I, the Worst of All, Sor Juana Ines del la Cruz

by Maria Molina

This paper’s purpose is to explain the movie, I, The Worst of All, and then later to analyze how a nun in Mexico in the seventeenth century was seized with the idea of feminism at a time when a woman’s biggest achievement was to get married and have a family.

Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz,was such: a woman, a nun, but above all a poet who was above and ahead of her time.

The life of Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz was portrayed in the 1990 film Yo, la Peor de Todas (I, The Worst of All) directed by Maria Luis Bemberg,. Spanish actress Assumpta Serna played the role of Sor Juana. The movie was based on the book of Nobel Prize winner Octavio Paz, Sor Juana Or, the Traps of Faith. However, this movie did not receive any awards.

The film displays the life of a nun, who is considered one of the best women poets in Latin American history, but she was a woman ahead of her time, the seventeenth century.

Sister Juana is a gentle poet and a none-too-pious nun living in seventeenth-century Mexico. She is protected by the Viceroy and his wife from a ferociously misogynistic Archbishop, who some believe is using his hatred of women to hide from his powerful lust for them. Indeed, it is possible that he is the actual father of Sister Juana. Regardless of that, her life becomes extremely grim when her loving patrons return to Spain, leaving her to the not-so-tender mercies of this harsh man.

The film begins with Archbishop and his Excellency discussing about how they were going to govern New Spain. They end the meeting by saying “let us govern together.” The viceroy and his wife are anxious to meet Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz. They have heard about her poem, about the foolishness of men: she talks about how men accused women of being the cause of their misbehaving, while in reality they are the ones who are to blame. The viceroy tells Sor Juana that there were not many women who were educated as well as being as beautiful, and passionate as she was. The Vicereine develops a particular relationship with Sister Juana. The first time they meet, the Vicereine starts to tell her a couple of facts that she knew about the sister, such as that she taught herself how to write at the age of three. An interesting fact that is portrayed in the movie and in a way sets the tone for the entire relationship between the Sister Juana and the Vicereine is when the Queen of New Spain describes how they are both alike. The Vicereine says to Juana that the sister wore a veil, while she wore a crown and just as Juana could not go out of the convent, she as well could not get out of the Palace. Also the Vicereine explains too that just as Juana had to follow the rules of the convent , the Vicereine had to follow the rules of protocol. And lastly the Vicereine tells Juana that just as she entered the convent when she turned twenty, the Vicereine got married at the same age. This conversation set the tone for what was to come for them.

The Queen of New Spain had become pregnant, and when Sister Juana finds out, she gets frightened or scared because she did not understand motherhood. The Vicereine asks Sister Juana if she never wanted to have children and her response is very precise: “I have children” and she starts to list her belongings like “my telescope, my sundial, my obsidian mirror, my astrolabe, my quills, my writings… These are my children.” For Sister Juana her children were her instruments of knowledge. She said that some women only need solitude and silence to be complete without children. This was a radical thought for a woman, especially in a time period when women were raised to get married and have children. Sister Juana wrote poems to the Vicereine and the queen was fascinated.. One day the Vicereine told Sister Juana that “I have never met a woman like you. More poet than nun, more nun than woman.” This clearly defines Sister Juana: she had her priorities set. She was a person concerned with the knowledge, with the letters, not about being a woman or being a nun. Later on in the film, Sister Juana says a phrase at her dying mother’s bedside when she is thinking about her childhood that explained the reason for her becoming a nun. She says “Since I couldn’t dress as a man I dressed as a nun,” .Since in those days women were not able to go to school, she thought of the idea of a disguise that would allow her to go to the University. However, not being able to go to a University did not stop her from learning; in fact her knowledge was of such a level that the past Vicereine had had her examined by a panel of well known educators as well as church officials, and she impressed all of them, by her level of knowledge. In this time period the group of people who were educated was pretty small; most of them were church officials. The thought of women having the level of knowledge as Sister Juana did, was unheard of, and for some even scary. It was especially so to the Archbishop, who saw Juana as a threat to the Catholic Church because he, being the church fanatic that he was, thought of Sister Juana as the church rebel, and that she should be punished for her writings. He thought that the best way to punish her was by taking away “her children” but this was difficult to accomplish because she counted on the protection of the Viceroy and his wife. For the Archbishop, Sister Juana represented a threat to his beliefs not because they were wrong, but because she was a woman. At the final stages of the movie, when Juana is trying to respond to the accusations that were published by Sister Philotea de la Cruz, she says to the Archbishop, “If I weren’t a woman, my theological impertinence would not matter,” and the answer to that from the priest was “God didn’t create women to philosophize.” Was he trying to say that women were only born to have children, and that they were excluded from knowledge? She confronts this issue all her life, but she said “women are different, true… we have a different smell, a different shape… for you we are the devil.” She opened up the idea, especially in the New World, that women have the right to acquire knowledge, and that studying and asking questions was not a sin. In the seventeenth century, a world dominated by religion and man, a woman had no say, but for her, a nun, to rebel against the church in order to defend her beliefs was unbelievable.

After that conversation, Sister Juana Ines de la Cruz became a different person: a lot of bad things such as floods and disease and sickness occurred in Mexico and she blamed herself for them

She never came back to being the free-spirited woman that she once was, maybe due to the fact that her muse and inspiration, the Vicereine was gone. The movie tries to portray their relationship as lesbian, but it could have also been seen as a friendship. The movie goes too far in depth in trying to show or portray a lesbian relationship and ignores the context of her writings and the reason for them. Just as The Ninety-Five Theses of Martin Luther changed history in general, because of the different ideas that came out of them, Sister Juana’s writings changed or began to change the history of the role of women in the world.

Sister Juana Ines de la Cruz was a woman who found comfort in books and she found hope in her writings. She started a movement that in those times was unheard of, feminism. She started a movement maybe unaware of the consequences of the revolution of thoughts that her writings would bring not only to the church but also to the role or the view of women in general. The last day she was teaching little children in the convent, she said to them “ God did not give you perception and curiosity in vain, that none of that is the private hunting ground of men. Intelligence has no sex… and if anyone says that-many do-they lie… neither is the freedom to explore.” She wanted to teach the younger generations that it is good to learn and to explore, and that knowledge is not just a subject for man.

Sister Juana Ines de la Cruz was a nun who lived during the period when the Inquisition was in place. Even though she was scared by it, she continued working on what she believed in; she was doing the only thing she knew how, in order to serve God and that was through her writings. She revolutionized the womanly role in society, all the more surprising since this comes from inside a convent. Sister Juana knew what it was to be oppressed by the opposite sex, so she decided to write about it and let the world know about it. She brought out the idea that women had the right to acquire knowledge, and that intelligence is no longer reserved for men. She opened up a path to knowledge for women that until this day has not ended. It will continue to expand and become wider, as long as there is life on this planet.

 

Sister Juana Ines de la Cruz
(1651-1691)

Arraignment of the Men
Males perverse, schooled to condemn
Women by your witless laws,
Though forsooth you are prime cause
Of that which you blame in them:

If with unexampled care
You solicit their disdain,
Will your fair words ease their pain,
When you ruthless set the snare?


Their resistance you impugn,
Then maintain with gravity
That it was mere levity
Made you dare to importune.

………………………………..

What more elevating sight
Than of man with logic crass,
Who with hot breath fogs the glass,
Then laments it is not bright!

Scorn and favor, favor, scorn,
What you will, result the same,
Treat you ill, and earn your blame,
Love you well, be left forlorn.

Scant regard will she possess
Who with caution wends her way,-
Is held thankless for her “nay,”
And as wanton for her “yes.”

……………………………………
What must be the rare caprice
Of the quarry you engage:
If she flees, she wakes your rage,
If she yields, her charms surcease.

………………………………………

Who shall bear the heavier blame,
When remorse the twain enthralls,
She, who for the asking, falls,
He who, asking, brings to shame?

Whose the guilt, where to begin,
Though both yield to passion’s sway,
She who weakly sins for pay,
He who, strong, yet pays for Sin?

Then why stare ye, if we prove
That the guilt lies at your gate?
Either love those you create,
Or create those you can love.

To solicitation truce,-
Then, sire, with some show of right
You may mock the hapless plight
Or the creatures of your use!


Peter H. Goldsmith (translator)

From: Hispanic Anthology: Poems translated from the Spanish by English and North American Poets, collected and arranged by Thomas Walsh. G.P. Putnam’s Sons, New York, 1920.