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Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz
November 12, 1651–April 17, 1695
Ever since she was a little girl sneaking into the cornfields to read forbidden books from her abuelo’s library in Mexico, Juana Inés dreamed of going to college. When she was seven and found out that college was only for boys, she begged her mother to cut off her braids and disguise her in boys’ clothes so she could go. But her mother didn’t dare. “Niñas aren’t allowed to go to school,” she declared.
“I’ll teach myself, then,” she said, and Juana Inés learned everything from writing poetry and prose to science and the Aztec language of Nahuatl. By the age of eight, she won a writing contest and not only got to see her first play performed, but won a book, too!
By the time she was sixteen, news of her brilliant mind had traveled to the ears of the viceroy, who refused to believe that a woman could be so smart. “I’ll show her!” he thought, and invited every respected academic in Mexico to test what she knew. But Juana Inés got every single question right! She was offered a place on the viceroy’s royal court and received many marriage proposals, too. But none of that was what Juana Inés really wanted to do. “Where can I go to write?” she wondered, and suddenly, she thought of just the place: a convent!
In the peace and quiet of her nun’s cell, Juana Inés wrote poetry and plays by candlelight. Her ink-stained fingers filled page after page with witty critiques of the men in power and the church teachings that tried to keep women out. She sent her manuscripts off to Spain to be published, and with the help of her fellow nuns, turned the convent into a theater. She put on hilarious comedies for the royal court and thinkers of the time, artfully weaving in her feminist messages. Before long, her ideas were sparking lively debates that traveled far beyond the convent’s walls. And, almost four centuries later, those very ideas are read and talked about by new generations, still inspiring change.
Juana Azurduy de Padilla
July 12, 1780–May 25, 1862
Juana was seven when her mother died and she had to leave her school in the city to be with her papi on his hacienda. Under the hot sun of Southern Bolivia, she worked on the fields side by side with the Aymara and Quechua workers. She made friends with them and learned to speak their languages. When her papi had time, he taught her to ride horses and to shoot. He didn’t think to teach her to cook or sew like most girls learned at the time.
When Juana was a teenager, her papi died and she was sent off to a convent to become a nun. But that wasn’t the life Juana wanted and she escaped one night to head home. When she got back, everything had changed. All her friends from the fields were working at the Spanish silver mines. They told Juana horrible stories about how the Spanish would beat them and force them to work long hours. Juana knew she had to do something to help.
Her childhood neighbor and friend had become a rebel in the revolutionary Army of the North, and she decided to join, too. The two of them married and went off to battle together to fight against the Spanish rulers. Because of her outspoken devotion to the cause, Juana quickly became the voice of the revolution. With her Aymara and Quechua friends, she recruited over ten thousand troops! And before long, she was the one leading them into battle. She was so good at strategizing that her troop, the Loyal Battalions, won against the Spanish with only a few stolen guns, slingshots, and wooden spears! A famous general was so impressed, he gave her his very own sword to honor her.
Juana led battles during the entire revolution, defeating Spanish armies time and time again. She was so committed to her troops that, even when she had to give birth, she returned to the battlefield right afterward to lead them! All her tireless efforts paid off. Bolivia won the war for independence, and to this day, she is honored with parades and tributes every year on her birthday to celebrate her courageous fight for freedom.
January 26, 1795–November 14, 1817
Policarpa was good at paying attention. After losing both of her parents, she stayed close by her godmother’s side and did her best to watch carefully and learn everything she could to help out. One day, while learning to stitch, she overheard her brothers talking: “We won’t have our dignity until Colombia is free. We must rebel against Spain!”
“I want to be a rebel, too!” Policarpa announced. But it was the early 1800s, and her brothers told her that only boys were allowed in the army. One night, while she was lying in bed, she suddenly had an idea: if she couldn’t join the army, she could be a spy!
Knocking on doors where she knew the Spanish Loyalists lived, Policarpa asked for work as a seamstress. And while sewing in the corner behind trousers and shirts, she went unnoticed as she wrote down everything she heard. Before the Loyalists could make any attacks, Policarpa snuck out messages to the rebels so they would be ready to fight back. She set up a system for getting them supplies and new recruits, too. She helped in any way she could.
Then, one night, two soldiers were caught carrying messages she had sent. The Spanish Loyalists found her and sentenced her to death—unless she went to a priest and confessed. But she refused. Instead she made a speech that inspires Colombians to this day: “I may be a woman,” she said, “but I am brave enough to die a million deaths for the dignity of my country. Do not forget me.”
Rosa Peña de González
Rosa’s mami died when Rosa was very young. The only family she had left was her papi, and she loved him very much. “I want to be just like you when I grow up!” she would tell him. When her papi was sent to prison for speaking out against the unjust authorities in Paraguay, Rosa secretly sneaked him law books so that when he got out he could continue to defend his people.
Then, the War of the Triple Alliance started in Paraguay and Rosa got sent away to Argentina. Just like her papi, Rosa read everything she could, studying hard at her new school. But, one day, when she heard news from home that all the beautiful cities and towns were burning to the ground, she realized she had to go back.
Walking past the markers of the many men who had died, Rosa was scared to be home. But she knew that it was up to the women who were left to rebuild their country. And she already had ideas about where to begin. “The first thing we need is a school!” she said. And with the little she had saved, she built the very first school for girls. She called on two sisters, Adela and Celsa Speratti, for help. The three women worked together to build up their new democracy, creating a fresh, new curriculum that encouraged all children to set their minds free.
Rosa went all around the country, from pueblo to pueblo, to get the support of each community. And, before long, twenty-four schools had been built! It took many years for Paraguay to recover from the war, but as it did, thanks to Rosa’s tireless efforts, all the students were prepared to become its new leaders. To this day, Rosa is celebrated as the mother of education in Paraguay.
December 22, 1853–June 12, 1917
From the time Teresa was a baby, humming Italian operas before she could even talk, she would create little variations on the melody that were all her own. When she started composing pieces for the piano at the age of four, people started calling her “the second Mozart.” But Teresa put her foot down. “¡No! Soy Teresita the First!” she said.
When she was eight and her family moved from Caracas, Venezuela, to New York City, Teresa gave a private concert in the salon of their Second Avenue apartment. She played beautifully, but it was when she announced “Now I will invent an opera!” and did so, right on the spot, that she caught everyone’s attention. The guest of honor, the famous pianist Louis Gottschalk, exclaimed: “Teresa is a genius!” And he took it upon himself to set up her first public concert.
News of Teresa’s incredible talent made it all the way to the ears of Abraham Lincoln, who invited her to play at the White House! And much to her parents’ surprise, Teresa’s variations on his favorite song, “Listen to the Mocking Bird,” ended up bringing tears to the president’s eyes.
Teresa’s unique style and beautiful compositions delighted crowds from South Africa to Australia to Berlin. Orchestras from every major city in Europe invited her to play with them. When she got older, she brought out the best in many of the world’s most promising pianists with her teaching. By the end of her life, Teresa had composed seventy-five pieces for piano, voice, and orchestra. She was one of the greatest, most famous, and most inspiring musicians of her time.
September 6, 1857–April 12, 1933
Zelia fell in love with ancient Mexico on her seventh birthday when her mother gave her a very special present: the hand-painted edition of Antiquities of Mexico. It was unlike any of the other books they had in their home library in San Francisco. The small window into her mother’s country, filled with exciting illustrations of gods and goddesses in colorful headdresses, left Zelia’s imagination racing with questions about these fantastic figures and how the people who believed in them might have lived. “Come out and play!” her brothers and sisters would say, but Zelia couldn’t put her new treasure down.
For years, Zelia went to every dusty library she could find. By the time she was twenty, she had discovered so much about ancient Mexico that her findings were actually published! Museum curators were so impressed with her work that she was invited to travel the world collecting artifacts for their exhibitions.
On one trip, while digging up ruins on the Isla de Sacrificios in Mexico, a well-known archaeologist who was secretly a smuggler tried to steal her work. But Zelia wasn’t about to let him get away with it! She wrote a forty-two-page article in the most popular archaeology journal, exposing his fraud and revealing her own extraordinary findings. To this day, Zelia’s article is still considered one of the most valuable works on ancient Mexican civilizations ever written!
Zelia brought to light amazing political systems, philosophies, and scientific discoveries that existed in Latin America long before colonists ever arrived. And by working with Indigenous communities, she inspired a whole new generation of archaeologists to protect their own heritage and unravel mysteries thousands of years old.
Copyright © 2021 by Juliet Menéndez