Spaniard) to her linguistic abilities (she speaks Nahault because, as she tells another character, it is the language of the land); from her belief in women’s rights to her aggressive genius, it’s all there: her hero’s journey, and her doom, set from the moment she walks into the viceregal court.
The viceregal court was simultaneously terrific—it looks like something out of Velázquez! it’s incredible!—and also kinda weird. Juana probably had men propose to her—she was a great favorite, after all—but my interest lay, after all, in her words, and in her rather blasé acknowledgement that she joined a convent because of her “absolute unwillingness to enter into marriage” and because, above all, she wanted to live alone and quietly, where nothing “would disturb the freedom my freedom to study.”4 Which is to say, in short, I don’t think she’d be jumping for joy at the thought of marriage to anyone, let alone a guy who writes iffy poems. I was also a little unsure of the viceroy’s mistress, who is clearly out to cause problems—I think she’s artistic license, which makes sense, but I’m not so sure about her. I’ll see what she does in the next episode. (Also, her blondness is rather eye-catching, in a dark-haired court—apparently the viceroy’s got a thing for blondes.)
From the vicereina to Juana Inés, from the ladies in waiting to the viceroys’ daughter María, “Miradme Al Menos” is filled with women clawing their way through a world distinctly hostile to them. The mistress, what’s her name, uses her body and her spying abilities to try to push herself into the graces of the viceroy and of Núñez de Miranda. The vicereina, Leonor Carreto de Toledo, uses her considerable intelligence and political acumen to try to protect her daughter—she would not seek a better tutor were she not trying to make her daughter something more—and to try to make her own life a little better. She’s a long way from home, is Leonor, in a very different world, and she’s trying her damndest to make it work (although she also calls theirs “this shitty court,” so, you know, she’s not trying to love it or anything like that). Also she looks like she stepped out of a painting by Velázquez.
Juana, of course, is something special, even in a world filled with women trying to survive (and to keep their minds from atrophying). She’s an aggressive kid, a genius who knows it, and who has been raised by people who recognized her genius and, for the most part, try to help her on her way, while simultaneously protecting her from an ugly world. I don’t recall precisely why she was tested, by forty of Mexico’s greatest (male) minds—they really did it up, in that there shitty court—but, although I don’t really think it was about tutoring at all, it is very much part of her mythos,5 it isn’t the worst framing device, and fits the story building in Juana Inés rather well. Her snappy dialogue and sly mastery of a bunch of dudebros who expect to drown her with their superiority might seem impossible for a teenager (although I’d argue one has only to actually listen to them to realize that it is not), but it fits with Juana Inés’s writing—she always had a brilliant voice, and would have had it ready to command, although not yet fully matured, when she was “tested,” at 15 or 17, by forty men who wanted her to fail.
One of Juana Inés’s many snappy quotes comes on the theme of obedience, which has never been her strong suit. The words the scriptwriters have given her are a foreshadowing of her great Respuesta, written in 1691, in which she vigorously defends the right of a woman to an education. In fact, Juana Inés will say that it is God’s will that a woman be educated, for did not God give her her mind?6 So, in the flower of her youth, as a teen who manages to be simultaneously assured, even aggressive, and as uncertain as any other teenager, Juana tells Núñez de Miranda that there is no higher love than that of God, and so she will obey God before she will obey him. The most chilling thing about Hernán del Riego’s depiction of Antonio Núñez de Miranda is probably his absolute faith: he’s going to break her, sure, but he’s only doing it to save her soul! That fanaticism makes him rather a terrifying figure.
Juana Inés, of course, is magnificent in her confrontation with Núñez de Miranda: her mother is, she says, “una gran mujer, aunque pobre e ignorante”—a great woman, albeit poor and uneducated. She is willing to stand up for her unwed mother, to risk the censure of priests and society to insist on Isabel Ramírez’s greatness. Her speech, and her defiance, is itself a foreshadowing of one of her great poems, “Hombres necios,” in which she points out that the man is always let off easy, while the woman, no matter what she does, must suffer the consequences. (Her father, after all, was presumably still cavorting around the Spanish Empire, military rank intact.) These nods to the poetry and prose of the Décima Musa come throughout the episode, from nods to the Respuesta and “Hombres necios” to, when she critiques the viceregal court, “A Su Retratro” foretold, in its full grim glory.
I had a few quibbles, particularly at the very end of the episode. I don’t see Juana Inés, young or old, as the kind of woman who would throw herself into a man’s arms—any man’s arms, even if he did write iffy poetry in her honor. She was a brilliant woman—she knew what being a bastard meant for her marriage prospects. Hell, she wasn’t even supposed to join a convent as a nun because of her illegitimacy, which is why she professos herself “hija legítima de Don Pedro de Asbaje y Vargas Machuca y de Isabel Ramírez”7—the lie gave her a chance at a life. The passage of time is also a bit of an issue: one presumes time has passed, but there is no real evidence of it in the dreamy world of the court, where it is always spring, or summer. (Did this gachupín8 really fall in love with our heroine in, like, a week? One hopes not.) Another quibble comes in the confrontation with Antonio Núñez de Miranda: he claims that Juana Inés’s father is the local priest, who is also de Asbaje! (Cue the drumroll, please.) This is presumably being done for dramatic effect, but I am wary of where it could go. So far, Juana Inés has also avoided thorny discussions of race in New Spain. I don’t recall when, exactly, she was “gifted” another human, but I do know Juana took a slave with her to the convent.
The show touches on Juana’s linguistic abilities, primarily her ability to speak Nahautl9; she apologizes to a Nahautl man, which seems fitting for a woman who wrote poetry in the Nahautl language, but it still glosses over the realities of life for Afro-Mexicans and indigenous and mestizo Mexicans. It will be interesting to see how the show deals with race as it continues on through Juana Inés’s life and career. I’m also not quite sure about the focus, from what’s her name the mistress, Núñez de Miranda, and the viceroy, on Juana Inés’s poetry for the vicereina—back in the day, it was the done thing to write what was essentially love poetry to one’s patron, and I’m not sure if a man as intelligent and cultured as one presumes the viceroy would have to be would truly be unaware of such literary conventions. But it is certainly possible, and could be a decent foil going forward.
So, for once, I’m really excited about an adaption, although I doubt that I will marathon this one as I marathon nearly everything else—I’m taking way too many notes, and revising too much old research, for that. Juana Inés is, thus far, a remarkable humanization of a woman who has become more symbol than human: the Décima Musa as a child, genius but also unsure, capable of smirking when the displaced mistress calls her names but also capable of fear and uncertainty. So far, in fact, I’ve thought a lot of Marina Warner’s Monuments and Maidens: The Allegory of the Female Form—Sor Juana has come down to us as something of an allegory, her statues and her face on currency less woman than symbol of something else, and something greater. Juana Inés, however, is trying to resurrect the woman, and the girl, behind that symbol, and so far, it is doing rather a good job.
For More Information
- Dartmouth Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz Project
- Lecture/information on Sor Juana by Geoffrey Kantaris from the University of Cambridge.
- Juana Inés IMDb page.
- Wikipedia entries for Juana Inés de Asbaje y Ramírez de Santanilla, in Spanish and English
- “My Favorite Feminist: Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz,” from Ms. Magazine.
- Rejected Princesses‘ entry: “Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz“
- “Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz,” archived from Oregon State thanks to the Wayback Machine
- “Antonio Núnez de Miranda, Confesor de Sor Juana,” by María Águeda Méndez and available as a pdf.
- Official website from Canal Once (en español)
- “A brilliant 17th century nun is brought to life on Netflix” from America: The Jesuit Review.
- Yo, La Peor de Todas, directed by María Luisa Bemberg
1 Generally considered the definitive biography of Sor Juana.
2 “Criollo,” or “creole,” means, in this context, a person of Spanish descent born in the Americas. It will become increasingly important in the days to come, as creoles—including people like Sor Juana and her circle—begin to define a “creole identity.” And remember Simón Bolívar? It’ll really come into its own with the Revolutions.
3 Sigüenza y Góngora will eventually get kicked out of the Jesuit order—I’m really curious to see if this gets a mention in Juana Inés.
4 The Answer/La Respuesta, translated by Electa Arenal & Stephanie Powell. 51.
5 It’s worth noting that this episode is first written down in the biography that went in with her poetry, and that it was part of the effort to prove that, as Electa Arenal and Stephanie Powell write, “nothing in its pages went against church teachings” (3)—important for a world under the sway of the Inquisition.
6 See The Answer/La Respuesta.
7 Quoted from Autobiographical Writing by Early Modern Hispanic Women by Elizabeth Teresa Howe, 196.
8 A less than complimentary term for a Spaniard living in the Americas but born in Spain. This one was more used during the move towards independence.
9 As Arenal & Powell point out, Juana Inés also spoke various languages and dialects, including “African, and … rural dialects” (3). Juana Inés could have gone even further with the whole linguistic genius thing, basically.
Cruz, Juana Inés de la. The Answer/La Respuesta, trans. & ed. by Electa Arenal & Stephanie Powell. 2nd ed., The Feminist Press at the City University of New York, 2009.
Cruz, Juana Inés de la. Obras Completas de Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. Porrua, 2007.
Warner, Marina. Monuments and Maidens: The Allegory of the Female Form. University of California Press, 1985.