Colonial Latin America, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz and the Independence Movements
The age of the Viceroys – Spain’s control over Spanish America lasted over 300 years, beginning in 1492. The mainland territories of the empire in North and South America gained independence during the first two decades of the 19th century, while in the Caribbean, Cuba and Puerto Rico remained under Spanish control until 1898.
The Spanish possessions in the Americas were extensive, from Mexico (including the current southwest of the U.S.), through Central America, to South America. Its territories were much greater than the other major colonial powers in the area (England or Portugal). Communication with Spain could take up to several months. Nevertheless, Spanish control over its colonies was guaranteed by three important institutions: the Viceroy, the armed forces, and the Catholic Church.
The Viceroy was the king’s representative in the New World (the Spanish word is virrey, which means “in place of the king”). The Viceroy governed a Viceroyalty. At the beginning of the colonial period there were two viceroys, in Mexico and Perú. By the 18th century, two more viceroys were appointed for South America (in the regions of modern-day Colombia and Argentina).
Assisting the viceroys were the armed forces of Spain, the army and the navy. While the Spanish armadas began to lose their power in 17th and 18th centuries (challenged by the powerful English Navy, and by pirates), the soldiers of the viceroy were able to maintain control of Spanish territories until the outbreak of the wars of independence after 1800.
Cathedral (Lima, left); above, a trial of the Inquisition
A third main institution of the Spanish colonial period was the Catholic Church. Its main goal was to insure the conversion of the indigenous peoples to Christianity and the persecution of “heretics” through the Inquisition. The Church, the armed forces, and the Viceroy usually worked together closely to insure the smooth operation of the empire.
Charles III of Spain
The Jesuits and their expulsion –The Jesuits had accumulated extensive lands and dominance in the area of education by the the 18th century. King Charles III banished them from the Americas in 1767, fearing the rising power of this militant order, as well as others coveting the possessions of the Jesuits. Perhaps the indigenous populations lost the most, for the Jesuits in many areas of Spanish America defended the rights of native people and are great educators.
Loosely based on historical events of the expulsion of the Jesuits is the film The Mission. It portrays the final days of the religious order in the Americas as they attempt to delay the arrival of Spanish troops as well as serve the Guaraní people under their charge (who in the 18th century were concentrated in Brazil and Paraguay).
Reenactment of Spanish Colonists (New Mexico)
The system of the encomienda was initially established by the Spanish crown and enforced by the Viceroys. Under this system, favored Spanish settlers were given large tracts of land and people to work the fields, mines, and waters nearby. Although the government attempted to abolish the encomienda system by the 18th century, because of the abuse of the natives, some landowners continued to control the lives of families living on their land.
The Caste System:
The Spanish colonial period is also marked by a rigid social stratification. The most privileged class were the Spaniards, who held the important government and church posts. The children of the Spanish born in the New World were called criollos (creoles). While still a privileged class, the criollos increasingly complained about “newcomers” from Spain and more and more wanted to participate in the governing of the Spanish state in the Americas.
Spanish colonists of New Mexico
The next group were the mixed groups, well defined by a “pigmentocracy” or a stratification based on the color of the skin
Artistic rendition of the caste system
Three main divisions
Spaniard peninsular or
Spain: “Better marriage than burning” –low percentage of illegitimates
New Spain: “Better to live with someone than be alone”—high percentage of illegitimates
The decadence of Spain in the 18th and 19th centuries – By 1800 the Spanish empire in the Americas was ripe for change. Spain had increasingly come under the influence of France; in 1808 Napoleon invaded Spain and installed his brother (José I) as king (causing much dissatisfaction in the Spanish colonies and war in Spain). Moreover, both the American Revolution (1776) and the French Revolution (1789) gave new hope especially the the criollos, who wanted to govern their lands without the interference of Spain.
One of the most important figures of the entire Spanish colonial period was the Mexican nun Sor (Sister) Juana Inés de la Cruz (1651-1695). Looking back today at her literary achievements and her defense of the role of women in society, many critics agree that she was a person whose ideas were much in advance of her time.
Born Juana Inés de la Cruz de Asbaje y Ramírez near Mexico City, Sor Juana initially had many social obstacles against her. First, she was illegitimate, a great stigma that would normally limit her role in colonial society. Her mother, Isabel Ramírez, was an independent woman who managed various farmlands. An important figure in Sor Juana’s young life was her grandfather, Pedro Ramírez de Santillana; he had an extensive library; by six, Sor Juana had read all the books of his collection.
Soon Sor Juana’s family realized that she was a precocious youngster. She wanted to attend the University in Mexico City disguised as a man, since women were not permitted to attend, but whether she succeeded is not known. Her good fortune came when she was noticed by the court of Viceroy Mancera and his wife, Leonor. At the age of 16, Sor Juana served Leonor; and her intellectual achievements astounded the philosophers, scientists, and courtesans.
In 1667, Sor Juana entered the convent of the Discalced Carmelites, but this order was too strict and she moved to the more permissive order of St. Jerome. Much has been speculated as to why Sor Juana did not marry, but it is a fact that the convent of St. Jerome allowed Sor Juana to continue her studies, meet with scholars and members of the court, and conduct scientific experiments. In the area of science, Sor Juana is said to have corresponded with the English mathematician Sir Isaac Newton.
Following a Baroque style, Sor Juana also wrote poetry, essay, and drama (including her most famous play, Trials of a Noble House, in Spanish Los empeños de una casa, 1683). In addition, Sor Juana wrote love notes on commission for members of the court. As to her own love life, Sor Juana seems to have had an intense relationship with the first Viceroy’s wife, Doña Leonor; and then a close relationship with the next consort of the following Viceroy (Doña María Luisa, the wife of Viceroy Laguna). Whether these attachments reflected merely friendship or intimacy, no one knows. However, what is certain is that both women protected Sor Juana.
Sor Juana needed powerful sponsors and defenders. She was a nun, yet conducted her studies and wrote in a convent during an age in which women were not allowed a public forum (especially in religious orders). When Viceroy Laguna and Doña María Luisa leave Mexico in 1688, Sor Juana no longer has noble protectors. She is soon forbidden to write and forced to sell her library (said to be over 4,000 volumes) by church authorities. Sor Juana dies in 1695 during a plague, caring for other sisters of her convent.
Sor Juana wrote one fairly extensive autobiographical account in her life. This text today can be found in a document that Sor Juana wrote (The Answer, La respuesta) that is a strong defense of her academic activity.
Octavio Paz, one of Mexico’s greatest poets and essayists of the twentieth century, wrote an extensive analysis of the life and work of Sor Juana (the Spanish title is Sor Juana de la Cruz o las trampas de la fe).
More recently, Alicia Gaspar de Alba has written a brilliant historical novel about the life of Sor Juana in 17th century Mexico (Sor Juana’s Second Dream). Using all historical documents available, the author recreates the loves and conflicts of Sor Juana in a society which is basically hostile to her genius. Part of our reading for this class comes from this novel.
Discussion questions concerning Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, “Verses against the Injustice of Men’s Comments about Women,” from The Voices of Latino Culture (127-130).
Give examples from this, Sor Juana’s most famous poem, about the double standard applied to women and men in her culture.
Who are Thais and Lucretia ( page 129; look up these names if necessary); why does Sor Juana use the example of these two famous women?
Answer the following questions concerning “The Final Confession of Sor Juana” (From Sor Juana’s Second Dream, by Alicia Gaspar de Alba), in The Voices of Latino Culture (131-133).
Summarize Sor Juana’s inner thoughts as the judge of the Inquisition reads a list of her crimes and her upcoming punishment.
What is Sor Juana’s greatest crime?
During the first two decades of the 19th century, most of Spanish America achieved independence through such leaders as Miguel Hidalgo (Mexico), Simón Bolívar (Venezuela, Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador), and José de San Martín (Argentina).