Last fall I was clicking around Netflix perusing for something interesting, out of the ordinary, yet easy to watch.
I happened upon a seven episode series called Juana Inés about the 17th century Mexican nun — Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (1648–95). Overjoyed to have found something set in Colonial Latin America, specifically Mexico City, I watched the whole show in two days.
For Mexicans and the Spanish-speaking world, Sor Juana has long been famous for her literary talent, her challenge to misogyny, and her relationship with María Luisa Manrique de Lara y Gonzaga, her patron and vicereine of New Spain.
Yet due to exposure, language, and history, Sor Juana has not garnered the same fame and notoriety in other parts of the world as in Mexico. However, this is changing, especially as she’s been lifted up as a quasi queer saint among LGBTQ+ individuals who look to history for inspiration.
As advertised, the series Juana Inés is only based on true events. It does not pretend to be a complete historical account of the entirety of Sor Juana’s life.
Nevertheless, the series illustrates the major themes of Sor Juana’s time on earth with refreshing subtlety and elegance. These themes are: (1) questioning authority, (2) confidence in oneself and one’s talents, and (3) self-examination and exploration.
It is Sor Juana’s identity that puts her at odds with the power structures that regimented Colonial Mexican society. Gifted in writing and born with a propensity for reading, Sor Juana is restricted because she is a woman. She is told that women are not allowed to opine on matters of theology — the “most sacred” of all the sciences. And while it is not historically certain whether Sor Juana was a lesbian or bisexual by today’s standards, in the series she is shown to be enamored with the vicereine María Luisa. Such a relationship was not only impermissible but unthinkable at her time.
Sor Juana defies the rules of her society without questioning the ultimate maxims upon which they are predicated — a strategy which earns her acclaim and respect even from those who dislike her.
When Sor Juana is told she cannot tutor the viceroy’s daughter, she stands firm in her claim in that she is more capable than any in the city to serve in such a position. As a test to prove her intellect, she is called before a room full of New Spain’s most educated men and takes their questions (often condescending and disparaging toward the mental capacity of women) one by one. She leaves the men astounded and passes.
When Sor Juana is told that she is proud, vain, and self-righteous by the clergy, she rebuts saying that in fact it was God that gave her such talents to read and write and that it is the men of the Church who judge her for using them as such who are misguided. Remaining resolute, she gains fame and notoriety even in her lifetime.
When Sor Juana recognizes her feelings for another woman, although her religious convictions suggest wrong-doing, her desire for intimacy and companionship empower her to seek ways to be with her lover and in these albeit fleeting moments she allows herself to experience unparalleled bliss.
However, despite her determination to prove her self-worth and talents, as the series progresses, Sor Juana also becomes self-critical, even self-censoring. Part of what is sad to me about Sor Juana is that for all her rebellion, it seems she truly believes (to some extent) the religious dogma that drowns her.
As Sor Juana becomes more and more critical of the restrictions men place on women and as her literary work grows in fame, her fellow sisters and male clergy become jealous of her success. Her disobedience and gall, warns the prioress of the convent, could bring dishonor and shame to the Hieronymite Order.
While never stated in the series, when Sor Juana decides to renew her vows as a nun and turn in her over 4,000 books, ink and quill to the Church, it seems as though she is recognizing that the world around her is too ossified in its ways to change and that she, in rebelling against the system, is bringing pain and hardship to those around her. Another view might see this as Sor Juana’s surrendering her own desire to display her greatness and talents — self-defense rather than resignation to please others.
Despite this attempt at silence, just as one cannot change her sexuality, it is impossible to change one’s passions. For Sor Juana, her natural affinity for writing. After depicting Sor Juana’s agonizing road to death by plague, during which she reflects on her life, the series informs us at the close that Sor Juana in fact never stopped writing.
In reality, it is unclear whether Sor Juana decided to renounce writing by choice or whether she did so to avoid censure, shame or worse. Regardless, the series closes in a way that implicitly characterizes Sor Juana as both a woman ahead of her times and very much of her times. This feels genuine. The series shows the nuance of her situation and the limits of critique. Perhaps if she had gone further she would have been erased from history. What would such a woman say of God and religion were we to meet her today? We can never know.
In terms of organization and presentation, the series depicts drama and romantic intrigue without excessive fanfare, lust and passion without superfluous sex, and character complexity without asking viewers to surrender their notions of right and wrong.
Don’t get me wrong, there is a time and a place for overblown drama, comedic ridiculousness and excessive sex scenes in media. One could imagine a well-done raunchy rendition of the holier than thou epochs of human history. Yet somehow such absence in Juana Inés feels commensurate to the zeitgeist of 17th century New Spain — or at least its façade.
The series puts Sor Juana, someone so limited by the political and social realities of her time, front and center in a way that illuminates the hierarchies, dogmas, and rigid Catholic worldview of the Spanish Empire. As she battles the hypocrisy of the male-dominated world, we see in Sor Juana fierce individual strength.
The moments between Sor Juana and the vicereine María Luisa are among my favorites in this series — these in addition to Sor Juana’s characteristic comebacks and criticisms of her confessor Padre Antonio Núñez.
In one scene, Sor Juana and the vicereine sit in the garden having a picnic chatting. The vicereine lays down and looks up at Sor Juana, whose eyes are captivated by the beauty and intelligence before her.
In the first half of the series, Sor Juana is depicted as having praised in writing and having physically attended to the previous vicereine — Leonor Carreto. Yet their relationship was one-sided, even predatory some might say according to the series. Leonor showed much more interest in Juana Inés than she in Leonor.
María Luisa is different. She’s bookish, curious about the world, and carries herself with a passion for life to which Sor Juana is immediately drawn. Alone in the garden, Sor Juana kisses María Luisa.
Yet not seconds later Sor Juana is rapt with guilt. According to the religion she’s been taught, she’s committed a grave sin. As a nun, she has betrayed her “marriage to Christ.” As a woman, she has sinned for desiring another.
Despite the guilt and anxiety that follows these moments, which many of us who’ve been in the closet will sympathize with — whether or not we’ve tied the knot with Jesus — the cinematography and build up of these intimate moments make the viewer feel the real oasis that María Luisa was for Sor Juana. Queer romance lovers will be giddy in anticipation and routing for Sor Juana to overcome her shame.
Such precarious tenderness made me think about how horrible it must have been to have found joy and happiness, only to see it threatened all around you and eventually fade away. Sadly too many LGBTQ+ people still know the feeling today. While much of Juana Inés is historical, this aspect is not. It is a present reality for too many.
María Luisa cannot stay in New Spain for long. She must return to Spain with her husband. As Sor Juana continues to speak her mind in the colony, she comes into conflict with the men of the Church, who begin to mount evidence to try to put her on trial before the Inquisition.
Thankfully, María Luisa, who took some of Sor Juana’s writings back to Spain is able to use her husband’s connections with the Royal Court to show the elites of Europe Sor Juana’s talent for prose. She publishes two volumes of Sor Juana’s works, which grants her even more notoriety and thus effective immunity from trial in New Spain.
This and Sor Juana’s upbringings as a child of a Captain––albeit one that abandoned her and her criolla mother––show two things Sor Juana had to her advantage: race and relative socioeconomic status.
While not born into glory, Sor Juana was close enough to power to use her talents, intelligence, and charm to access powerful women, and at times men, who could in turn vouch for her when needed. Thus while Sor Juana is limited, she is not powerless.
For example, in one scene, an indigenous man is found to have stolen from the viceregal palace. He is lashed with a whip. Sor Juana discovers this gruesome scene unfolding and says that it was she that stole the items. Of course, she is not lashed. She is given a pass. In another scene, Sor Juana speaks Nahuatl, the Aztec language she learned in addition to her native Spanish growing up in Nepantla. The vicereine Leonor finds this amusing, even though it is forbidden to speak Nahuatl in the Court. Almost certainly the indigenous servants, were they to speak Nahualt, would not have been shown such mercy.
Such ability to rebel against power while currying favor from that same power structure system also contrasts with the scene in which an indigenous woman is brought before a cleric and tortured by the Inquisition for praying in her native tongue. Ironically, later this indigenous woman is called upon by the vicereine Leonor to help heal Sor Juana when she is sick — anything so that the vicereine Leonor doesn’t lose her reluctant companion. Granted, Leonor herself is acting in defiance of her husband all the while and invites the indigenous woman to her palace under the cover or dark.
Another interesting element is the way religion is used to pacify the population and the way in which it comes into conflict with the political will of the viceroys.
When an ultra-conservative Archbishop is installed in Mexico City and tries to forbid music, parades, and extravagance of all kinds, the viceroy becomes upset. He argues that eliminating the many vices of the people does away with a primary means of distracting them from their poverty and miserable living conditions. The Archbishop responds making arguments about impurity and the salvation of their souls. From this, we are able to see that the powers that be in the colonial administration of New Spain had varying goals and that there was nuance in the way they overlapped or clashed.
Another example are the African slaves that are being brought into New Spain in increasing numbers. The King of Spain demands more labor for the colony, yet the presiding viceroy says that bringing in more slaves will cause unrest. Of course, these men in positions of power are all concerned with maintaining their power and status, but through the personages of the King of Spain (who does not appear), the viceroys, and the Church, we see the different power centers of the Spanish Empire at work.
In this sense, Juana Inés touches briefly on sociopolitical realities beyond the life of Sor Juana. And while they may be peripheral, they add depth and authenticity to this portrayal of Colonial Latin America.
Without analyzing every aspect of this series, I can conclude by saying I was constantly intrigued watching Juana Inés and was sorry to see it finish. I’ve watched the series twice through now. I hope others are able to learn about her life and works — all she was able to accomplish, as well as her limitations. She is a lesson for us today as we face similar limitations and are at the same time confined to the realities of what is mentally conceivable at present for humanity.
There are so many more human stories to be portrayed and dramatized from Colonial Latin American history. I hope this is one of many semi-biographical series focused on Latin American history to come.