Lágrimas Negras de mi Pluma: Juana Inés on Netflix

A young Juana swears to obey God, the Prioress, and her own intellect, although she doesn’t put that part in. link

The full line is lágrimas negras de mi pluma triste,1 and, if you ask me, that would have been a better title than Lágrimas Negras de mi Pluma, carrying as it does the full gravitas both of the line and of the world, disintegrating. And Sor Juana’s world does its share of disintegration in this episode. It has taken me longer by far to return to this episode than I intended, as the world has done its own share of disintegrating around me; it’s an intense, emotional episode, but also a flawed one. I didn’t have the emotional reserves to try to contend with its unwieldy bulk, and so I turned away, and went forth to one action-packed series after another, rather than try to write about the mischaracterizations of middle-aged women in television shows, or the depiction of people of color on the small screen.

The art direction, in its excellence, even gives us a look at Juana Inés’s childhood home. Image by Wikipedian Adamcastforth. Wikimedia Commons

The art direction in Juana Inés continues to be incredible: every scene looks pulled straight from Velázquez and from the world of the Viceroyalty of New Spain. It’s believable, and beautiful, and stunning, its opulence an entrance to a world I will never know. I’m cold, after all, and Protestant, even if I do have strong cultural and professional connections to Catholicism; my ancestors starved, and stole cattle, and created dark, grim worlds of commerce, not the gold-filled splendor2 of old Ciudad de México and its stunning worlds of God and money and gold.

Antonio Sebastián Álvarez de Toledo
See the haughty eyebrow, and the hand! Antonio Sebastián Álvarez de Toledo Molina y Salazar, Marqués de Mancera y Grande de España, 25th Viceroy of New Spain. Image from Wikimedia Commons

Mauricio Isaac continues to be the spitting image of the viceroy, Antonio de Toledo y Salazar, right down to that creepy mustache and his haughty brow. (As a string player I look at hands, and I’ll be honest: Isaac’s got it down to the hand motions, which is…a little weird. But also good, for sure!) The ladies of the viceregal court continue to look like they popped out of Las Meninas for a stroll around Mexico City. The viceregal daughter, whose name3—if she even has one—I cannot remember, is a perfect, painted creature out of a Velázquez painting. In her perfection, however, she seems almost the loneliest of all, as her mother, in her grief and desire and madness (and death), has little or no time for her daughter, but all the time in the world for her grief.

And therein lies one of the reasons I have so struggled with “Lágrimas negras de mi pluma.” We know, because we have seen her do so, that our Leonor can be an avenging angel—yet in this episode, Leonor becomes a grief-stricken, hysterical woman, aging, rouged, desperate, and putting the moves on someone young enough to be her daughter. (And that, for me, is yet another issue, and one built around the [im]possibilities of consent.) The writers’ soapy depictions of Leonor were an issue for me in “Miradme al menos” and in “Para el alma no hay encierro,” and they only get worse in “Lágrimas negras de mi pluma.” Leonor’s hysteria rises like a cancer throughout the episode, culminating, finally, in her death—offscreen, a strange, sad little coda to a desperate episode. And I confess that bothered me, too, though I am not sure that an in-person death scene—which, of course, is the framing device for our entire drama, as Sor Juana’s brilliant life draws to its close—would have fit Leonor either.

Leonor on the move. via Frock Flicks

Yet hysterical Leonor is still not Worst Leonor. That honor is reserved for Leonor’s continued consent-free advances on a girl young enough to be her daughter. (Like, really—we’re talking roughly a 32-year age difference here, which is, even in my family, with its historically long generations, enough of a difference to be parental.) Now, even without a parentally-large age difference, is a consenting relationship possible when one partner is the virreina and the other the illegitimate criolla poet she has sponsored? After all, one party holds all the power and the entire deck of cards here—and it surely isn’t the teenaged genius. The US military bans (at least in theory) relationships between officers and enlisted individuals, a policy which may work its way into our businesses as well. Leonor is in (almost) every way Juana Inés’s superior; she is also the virreina, the closest thing to a queen in New Spain. Can Juana Inés, illegitimate and criolla, as well as thirty-some years younger, possibly consent to any kind of relationship with Leonor? I’d argue that she cannot.

Now, my problem with Leonor Carreto de Toledo has nothing to do with cheating on her husband, which is, as far as I can tell, a pretty natural response to being cooped up while one’s philandering husband does the rounds of the court floozies (or, at any rate, of one suspiciously bottle-blonde former tutor, who now, as Leonor reminds us, is toting a bastard baby). Women are no more prone to monogamy than men,4 and Leonor was in no love match: marriage has for generations been a matter of property,5 which would have been even more true for a daughter of the nobility, married off to another member of her class. Similarly, she had nothing to do: unlike a working- or middle-class woman, or Adam Smith’s mother,6 it was never Leonor’s task to cook or clean or manage finances. It was her lot to bear babies (a task at which she kind of failed, bearing only one daughter—though, since her husband married again and produced no spawn, I’m going to lay that one at his feet), and to look pretty, a decorative wife of good Spanish blood and good Spanish breeding to make the virrey’s home a success. One assumes that, when she isn’t mooning over a teenager or cursing out this false court full of hicks (which she has, apparently, completely forgotten by the time we get to “Lágrimas negras de mi pluma”), Leonor is doing a pretty respectable job of making the philandering viceroy respectable.

A blonde lady who isn’t part of the Marqués de Mancera’s retinue: Retrato de María Ana de Austria by Diego Velázquez. Oil on canvas, c. 1630. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

It absolutely makes sense to me that Leonor would be having some fun on the side, though I certainly think a woman in seventeenth-century New Spain—particularly the virreina, for God’s sake—would be a little more careful about keeping it on the down-low. Now, of course, we are all products of our society, I just as much as anyone else, and so I must remember that, as Katrine Marçal reminds us, women are rarely allowed either selfishness or agency.7 However, women did claim spaces for themselves, even in the face of vast opposition, even in places like New Spain. At her greatest moments, the writers allow Leonor to carve her own space despite her husband and her society—but, most of the time, she is Worst Leonor: a caricature, aging, hysterical, and sexually predatory. Worst Leonor is, at best, an uncomfortable moment for Juana Inés, a sharp flaw in a beautifully written, flawlessly acted piece. Avenging Angel Leonor is a good fit for this piece, but Worst Leonor? She really isn’t, and the writers could have done so much better.

Unfortunately, Worst Leonor—and her collapse and death—aren’t the only things “Lágrimas negras” bungles: it drops the ball on race, too. The Magical Nahuatl Lady shows up a few times—by which I mean, she wanders across the screen, acting mystical (or mysterious, or like the writers didn’t give her a damned thing to do except walk around in Clothes). Presumably she’ll pop up again later, to be magic (and silent) and save the day once more. They could have done so much more with our Magical Nahuatl Lady, too. Hell, even if our writers—who are capable of so much, really and truly—had wanted to hold the focus strictly upon our heroine (who both wrote and spoke Nahuatl), they could have done more with Magical Nahuatl Lady.

There were people of African descent in high society, as evidenced here. One has to wonder what was going through this artist’s head as the man who owned him (he was freed around the time this portrait was completed) painted his portrait. Retrato de Juan de Pareja, Diego Velázquez. Oil on cavnas c. 1650. Wikimedia Commons.

Similarly, the show misses by a mile with its depiction (at least thus far) of Sor Juana’s slave, Nicolása (her name was actually Juana de San José, and Sor Juana would eventually sell her off to her sister), who is depicted as infinitely loyal, a loving and innocent servant to her genius mistress. Our Juana Inés might be our intellectual hero, but she also took Nicolása-Juana into the convent with her, a slave to minister to a nun. At one point, Nicolása-Juana questions Juana Inés: isn’t lying about her mistress’s whereabouts a sin? And, as Juana Inés assures her that she will take the penance, I could not help but cringe.

I’m still not sure if Nicolása-Juana is supposed to be the (enslaved) everywoman through whose eyes we can better understand Juana Inés’s opulent and foreign world, or what exactly is being done with her, but for now, at least, Nicolása-Juana is almost less a character than Leonor’s lonely, painted daughter. Finally, our merchant—who looks like our art directors may have borrowed some ideas from Velázquez’s portrait of his slave-assistant, fellow artist Juan de Pareja—pops up again, this time chatting with Mariana de Austria, queen regent of Spain. By now I’ve given up on understanding what’s going on with our merchant, so I actually sat back and enjoyed Mariana de Austria, because, let me tell you, her dress is bigger than your dress, her attitude is bigger than your attitude, her power is definitely greater than your power, and I actually wish she’d show up more often.

Mariana de Austria, whose dress is bigger than your dress, and who definitely has more power than you. 1652-’53 oil painting by Diego Velázquez from Wikimedia Commons.

Mariana de Austria is probably also an aging woman, but, unlike Leonor, her husband has kicked the bucket, her son is a whiny child who wants snacks (and has so many hereditary problems that you’d think no one who ever heard about him would ever marry their cousins again), and she’s the Regent of the entire Spanish Empire, probably the most powerful woman in the world. Even though she probably has the least screen time of anyone in “Lágrimas negras de mi pluma,” she makes the most of it: it isn’t the Marqués de Mancera’s place to order slave ships away from New Spain, she tells the merchant: it is hers. And she means it, by God. Their interaction is bizarre and delightful, a strange little foray into the complicated world of gender and race relations in seventeenth-century Spain and, by extension, in its colonies as well. If someone wanted to give me a whole series of Mariana de Austria swanning around looking determined, declaring that she is the one who protects all of Spain’s vast empire, I would totally watch it.

Mariana de Austria might agree. from Tumblr

Mariana de Austria and her gleeful power lead us to Juana Inés, our smartass teenage heroine. And this, at least in “Lágrimas negras de mi pluma,” is a bit of an issue. You see, as usual, the dialog is pretty great—but, genius or no, I doubt that Juana Inés would have dared push quite as hard, or been quite as mouthy, as the girl presented to us on screen. After all, we are all of us products of our time, even geniuses, and Juana Inés is still a seventeenth-century woman. Similarly, I question some of the writers’ decisions in Juana Inés’s emotions: she doesn’t really want to go to the convent, here, while in her writings, she makes it clear, though over 300 years may have passed, that she never wanted to get married, and wanted time to study, and to create. (The writers do put words of this effect into our Juana Inés’s mouth—but, at least in my view, there is nowhere near enough about not wanting marriage, something which could have been strengthened by, say, a view of her mother’s current partner, who is insinuated to be so not a gem.) I loved it when she assured Núñez de Miranda that she would use all her intelligence to praise God—it is, in fact, something she reiterates throughout her writing career, including in her Respuesta. Núñez de Miranda, of course, didn’t love it at all, which made it even better.

I found myself questioning the depiction of history in “Lágrimas negras de mi pluma,” pausing Netflix repeatedly to see if that really happened or tsking away at its unlikelihood, given the era and the place. (Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition, except you totally did in New Spain in the mid-seventeenth century.) The ceremony welcoming Juana Inés to the Hieronymites is beautiful; the Hieronymites seem like good people, although they’re not given much character development thus far, either. There are a couple of gossips, a wise and sweet-faced abbess who totes knows there’s some shit up with the virreina, an innocent novitiate, and, well, a smartass teenager who wants to study and not marry, which is probably somewhat accurate. (At least some of those nuns are brilliant lights themselves—but, while this has been mentioned—you’re not the only one who writes, one of them tells Juana Inés—it sure hasn’t been explored. I hope an exporation will be forthcoming. I do love my characters multidimensional.) The whole thing where Juana Inés had to swear that she was hija legítima—legitimate child, a huge deal in her time and place and class—isn’t even mentioned. (What the hell, writers: this was a Big Deal.)

Núñez de Miranda, who turns out to be a closet nationalist, passive-aggressively complaining that as a Creole he will never be allowed to become Bishop while this lazy, careless Spaniard Payo Enríquez de Rivera is, raises the funds for Juana’s dowery, required for admittance to the Order of St. Jerome—and never, ever, goes into details about getting an illegitimate Creole into a high-class luxury order. (I actually sympathized with our zealot confessor as he ranted about the restrictions of birth, which is awkward.) He wants to be archbishop, and I have no idea if this is accurate, but it was a fascinating reminder of the restrictions placed upon Spanish citizens born in the colonies, who could hold no positions of significant power in their own homelands, no matter how intelligent or dedicated or driven they may have been. Spain, as the Marqués of Mancera himself notes, is a long way away—and, in truth, the zealot Núñez de Miranda will always know New Spain better than the Spaniard Enríquez de Rivera.

jammin’ out. from Tumblr

Despite the power of the poetry behind its title, “Lágrimas negras de mi pluma” is the weakest of the three episodes of Juana Inés that I have seen thus far. (It’s probably why I had to watch it three times to get this far.) Depictions of race in a multiracial society (because, be not misled, New Spain was very much multiracial) continue to be an Achilles’ Heel for our writers, despite their clear talent. Avenging Angel Leonor disappeared and turned entirely into Worst Leonor, and then died; Juana Inés was perhaps too much a smartass. I have no idea how long it will take me to return for “Este amoroso tormento,” but I have high hopes that it will bring Juana Inés back on track to its beautiful, heartbreaking perfection.

And now I really, really want to re-watch María Luisa Bemberg’s Yo, La Peor de Todas.

10/10 would watch something about this lady. Retrato de la Reina Mariana de Austria, by Diego Velázquez. Wikimedia Commons


1 It’s from III from “En la muerte de la excelentísima señora marqusa de Mancera,” written in 1674 upon Leonor Carreto’s death; the full line is “lágrimas negras de mi pluma triste,” and it is one of a series of poems written to commemorate the occasion.

2 This is usually when my Protestantism (or maybe my innate Catholic guilt?) rears its head, and my conscience screams, but think of all the people they could have fed and clothed and housed and educated with that gold!

3 It looks like her name is probably María Luisa Álvarez de Toledo Carreto, which I found out no thanks to Juana Inés. She’s barely even a character, just a painted Velázquez doll.

4 See Wednesday Martin’s new book Untrue: Why Nearly Everything We Believe About Women, Lust, and Infidelity Is Wrong and How the New Science Can Set Us Free for much, much more about women, lust, and (in)fidelity.

5 See Marriage, A History: How Love Conquered Marriage, by Stephanie Coontz, for more.

6 Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner? A Story of Women and Economics by Katrine Marçal, translated by Saskia Vogel. 16-17.

7 Ibid. 29.

Suggested Reading

Coontz, Stephanie. Marriage, A History: How Love Conquered Marriage. 2005. Penguin Books, 2006.

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.

Doyle, Sady. Trainwreck: The Women We Love to Hate, Mock, and Fear…And Why. 2016.

Federici, Silvia. Witches, Witch-Hunting, and Women. PM Press, 2018.

Mann, Charles C. 1493: Uncovering the World Columbus Created. Random House, 2011.

Marçal, Katrine. Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner? A Story of Women and Economics, trans. by Saskia Vogel. 2014. Pegasus Books, 2016.

Martin, Wednesday. Untrue: Why Nearly Everything We Believe About Women, Lust, and Infidelity Is Wrong and How the New Science Can Set Us FreeLittle, Brown Spark/The Hatchette Group, 2018.

Paz, Octavio. Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz: O, Las Trampas de la Fé. 1982. Fondo de Cultural Económica, 1995.

Paz, Octavio. Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz: Or, the Traps of Faith.

Prum, Richard O. The Evolution of Beauty: How Darwin’s Forgotten Theory of Mate Choice Shapes the Animal World—And Us. Doubleday/Random House, 2017.

Reséndez, Andrés. The Other Slavery: The Uncovered Story of Indian Enslavement in America. Mariner Books, 2016.

Restall, Matthew. Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest. Oxford, 2003.

Stavans, Ilan. Sor Juana: Or, the Persistence of Pop. University of Arizona Press, 2018.

Warner, Marina. Monuments and Maidens: The Allegory of the Female Form. University of California Press, 1985.

Yalom, Marilyn. A History of the Wife. 2001. Harper Perennial, 2002.

Prior episodes

Coming soon: a new guy in the clergy hates all the uppity women, especially Sor Juana! (which is historically accurate, unfortunately.)