A Poetics of Resistance: On Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz and Women of Action in Early Colonial Mexico

Just as it does today, life in 16th- and 17th-century colonial Mexico for women [1] of all ethnic backgrounds varied greatly according to race and class. But what they dealt with in common, however, was a social and cultural upheaval that significantly shaped and changed the face of the entire Atlantic World, literally and figuratively. They confronted expansions and shifts of not only colonial empire, but of the laws, rules, and customs which governed their daily lives. To address issues of gender alongside those of race and class as placed in the context of power themes in the Atlantic World is to give a more inclusive view of the far-reaching effects of colonization. It is a view in human terms, to be sure, moving away from the representation of women in terms of what was done to them versus what they did for themselves, and their families. That shift in perspective advocates for an examination of women from their points of survival and resistance, rather than victimization. In my mind, that is a radical enough shift that to shape a poetics of resistance—via poems by Sor Juana Inès de la Cruz, and by reading between the lines of archival documents à la Saidiya Hartman—is an effort worth beginning to undertake.

Feminism is not new, and neither is resistance. A poetics of resistance accounts not just for the larger movements documented in history, but the unheralded episodes of resistance—ones that occur internally, that we document in diaries and kitchen conversations, in bedtime conversations with our children, in toxic workshops and workplaces, in our personal relationships and in traffic, in reading racist passages in Flaubert and Stevens. Resistance does not have to be armed or organized. Resistance is a type of thought that leads to behavioral change that leads to action. It is a refusal to accept harm, a refusal to perpetuate harm; imbued with and related to love, trust, intuition and integrity: resistance holds a power that has nothing to do with hierarchies or money. It deals strictly in the human. For the purposes of this essay, I briefly call attention to how African, European, and Native women in early colonial Mexico resisted various oppressions through language and the law. They navigated the fluctuating lines of power between race, class, and gender not passively, but actively. Their lives and work provide examples of how average women asserted themselves, resisted instances of exploitation (whether financial, social, or sexual) and protested or maneuvered through oppressive conditions.

Poet Sor Juana Inés de La Cruz (1648—1695), for example, used her writing to expose hypocrisies of the Catholic church, men, and society on gender issues, specifically. A famous writer in her time and still an important figure in literary history, de la Cruz, daughter of a mestizo mother and Spanish father, learned to read at the age of three [2] under her grandfather’s tutelage and proved to be a child prodigy. Despite enforced social and legal limitations on her race, gender, and class, she became a sought-after figure in elite Mexican society. Later in her life, she advocated for the education of women and girls, making that part of her work as a Hieronymite nun. Juana Inés, a 2017 Spanish-language Netflix series captures her spiritedness and her queerness, her resistance to suppression and devotion to knowledge acquisition, and her ability to find solace and strength in writing. [3]

Take de la Cruz’s “Poem 281,” where she describes the Virgén de Guadeloupe, a figure still revered in Mexico and other parts of Latin America today, as in alignment with indigenous beliefs about her representation and consistent with the Bible’s characterization “black and comely.” [4] de la Cruz explicitly chooses to equalize race and gender, writing against the typical portrayal of Blacks and women during that time. Another poem, “Poem 92,” or “Satira Filosófica” [5] takes men to task for their treatment of women, stating that men accuse women of the very same ills they themselves practice, and indicts them for seducing women to such actions in the first place:

Hombres necios que acusáis
a la mujer sin razón,
sin ver que sois la ocasión
de lo mismo que culpáis: [6]

or my translation:

Foolish men accuse
women without aim,
without seeing you cause
the same harm you blame.

Her strong voice adds weight to the notion that women participated vigorously and vocally in opposing race and gender bias, even five centuries ago. “Poem 92” parallels Frances E.W. Harper’s mid-19th-century poem “A Double Standard”:

Can you blame me if I’ve learned to think
Your hate of vice a sham,
When you so coldly crushed me down
And then excused the man? [7]

Harper goes on to elucidate the deception and its cost:

Can you blame me that I did not see
Beneath his burning kiss
The serpent’s wiles, nor even hear
The deadly adder hiss? [8]

And, again, that sentiment is in parallel with de la Cruz’s third stanza, which follows:

Combatís su resistencia
y luego, con gravedad,
decís que fue livianidad

Fighting her resistance
and then, with gravity,
you say it was lightness (My translation)

While Harper’s subject dies, however, de la Cruz’s direct address to men never loses its strident focus, the penultimate stanza demanding that men “Dejad de solicitar,” or “stop your soliciting” (my translation, i.e., leave women alone), then ending with an argument that manages to both allude to scripture and echo a lawyer’s closing remarks:

Bien con muchas armas fundo
que lidia vuestra arrogancia,
pues en promesa e instancia
juntáis diablo, carne y mundo. [9]

I’m armed with proofs of what
your arrogance deals—
now in promises and appeals
you fuse devil, flesh and world. (My translation)

Hers is not a timid voice. A poetics of resistance asks that we do not censor such justified anger, but acknowledge and enjoy and examine it as part of a literary lineage and as part of a feminist lineage that stretches back further than even de la Cruz.

But to look further back asks us to search the archive. One such instance of resistance occurred on the heels of a successful 1608 revolt by Angolan chief Yanga. The uprising resulted in the incorporation of a free town in his name a few years later near Veracruz, Mexico, which still exists today. It is also where, in 1612, a group of enslaved women of African descent participated in a plot to attain freedom. Seven women were among the thirty-five executed when the plot was discovered. [10] At the time, women of African descent could bypass their imposed status by virtue of their skin color if they were mixed race; some fair mulattos passed for white in secret. Some of those women petitioned the audiencia—a sort of colonial tribunal or appellate court—to declare them white—“que se tengan por blancos”—and a very few could purchase the title of blanco, regardless of their actual skin color. [11] More broadly, children of enslaved women and Spaniards could also have their freedom purchased by the father. [12] Even when relegated by law and evolving custom to lower-status castas, then, Black women, when able, used whatever means at their disposal to reject the limitations imposed upon them by colonial racial, social, legal and financial restrictions. A poetics of resistance acknowledges persistence in the face continuous rejection as evidence of humanity and dignity. It further centers women’s efforts at agency—even or especially when legal systems and social strictures deprived them of it—as a common human and creative practice.

In different and less violent ways, European women in colonial Mexico also endured gender restrictions and strict social expectations that they sometimes resisted. As depicted in Alexandra and Noble David Cook’s Good Faith and Truthful Ignorance: A Case of Transatlantic Bigamy, Doñas Catalina de Vergara and Beatriz de Villasur both fought to preserve their rights to be seen as virtuous women, using the Spanish court system to protect their interests. The fight also had to do with maintaining their financial well-being. [13] Neither of the two Doñas let their bigamist hidalgo/conquistador husband, Don Francisco Noguerol de Ulloa, exploit their finances or sully their reputations without a fight. In another case, in the very late 17th century, criollo Josefa Sanchez de Aldana sued Don Martin Cacho for not following through with marriage after an exchange of gifts and sex. After “le entregué mi cuerpo” (translation: I gave him my body), de Aldana stated, Don Cacho married someone else and her father sent the resulting baby away; the suit was to restore her good name. [14] That there are such cases where women fought to preserve notions of propriety that were crucial to a woman’s reputation at that time shows also that women of various racial backgrounds and classes did resist exploitation and asserted their rights. And, they used existing legal and social systems to assert their claims to them.

In the case of indigenous women, one particular story stands out as such an act of resistance to subjugation. Describing an incident noted in a primary source in which a Mayan woman successfully resisted a Spaniard’s advances, Matthew Restall writes that “often the very ideology or system that subordinated women paradoxically gave women value […] the Spanish (and male Maya) association of male dominance with colonial (or political) dominance made the Maya woman’s sexual resistance all the more potent.” [15] In this case, noted in an early 17th- century legal document, the unnamed indigenous woman’s steadfast resistance even in the face of his vehement advances shocked the Spaniard enough that he backed down. [16] That she then sued the Spaniard illustrates that native women made use of the Spanish legal system when necessary to protest offenses against them.

Women’s legal and extralegal resistance continued into the nineteenth century. In her article “Lessons of Gender and Ethnohistory in Mesoamerica,” Irene Silverblatt outlines a late eighteenth-century incident in a Maya village called Ixil, in which Maya women collectively opposed colonial policies which prevented traditional burials. The women literally “laid siege to the community church and held government and religious authorities hostage” in order to “forcefully [express] defiance of (resistance to) the policies of institutions they could not otherwise affect directly,” and Silverblatt notes that the “women’s lack of access to official political life could sanction their engagement in of male-dominated structures in extralegal ways.” [17] Silverblatt also discusses nuances of sexual violence during the period, examining the nature of resistance and subordination in relation to choices of survival. Her article shows that native women proactively sought to preserve their rights, despite the overwhelming presence and power of the colonizing Spaniards. Stepping outside legal and social structures, women organized and “‘took the voice’” [18]—named in public the transgressions against them, and worked toward solutions both within colonial systems, and by means they themselves devised.

Women in early colonial Mexico did not unilaterally accept ill treatment; they resisted it with legal action, poetry and forceful protest. Their survival often depended on perceived submission and deference to men, but women devised many ways to live and fight and thrive as much as they could with the resources, knowledge, and choices available to them. A poetics of resistance intentionally seeks and holds awareness of the entrenched undercurrent of historical resistance that has ebbed and flowed within wider public view. It acknowledges resistance’s constant presence, demonstrating that women along intersecting lines of race and class pursued self-assertion during a time of explicit establishment of those lines. The record of such resistance continues in the fact of their survival as well as in extant poems in the literary-historical record. Women—and particularly women of color—were, have always been, and continue to be more than mothers and workers and sexual companions, and further, they demanded to be valued and respected in whatever role they served in societies, communities and families. Their contributions overlapped politically and culturally to help shape the Atlantic World, and their resistance helped them retain some of the humanity and dignity of populations that imperialists seem(ed) so determined to exploit, brutalize, deny and destroy.

Notes and Works Cited

[1] I am presumably speaking here about cis women, but when I say women throughout this essay, I mean anyone who identifies as a woman. Trans women are women, whatever the century.

[2] There is also strong evidence that her first language is Nahuatl, and that it influenced her poetry. See Caroline Egan’s “Lyric Intelligibility in Sor Juana’s Nahuatl Tocotines.” In Romance Notes, vol. 58, no. 2, 2018, pp.207-218. doi: 10.1353/rmc.2018.0021 or full text: https://www.repository.cam.ac.uk/bitstream/handle/1810/287541/Lyric_intelligibility_rev_final.pdf?sequence=1

[3] Nick Ripatrazone, “A Brilliant 17th-Century Nun is Brought to Life on Netflix.” 27 February 2017. America Magazine. https://www.americamagazine.org/arts-culture/2017/02/27/brilliant-17th-century-nun-brought-life-netflix

[4] University of Cambridge, UK, “The Poetry of Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz: Hybrid Difference.” University of Cambridge, http://www.latin-american.cam.ac.uk/culture/SorJuana/SorJuana5.htm

[5] This poem is often translated with the title “You Foolish Men.” See Michael Smith’s translation at the Academy of American Poets: https://poets.org/poem/you-foolish-men

[6] University of Michigan. http://www-personal.umich.edu/~dfrye/SORJUANA.html

[7] See Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, “A Double Standard.” https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/52449/a-double-standard  

[8] Harper.

[9] See note 5.

[10] Edgar F. Love, “Negro Resistance to Spanish Rule in Colonial Mexico.” The Journal of Negro History, vol. 52, no. 2, 1967, pp. 89–103. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/2716127

[11] While the gender I’m speaking of here is female, I am quoting directly from Love, and he is speaking of both genders; hence blanco instead of blanca.

[12] Love, p. 90.

[13] Alexandra Parma Cook and Noble David Cook, Good Faith and Truthful Ignorance: A Case of Transatlantic Bigamy. Duke University Press, 1991.

[14] Kathleen Ann Myers, Neither Saints Nor Sinners: Writing the Lives of Women in Spanish America. Oxford University Press, 2003.

[15] Restall, Matthew. “"He Wished It in Vain’”: Subordination and Resistance Among Maya Women in Post-Conquest Yucatan.” Ethnohistory 42 (1995): 577-94. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/483144.

[16] Restall, p. 591.

[17] Irene Silverblatt. “Lessons of Gender and Ethnohistory in Mesoamerica.” Ethnohistory 42 (1995): 644-47. http://links.jstor.org/  

[18] Silverblatt, p. 641.

Khadijah Queen is the author of six books, most recently Anodyne (Tin House, 2020). She holds a PhD from the University of Denver. She is an assistant professor of creative writing at University of Colorado, Boulder, and serves as core faculty for the Mile-High MFA in creative writing at Regis University.