100 Refutations: Mother of Verbs

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“In a world where females were associated with the Devil and the flesh, intelligent and beautiful women especially were blamed for all manner of ills; to lessen the threat to men’s uncontrollable passions, they should be sent to a nunnery to embrace holy plainness and ignorance.”

– Electa Arenal & Amanda Powell
The Answer: La Respuesta

In 1690, the Bishop of Puebla walked in confident strides down a street of what was then called New Spain with two letters in hand. The first was a private missive from a poet nun; the second, a chiding response to the first, written by a woman who did not exist.

There had been a change in the guard—new viceroys shipped directly from Spain to control the untamed parts of the empire—and the Bishop saw his chance. A moment of weakness for the poet nun who dared to place God’s name upon her lips, upon the tip of her pen—to wonder in her correspondence if He might not live in the recesses of her reason: “Is that not,” she asked, “God’s greatest gift to mankind, and does womankind not have it also?” The Bishop had waited a long time for her to be left without her beloved vicereine’s protection, so he took the letter and he took his chance. And I imagine something like pride building up in his chest.

Does he feel guilt for his pride? Does he make a note to confess it later? Does he rename it joy instead and feel no guilt at all?

At the very least, I imagine, the Bishop would have smiled as he wrote. “Dear lady: I have seen your letter,” cutting his cheek with the edge of his own grin, “[and] I, at least, have greatly admired the vivacity of your concepts, the discretion of your proofs and the energy and clarity with which you convince the reader on any matter.” God works in covert ways, and so must his servants. “I would never be so bold as to censor your verses (for which you have been so celebrated), after all Saint Teresa [herself was] canonized with this very skill.” The end is the kingdom of heaven and the salvation of souls—what means are not justified by this? “And yet I would make the suggestion that you follow [her] also in the subject of her verse.” After years serving as her confessor, he knew exactly where to dig his pen and when to twist it. He knew what would hurt, what would sting, and what would leave a mark. “After all St. Paul [did] say that women should not teach, not to keep them from learning, but to prevent the risk of elation in our sex, the sex most prone to vanity.”

And vanity is a sin—a sin he was without. It would have been easy enough to write his own name on the letter, to reprimand the poet nun publicly—as himself—to take full credit for exposing her and showing his greater intellect on the page. He certainly had not made this choice for the protection that anonymity could offer, not because he knew it would carry more weight in the public’s eyes if it were written by yet another educated nun. Certainly not because he understood she would know instantly that it was him behind a paper veil. No. Instead, he renamed himself Sor Filotea, he wrote us instead of you, and he did it without guilt. All to avoid the sin of vanity to which the poet nun was so inclined—of which he aimed to save her.

“A Letter Worthy of Athena,” he mockingly titled the poet nun’s letter, and gave his no title at all. “Majesty,” he closed his admonition, “Hear my pleas, and make yourself holy.” And I imagine him in his cell, at his desk, at mass, at confession, three rooster crows and three months of silence before the poet nun, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, wrote back.

History would have needed no title for his letter if his sacred charge, his lost sheep, his cross to bear would not have replied to four pages with more than thirty—in Greek, Spanish, and Latin, with holy scripture and divine science. His name might have been forgotten altogether if she had not come to be known as the Phoenix of America, the most important poet of the Barroco Hispanoamericano, the face on the Mexican 200-peso bill. “Most illustrious lady,” she wrote to her confessor, “my lady,” fully aware of who she was responding to. “My writing has never proceeded from any dictate of my own, but a force beyond me.” A letter vindicating the rights of women 68 years before Mary Wollstonecraft was even born. “[How can I,] without physics or natural science, understand all the questions that naturally arise concerning the varied natures of those animals offered in sacrifice…?”

Lina M. Ferreira C.-V.

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To help more directly, please visit:

Hispanic Federation: http://hispanicfederation.org

Hope for Haiti: https://hopeforhaiti.com

Salvadoran American Humanitarian Foundation: https://www.sahf.org

Bios

Lina M. Ferreira C.-V.

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Lina M. Ferreira C.-V.

Lina M. Ferreira C.-V. (100 Refutations translator and editor) earned MFAs in creative nonfiction writing and literary translation from The University of Iowa. She is the author of Drown Sever Sing from Anomalous Press and Don’t Come Back from Mad River Books, as well as editor, with Sarah Viren, of the forthcoming anthology Essaying the Americas. Her fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and translation work has been featured in journals including Bellingham ReviewChicago ReviewFourth GenreBrevityPoets & Writers, and The Sunday Rumpus, among others. She won Best of the Net and Iron Horse Review’s Discovered Voices Award, has been nominated for two Pushcart Prizes, and is a Rona Jaffe fellow. She moved from Colombia to China to Columbus, Ohio to Richmond, Virginia, where she works as an assistant professor for Virginia Commonwealth University. Visit www.linawritesessays.com. ******************************************************************** Amanda Dambrink (100 Refutations co-editor) works as an editor for the University of Wisconsin's Continuing Education, Outreach & E-Learning program in Madison, Wisconsin. She also holds an MA in creative nonfiction from Ohio University, and her previous work has appeared in Prairie Margins and The Normal School, among others.

Copyright (c) Lina M. Ferreira C.-V., 2018.