A portrait of Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, by Miguel Cabrera

Of the Highest Order

Who was Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz? Two local stage productions, at Fort Worth Opera and Teatro Dallas, shed light into the life and influence of the 17th century Mexican nun.

published Thursday, April 17, 2014

Photo: Leticia Alaniz
Olivia Guzman Emile and the ensemble of The Masks of Sor Juana at Teatro Dallas


Yo no estimo tesoros ni riquezas;
y así, siempre me causa más contento
poner riquezas en mi pensamiento
que no mi pensamiento en las riquezas.
— Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz 


I value neither treasures nor wealth;
thus, it gives me more pleasure
enriching my thinking
rather than thinking about riches.
(translation by Teresa Marrero) 


Can a 17th century New World nun—a child born out of wedlock, later hailed as an intellectual genius and eventually suffocated under the Catholic Church and the Spanish crown’s patriarchy—still resonate culturally and artistically today, 500 years later? Yes, so much so that two stage productions about her in the Fort Worth-Dallas area open this weekend.

Juana Inés de Asbaje y Ramírez de Santillana (1651-95), or as she later became known Sor (a Catholic term for a nun, “sister”) Juana Inés de la Cruz, is such a character. Fort Worth Opera’s production of With Blood, With Ink marks the professional world premiere of composer Daniel Crozier and librettist Peter M. Krask’s first opera and is one of the inaugural works in FWO’s Opera of the Americas initiative, a 38-month project funded by a $450,000 Mellon Foundation Grant. On a more modest production scale, Cora Cardona directs Teatro Dallas’ black-box production of The Masks of Sor Juana by Mexican playwright Miguel Sabido. Both are performed in English; the opera is supertitled in Spanish.

Cardona says it’s easy to see why she is of importance all these centuries later: “Sor Juana is still relevant today because women are still struggling for equal rights, like equal pay.”


The history of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz

Photo: WikiMedia Commons
A portrait of Juana during her youth in 1666, which states she was 15 at the time, when she first entered the viceregal court

Sor Juana, as she is affectionally known among her many aficionados, is required reading for all Spanish university majors. She is as key a figure in Hispanic literature much as Geoffrey Chaucer or Dante Alighieri in British and Italian, respectively. We know her as poet and playwright of the Baroque period, commonly known as the Spanish Golden Age (framed between the European Renaissance of the 16th century and the Baroque of the 17th), a time that produced great writers such as Miguel de Cervantes, Calderón de la Barca and Lope de Vega—figures comparable in stature to the English William Shakespeare. In art, this period produced works such as Las Meninas by Diego Velázquez, and intellectually some of Europe’s oldest Universities (in Alcalá, Salamanca y Valladolid, Spain) flourished. In the New World, the oldest universities on the continent emerged. The University of Mexico, the third oldest in the Americas, was established in 1551; compare this to the first university in the United States, Harvard, established in 1636. While Great Britain was barely establishing the 13 colonies in 1607, enduring cathedrals of gilded splendor were being built both in Spain and the New World, such as the central altar of the Cathedral of Puebla, Mexico, and the Temple of Santa Prisca, also in Puebla.

On a less lofty footing, travellers familiar with Mexican currency have seen Sor Juana’s face on the 200 peso bill. Mexican poet laureate and 1990 Nobel Prize winner Octavio Paz dedicated more than ten years of his life researching the few primary historical sources available on the nun’s life in a monumental book entitled Sor Juana, The Traps of Faith. Along with the Virgin of Guadalupe, recognized as an iconic figure indigenous to the Americas, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz is recognized as a pan-American cultural figure, one who represents the recognition of women as intellectuals.

In spite of living in such an intellectually and artistic vital time, Sor Juana suffered during a historical period repressive to Jews, Muslims, and women: the Inquisition, which was brought to the New World in 1571. Although she was never tried as a heretic, the backwash of repression affected her life deeply. A brief review of history will remind us that the European Middles Ages was wrought with a battle for souls between the Roman Catholic Church and the Protestant Reformation. The word of the day was heresy. During the first decades of the 1600s Galileo Galilei’s planetary studies that proposed a heliocentric (sun-centered) universe (rather than an Earth-centered one) was considered heretic by the Church. In the Americas, the hotly debated subject was questioning if the indigenous people, or indios, had souls (if not they could be considered non-human and enslaved, thus serving the feudal colonial economic system known as the encomiendas.)

She lived at a time when Mexico as a nation did not yet exist. The territory was generally called the Viceroyalty of New Spain and it was seated in present day Mexico City, and then known Tenochtitlán, the brilliant Aztec capital chronicled by the Conquistadores and compared to the Italian city of Venice. The Viceroyalty of New Spain lasted from the time of the conquest of the Aztec empire in 1521 to 1821 with the independence from Spain and the emergence of Mexico as a nation. The Spanish crown had established five Viceroyalties in the New World, which covered vast areas of what we know today as the 20 countries of Latin America. The viceroyalties were governed by appointment and directly under the Spanish crown through Viceroys, which included a virrey (viceroy) and a virreina (vicereine). The Roman Catholic Church ruled over all. 

Photo: WikiMedia Commons
The Mexican 200 peso bill features an image of Sor Juana

In these times Juana Inés de Azbaje y Ramírez de Santanilla came into the world in San Miguel Nepantla, near what today is Mexico City. She was born out of wedlock to criollo (a person of Spanish descent born in the New World) Isabel Ramírez  and a Spanish military man, Pedro Miguel de Asbaje, who, other than legally recognizing his paternity, was not a part of her life. Juana was raised in Amecameca, where her maternal grandfather owned a hacienda and by all accounts owned a large collection of books. Juana hid there to read, something forbidden to girls. A precocious intellect by any standard, she secretly learned to read and write in Spanish at the age of three. By age 5, she had mastered mathematics. At age 8, she composed her first known poem; by adolescence, she had mastered Greek logic, and at age 13 she was teaching her playmates Latin, the scholarly language of the day. It is known that Juana also mastered and composed in Nahuatl, the Aztec language.

Upon her grandfather’s death at age 16, Juana was sent to Mexico City, disguised as a boy so that she could enter the university. This notion is central in Teatro Dallas’ production, which focuses on the disguises Juana used in order to be who she wanted to be: an intellectual.  Forbidden entry to University, Juana continued studying privately. During this period she became a lady-in-waiting at the viceroy’s court where she later came under the tutelage and protection of two virreinas both impressed with her brilliance, beauty, wit and knowledge. At age 17, the then ruling Viceroy gathered a meeting of theologians, jurists, philosophers and poets to test Juana. She managed to respond correctly to the numerous and often tricky questions, surprising and often stumping these great men of letters. How could a girl, a female, be capable of such wit and possessing such knowledge? Unheard of! Without a proper dowry, and unwilling to live a life burdened by the responsibilities of marriage, she opted for the only other possibility for women of her time: the convent.

As her notoriety grew, so did the danger, which culminated once she had entered the convent and written the now famous Carta atenagórica (The Athenagoric Letter, meaning “worthy of the knowledge of Athens,” 1690). The epistolary analysis inked by a nun of a sermon by the Jesuit Portuguese intellectual Antonia Viera on the subtleties of Christ, requested by the Bishop of Puebla, Manuel Fernández de Santa Cruz, was eventually published without Sor Juana’s permission. This is considered by many as the alluded “traps of faith” in Octavio Paz’s famed book. Once circulated among the male clerical intelligencia, it became a statement of feminism. In other words, it turned into a declaration of war against this brilliant woman. In order to defend herself wrote another famed letter, “The Response to Sor Filotea de la Cruz.” The Bishop’s recrimination? That women should not argue matters of faith. Her response? How could her intelligence be anything but a gift from God?

Thus, Sor Juana becomes the first feminist in the New World, by defending her own right to think. Her brilliance survives to this day, although her life was relatively short. Under the threat of excommunication, she was pressured to sign a document giving up her intellectual life, something she did using her own blood, central to With Blood, With Ink.

In a bout of self-deprecation, this brilliant woman wrote:

Yo, la peor de todas.

Or, "I, the worst of all."

Silenced and stripped of her books and scientific instruments, she died tending the sick during an epidemic of the plague.


With Blood, With Ink

Photo: Ellen Appel
From left: Padre Antonio (Ian McEuen), Young Sor Juana (Vanessa Becerra), Dying Sor Juana (Sandra Lopez) in With Blood, With Ink at Fort Worth Opera

It is easy to see how this important historical figure makes for rich dramatis personae. With Blood, With Ink librettist Peter M. Krask concurs. Although acknowledging that Sor Juana is not a well-known figure within the English-speaking world, he and composer Daniel Crozier saw an opportunity to expose others to the story of this remarkable nun while graduate students at the Peabody Conservatory of Music back in 1993.

For Krask, there are many reasons to write an opera about Sor Juana, among them more down-to-earth production ones, such as the existent tradition of nuns as operatic characters, the availability of sopranos and the easy costuming—he makes sure to highlight the historical accuracy of the costumes, designed by Austin Scarlett, a runner-up in the first season of Project Runway.

“Where we renew operatic tradition is by centering the piece on a heroine celebrated for her intelligence and determination, and not by her embroilments in paramours,” Krask says, referring to many famous soprano roles. “Let’s face it, Tosca is not terribly smart.”

Krask wrote the libretto first and then handed it over to Crozier, in what Krask calls “an easy collaboration” that has grown over the years since their graduate school days.

“The first draft was 15 pages; the fourth was 75,” Krask says. “The piece was conceived as an opera, with the traditional components such as arias, duets, and other recognizable operatic gestures.” 

For instance, the Requiem Mass with Gregorian chants is a leitmotif. A haunting melody introduces Sor Juana and follows her throughout the piece, which takes place very much in the present, on her deathbed, he stated. Memory reconstructs key parts of her life through the trope of having two Sor Juanas, a young (played by Vanessa Becerra in her FWO debut) and a dying one (Sandra Lopez, seen at FWO in Carmen and Turandot). Krask is familiar with the book by Octavio Paz, which he used, in part, as a source.

With this production, the Fort Worth Opera is not only establishing a tradition of recognizing important Hispanic cultural works, but also for offering translations into Spanish via supertitles. While the opera’s standing translator is Gabriela Lomónaco Mora, due to previous commitments, the Blood translation was done by Margarita Hernández Contreras, a native of Guadalajara and member of the American Translators Association, who admits there were a number of challenges in translating this particular work.

“In order to be true to the Spanish spoken in that time period, I had to use the voseo form,” says Contreras. “The challenge was using this older style of speech, yet making it intelligible for a contemporary audience.”

Voseo is the Old Spanish use of the second person plural (you all) as vosotros rather than the contemporary ustedes. Hernández Contreras stated that the role of translator in a work such as this one requires “sensibility and understanding…of the historical and cultural context in which Sor Juana lived, so that the audience can come away with an understanding that even though sexism was responsible for cutting her wings. …The period would not allow the insertion, for instance, of contemporary notions of feminism in the behavior of the characters,” Contreras adds.


The Masks of Sor Juana

Photo: Leticia Alaniz
Olivia Guzman Emile as Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz in The Masks of Sor Juana at Teatro Dallas

Modernizing the image and relevance of Sor Juana falls upon Teatro Dallas in their production of The Masks of Sor Juana by contemporary Mexican playwright and media expert Miguel Sabido (b. 1937, Mexico City). Leave it to founder and Artistic Director Cora Cardona, that pillar of socially relevant yet entertaining theatrical works, to engage the work of this great Mexican maestro.

Sabido directed his first play in 1957, later worked as Televisa’s Vicepresident for Research, creating a socially relevant, commercial free entertainment channel, Canal 9, the first of its kind. He’s an internationally known figure in the area of designing and producing serialized dramas on radio and television popular with audiences yet imparting positive social values, which became known as the Sabido Method. This methodology for development of mass media entertainment-education serial dramas is unique in that it is designed according to elements of communication and behavioral theories. These confirm specific values, attitudes, and behaviors that viewers can use in their own personal advancement.

Thus, with the Sabido Method in mind, according to Cardona, The Masks of Sor Juana is a didactic piece.

“It is structured as a symposium [coloquio in Spanish] of academics, among them modern day students and, in a Pirandellian gest, the author himself,” Cardona says. “They explore Sor Juana’s private life in relationship to an actual historical document, “The Letter of Monterrey,” used by Sabido to explore the nun’s rebelliousness against the church hierarchy.”

According to the Cervantes Institute, the Letter was written by Sor Juana to her confessor, Antonio Núñez de Miranda, in 1681. Discovered in 1980 at the Biblioteca del Seminario Arquidocesano de Monterrey (the Seminary Library of the Archdiocese of Monterrey, Mexico), it is allegedly the first known draft of the nun’s own description of the threats to her individuality and the contextualization of this repression within her times. It is seen by experts as a draft for her later defenses. It also provides a personal critique of the prevalent dogmatism and anti-intellectualism towards women. The notion of needing to hide one’s identity in order to be an intellectual woman, or a Jew or an indigenous person constructs the dramatic format for Masks.

Unburied from the annals of dusty library books, the life and times of this important figure breathes in two very different productions. Mark your calendars to see them both.

» Teresa Marrero is Associate Professor of Latin American and Latina/o Theater, in the Department of World Languages, Literatures and Cultures at the University of North Texas.


» Click here for our interview with Dona D. Vaughn, director of With Blood, With Ink

» The Masks of Sor Juana opens at Teatro Dallas on Thursday, April 17, and runs through May 2. See our listing at this link, which has showtimes, prices, map and more info.

» With Blood, With Ink runs in rotating repertory with the other productions in the 2014 Fort Worth Opera Festival: Bizet's The Pearl Fishers, Mozart's Così fan tutte and the regional premiere of Silent Night by Kevin Puts and Mark Campbell. Frontiers, the showcase of snippets from new works, returns for a second year. Here's the complete schedule for the Fort Worth Opera Festival:

Friday, April 25           7:30 p.m.        McDavid Studio          With Blood, With Ink
Saturday, April 26       2:00 p.m.         McDavid Studio          With Blood, With Ink
Saturday, April 26       7:30 p.m.         Bass Hall                     Così fan tutte
Sunday, April 27         2:00 p.m.         Bass Hall                     The Pearl Fishers
Sunday, April 27         7:30 p.m.         McDavid Studio          With Blood, With Ink
Tuesday, April 29        7:30 p.m.         McDavid Studio          With Blood, With Ink
Friday, May 2              7:30 p.m.         Bass Hall                     The Pearl Fishers
Saturday, May 3         2:00 p.m.         McDavid Studio          With Blood, With Ink
Saturday, May 3         7:30 p.m.         Bass Hall                     Così fan tutte
Sunday, May 4           2:00 p.m.         Bass Hall                     Silent Night
Sunday, May 4           7:30 p.m.         McDavid Studio          With Blood, With Ink
Tuesday, May 6          7:30 p.m.         McDavid Studio          With Blood, With Ink
Wednesday, May 7     7:30 p.m          McDavid Studio          With Blood, With Ink
Thursday, May 8         6:00 p.m          McDavid Studio          Frontiers Showcase #1
Friday, May 9              6:00 p.m.         McDavid Studio          Frontiers Showcase #2
Friday, May 9             7:30 p.m.        McDavid Studio          With Blood, With Ink
Saturday, May 10       2:00 p.m.         McDavid Studio          With Blood, With Ink
Saturday, May 10       7:30 p.m.         Bass Hall                    Silent Night
Sunday, May 11         2:00 p.m.         Bass Hall                     Così fan tutte

Photo: Ellen Appel
Dying Sor Juana (Sandra Lopez) and Young Sor Juana (Vanessa Becerra) in With Blood, With Ink at Fort Worth Opera
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Of the Highest Order
Who was Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz? Two local stage productions, at Fort Worth Opera and Teatro Dallas, shed light into the life and influence of the 17th century Mexican nun.
by Teresa Marrero

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