“She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.”
This now-famous quote by Senator Mitch McConnell, which was meant to demean Senator Elizabeth Warren, is a perfect way to describe many of the great women in history, and certainly describes the subject of the 2016 Mexican TV miniseries, Juana Inés.
Based on the life of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (née Juana Inés de Asbaje y Ramírez de Santillana), the seven part miniseries concerns one of the greatest poets of the Baroque era. Born in New Spain (Mexico) during the 17th Century, she was illegitimate, but nevertheless had an uncle influential enough to get her a place at the Spanish viceroy’s court, where she soon became a favorite of the viceroy and his wife. Still in her teens, she was already a poet and remarkably well-educated for a woman of her time and place. She could read and write Latin and Greek, as well the language used by the Aztecs, Nahuatl. It’s even more remarkable when one considers she was almost entirely self-taught.
When the viceroy’s daughter needs a new tutor, Juana Inés applies for the position (she was only 17 at the time). In an attempt to humiliate her, she is forced to undergo an examination by some of the greatest intellectual and religious minds in the country.
Reader, she passes with flying colors.
Unfortunately, her illegitimate status makes it impossible for her to marry well. Instead, she enters a convent. She finds the Carmelite order too confining and leaves. Eventually she finds a sponsor who is willing to pay her dowry to enter the richer (and less strict) order of Hieronymite nuns, where she stays with until her death. She writes voluminously and collects an impressive library, as well as corresponds with some of the greatest minds of the age, including Isaac Newton.
However, both her fame and intelligence gain her enemies within the Catholic Church (remember, the Spanish Inquisition still exists). She is finally forced to swear she will give up her writing and library. After her death from the plague at the age of 43, it is discovered she never stopped writing and had hidden many of her books.
Juana Inés not only wrote religious poetry, but also love poetry. She had a passionate relationship with another viceroy’s wife, María Luisa Manrique de Lara y Gonzaga, who became her patron after she returned to Spain and helped spread her fame throughout Europe and the New World.
The Mexican television series Juana Inés is a sumptuous production that does justice to the life of this fascinating woman. Arantza Ruiz plays her as a young girl and Arcelia Ramirez plays her as a mature woman. Both give superlative performances.
Hernán del Riego plays Father Antonio Núñez de Miranda, Juana Inés’ confessor, and alternately her sponsor and nemesis. In the series, he is portrayed as a kind of Salieri figure, who appreciates her gifts but is also jealous and resentful of them.
The series does not dance around whether or not Juana Inés was bisexual—it leaves no doubt that the relationship between Juana Inés and María Luisa was both emotional and physical.
The series is amazing in the wealth of details (they even recreate a hair decoration she wore in a portrait made before she became a nun). But what I love about it the most is how they portray Juana Inés as a woman who gave zero you-know-whats for the patriarchy. Again, this was an especially dangerous time for a woman to defy the Church and the status quo. And yet she did just that. She finds a way to always be her true self even though her options were severely limited.
As of this writing, Juana Inés is available for streaming on Netflix. There is no option for a dubbed version, but do give the subtitled version a chance. I can’t recommend it highly enough.