The viceroy saw opportunity for amusement in his wife’s dazzling young companion. He rounded up the forty finest mathematicians, philosophers, historians, and theologians for an erudite showdown. The men quizzed and questioned the girl in a seventeenth-century Battle of the Brains. Confident in her vast knowledge, Juana outwitted and charmed them all. Only sixteen, Juana had achieved worldly sophistication and local fame. “Of all my country, I was the venerated figure,” she wrote, “one of those idols that inspire the general applause.”
So what would be her next move? More than anything, Juana wanted to live in solitude with the freedom to study undisturbed, to pursue “beauties with which to stock the mind.” The royal court’s endless rounds of balls, gallantries, and entertainments were a distraction. After the current viceroy’s term was up, Juana might not stay on as a lady-in-waiting anyway. With sketchy family credentials and no dowry money, respectable marriage was not for her. Juana was left with only one sanctioned path: to become a nun.
Juana states her logic bluntly: “I took the veil although I knew I would find in the religious life many things that would be quite opposed to my character.” In spite of the demands of communal convent life, she writes, “it would, given my absolute unwillingness to enter into marriage, be the least unfitting and the most decent state I could choose.”
These days, when only 1,200 young women across the United States are preparing to join Catholic religious orders, it’s rare to meet a nun, let alone know a young woman who sees the cloister as a career destination. Things were different back in colonial era Mexico, when convents were a huge social and economic presence. There were sixteen convents in Mexico City in 1650, filled with the daughters of society. Though nuns remained under the authority of male clergy, the cloisters were self-contained feminine worlds combining the spiritual life and an honorable vocation. No wonder our young scholar found it the “least unfitting” option.
Juana Ines was possessed of the gift of an extraordinary intellect, and she fully intended to use it. “I do not value treasures or riches; it always gives me more pleasure to put wealth in my thought than thought in my wealth,” she wrote.