Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, a seventeenth-century Mexican poet, is celebrated today as the only Spanish American colonial writer to master all the forms of Golden Age Spanish Baroque literature, and as a proto-feminist who eloquently defended the right of women to study and write about all intellectual pursuits. She was born Juana Ramírez de Asbaje on November 12, 1648 or 1651, in Nepatla (near Mexico City), New Spain. Very little is known of her father, a Basque military captain; her mother, a criolla (creole), raised Juana, her four sisters, and a half-brother on her own.
As a toddler, Juana manifested a marked precociousness. Growing up on her maternal grandfather’s ranch in Panoayan, she spent many hours alone observing the world around her and trying to read books in the family library. According to her autobiography, the Reply to Sor Filotea, she learned how to read at age three. Desirous of a complete education, at age seven she dreamed of dressing as a man to be able to attend the University of Mexico. At this time, she also wrote her first literary work—a short play in praise of the Eucharist—which is now lost.
In 1659, Juana moved to the house of an aunt in Mexico City where she continued to nurture her intellectual gifts and taught herself Greek and Latin. With the arrival of a new viceroy, Sebastian de Toledo, the bright little criolla soon reached the attention of the court. The viceroy’s wife “adopted” Juana as one of her handmaidens. Thereafter, the royal household became Juana’s ideal family and the subject of many of her early poems. But as she grew older, this favorite daughter of the Mexican court was confronted by an uncertain future. With no father to provide a dowry or a pedigree for a respectable marriage, the only avenue left for the intellectually ambitious girl was to enter a convent where she could study undistracted by worldly cares. In 1667, Juana entered the community of Discalced Carmelites but departed after three months, claiming the discipline of the order was too strict and oppressive. Conse-