Juana Inés de la Cruz, born November 12, 1651, was a self-taught scholar and poet, and a Hieronymite nun. She was born and raised in what is now Mexico when it was part of the Spanish Empire, but she is honored as a major contributor to Mexican literature. She was the illegitimate child of Pedro Manuel de Asbaje, a Spanish Captain, and Isabel Ramírez, a Crillo woman, a woman born in Mexico of Spanish heritage.
Juana was raised on her maternal grandfather’s hacienda and often hid in the chapel to read her grandfather’s books. In spite of the fact that this was forbidden to girls, she could read and write by age three and composed her first poem on the Eucharist when she was eight. She mastered Greek logic and was teaching Latin to children by age 13, as well as mastering the Aztec language, Nahatl.
At some point as a teenager, Juana was sent to Mexico City where she came under the tutelage of Leonor Carreto the wife of Viceroy Antonio Sebastian de Toledo. The Viceroy was impressed and to test the extent of her knowledge invited a group of theologians, jurists, philosophers and poets to a meeting where they could ask Juana questions. Without preparation, she answered their questions on various scientific and literary subjects astonishing them with the depth of her understanding. Her reputation for literary accomplishment in particular was increased.
Although Juana was admired and received several marriage proposals, she chose to enter the Monastery of St. Joseph, a community of Carmelite nuns in 1667. In 1669, rather than entering the Carmelite order, she chose to become a Hieronymite nun. Over the next two decades, she continued her self-study and writing, but not everyone approved and admired her. In response to a letter she wrote defending women’s right to educations, the Archbishop of Mexico condemned her “waywardness.” There is no undisputed evidence that she renounced her devotion to writing and study, although there is evidence that she agreed to do penance.
In 1693, Juana gave up all her studies that weren’t connected with her religious work and sold her library to benefit the poor. Two years later, on April 17, 1695, she died after tending other nuns during a plague. One of her biographers, Octavio Paz, considers her works “the most important body of poetic work produced in the Americas until the arrival of the 19th-century figures such as Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman.”