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Sonia Sotomayor & Sor Juana: Wise Latina Women, Then & Now

Wednesday Jul 15, 2009
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As Sonia Sotomayor goes through the process to confirm her as a Supreme Court justice, her opponents work hard to shut her up.

This is nothing new. Here is the story of another wise Latina woman who lived in Mexico 300 years ago.

Sor (Sister) Juana Inés de la Cruz (1648-1695 CE) was an outspoken supporter of women’s education, poet, musician, playwright, theologian, and a Roman Catholic nun. Although silenced in her lifetime, her words reverberate louder and stronger than any of her haters. Today, she is an icon for the Lesbian community and feminists worldwide.

Born in central Mexico. Juana Inés was the illegitimate daughter of Isabel Ramírez, a criolla (woman of Spanish descent born in the Americas) who had six children from two men and did not marry either man.

Sor Juana’s maternal grandfather had a large library that allowed her a broader education than that of most girls. Anything more than a basic education was considered inappropriate for women. Some say she dressed as a boy so that she could study at the Universidad de México (University of Mexico).

She was taken under the wing of Leonor Carreto, wife of the Viceroy of New Spain (what is now roughly Florida, the Caribbean, Phillipines, most of Central America, and most of the USA west of the Mississippi River). Rather than consent to being married, Juana became a nun.

Juana Inés gained fame in both Mexico and Spain for her wit and beauty. As much a celebrity as nun, she was given various names, such as décima musa ("tenth muse," a title she shares with Sappho) and: fénix de Mexico ("Mexican phoenix").

Juana Inés was able to consort with the rich and famous because of Leanor Carreto, and the two women appear to have loved each other deeply. When Carreto died in 1674, Juana Inés wrote three sonnets, one with this verse:

Pues si antes, ambicioso de gosarte
Deseo tener ojos para verte
Ya le sirvieran sólo de llorarte

When before, wanting to please you
Desiring to have eyes to see you
Now they only serve to mourn you

At the departure of María Luisa, another viceroy’s wife she loved years later, Juana wrote:

Ser mujer, ni estar ausente
No es de amarte impedimento
Pues sabes tú, que las almas
Distancia ignoran y sexo

Neither being a woman nor being far away
Stops me from loving you
For you well know that souls
Ignore distance and gender

Verses such as these have been interpreted by LGBTQ scholars as referring to more than just expressions of friendship. But there does not appear to be anything from her opponents condemning her for same-sex love. This could be due to conventions of the time that allowed women express friendship in such strong terms. It could also be that the objects of Juana Inés’ affection were powerful women of the upper class and were thus beyond reproach.

She had enemies who wanted her to shut up. Pressure increased on Sor Juana to obey her spiritual superiors and behave as a woman rather than an intellectual.

Things got worse when Manuel Fernández de Santa Cruz, Bishop of Puebla, wrote a letter telling Sor Juana to stop writing on intellectual subjects, and to become an obedient (and silent) daughter of the Church. The bishop pretended he was a fellow nun in the letter, and signed it "Sor Filotea."

Manuel Fernández was a friend and confidante of Sor Juana. Not fooled by the pseudonym, Sor Juana wrote a response to "Sor Filotea." In this response, which has become a feminist classic, Juana Inés defends the right of women to engage in intellectual inquiry. All the while, she addresses Manuel as if he were indeed a woman, even though she knew damned well the letter was lipstick on a bispo.

Two years later, Sor Juana finally gave in to the haters and quit writing. She sold her vast library, scientific instruments, and musical instruments, and gave the money to charity. In 1695, she died while caring for other members of her order who were struck with the plague.

Juana Inés has been adopted by the LGBTQ community in Mexico as the Gay equivalent of a patron saint. Her status as a nun and her fame as a Roman Catholic theologian have been used by Gay activists as a means of mediating between LGBTQ and Catholic identities. El Clóset de Sor Juana ("Sister Juana’s Closet") is a Lesbian organization that is dedicated to civil rights for women and diverse sexual orientations.

Regardless of controversy about her sexual orientation, Sor Juana is venerated in Mexico, so much so that she has been printed on Mexican money. Her picture has been featured on the 1000 peso note and the 200 peso note. Her songs are still performed, and her poem "Hombres necios " ("Foolish Men" in which she scolds men who insult women for both refusing and allowing men to have sex with them) is still popular.

So keep your chin up, Sonia Sotomayor! You walk in the shoes of millions of wise Latina women who came before you. When you feel irritated beyond belief by the dullards who seek to take you down and shut you up, remember that Sor Juana and your fellow Puerto Rican Sylvia Rivera, the unstoppable transwoman of Stonewall, also had to put up with legions of hombres necios and mujeres necias.

And don’t forget to extend your famed empathy to the LGBTQ community when you join the Supremes.

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