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Beyond Even What Cervantes Could Imagine

Monday, July 3, 2017 - 07:00

In 16-17th century Spain, a fictional genre emerged called the "picaresque novel". It features the adventures of a roguish protagonist, generally of low social class, who lives by his wits in the midst of a corrupt or dystopian scoiety. These works are generally written in the form of an autobiographical narrative and are episodic in nature, featuring neither an over-arching plot nor significant change or development of the protagonist as a character.

One might be forgiven for considering the memoir of Catalina de Erauso, the "Lieutenant Nun" (Monja Alférez) as being suspiciously faithful to this fictional genre, and it isn't impossible that the flavor of her narrative was shaped by those literary expectations. But there is plentiful corroborating evidence for the truth of de Erauso's story, in its basic facts. And those basic facts present a fascinating picture of the ways in which a woman might escape the expectations for her life, as well as the practical realities and possibilities for gender disguise and performance.

One of the interesting features of her story is that there is no indication that she had any practical instruction in martial activites or masculine professions, and yet there never seems to have been any question of her relative success in performing them, nor does casual discovery of her physiological sex seem to have been an issue. However one views Catalina's life from a modern understanding of gender and sexuality, these practical aspects are of immense interest to writers who wish to tackle the practicalities of a passing or transgender protagonist.

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Full citation: 

Stepto, Michele & Gabriel Stepto (translators). Catalina de Erauso. Lieutenant Nun -- Memoir of a Basque Transvestite in the New World. Boston: Beacon Press, 1996. ISBN 0-8070-7073-4

Publication summary: 

A translation, with commentary, of the memoirs of a 17th century Basque woman who lived and adventured as a man in the Spanish colonies in South America.

[Note: within the context of current frameworks of gender and sexuality, there are equally strong cases for viewing de Erauso as a transgender man, or as a “passing woman” who used male disguise for the purpose of gaining economic and social independence, and who may have enjoyed erotic desires for women apart from performing heterosexuality as part of that disguise. There is an equally strong case to be made for considering both framings to be anachronistically meaningless in the context of early 17th century Spain. This topic is directly discussed in the book, however as the author defaults to referring to “Catalina” and using female pronouns, I will follow this usage in my summary.]

Foreword

This is a translation and discussion of the (possibly ghost-written) autobiography of a 17th century Basque named Catalina de Erauso who escaped a convent prior to taking final vows, and began living as a man, using various names at different times: Pedro de Orive, Francisco de Loyola, Alonso Diaz Ramirez de Guzman and--in later life after this history was made public--Antonio de Erauso. De Erauso, like many contemporaries, traveled to the Spanish colonial territories in South America and made a violent and turbulent living in a variety of military and civilian professions.

Many things can be read into Catalina’s story, which presents itself as a strict autobiography, though certainly ghost-written and probably embellished to follow contemporary narrative conventions. Certain events are too conveniently symbolic for literal truth (such as time-periods that can be seen as having biblical significance). At heart, this is a story of re-making the self, at a time when performance became the self rather than being “costume”. Catalina’s adoption of male clothing and a male profession was not simple masquerade, regardless of how she may have viewed her own gender.

The book’s introduction has a long discussion of the European social context in the 16th century and later of cross-dressing, both in theatrical performance and erotic play. Within the narrative itself, Catalina expresses little concern regarding casual disclosure of her physiological sex--including during extensive imprisonments and even when undergoing torture or medical treatment. Her concern for disclosure centers only around recognition by family members and people who knew her before she left the convent.

The first-person narrative does not clearly reveal any personal sexual desire (though, to be fair, it doesn’t involve much emotional introspection at all), but only anxiety about situations in which someone might expect her to perform desire. She evades the marriage plans of several women, but conversely expresses no erotic interest in her male companions. When her story is eventually made public, she requests medical examination and a great deal is made of the judgement that she is an “intact virgin”.

The fascination of society with examples such as Catalina indicate a “category crisis” that typically reflects greater social anxiety about categories. And Catalina’s avoidance of marriage is not strictly focused on issues of gender and desire, but is complicated by her attitudes toward race and class (e.g., rejecting the marriage proposal of a mixed-race woman using negative racialized language regarding the woman’s appearance). Attempts to adopt Catalina as some sort of progressive social radical must founder on the undeniable degree to which she participated in and benefitted from Spanish colonialist structures. An interesting related feature is the degree to which Catalina’s most crucial identity is her Basque origin, and she regularly evokes this to make common cause with other Basque individuals in South America to receive preferential treatment or to escape legal consequences.

One of the genres in which Catalina’s story must be positioned is that of “New World marvels." Another is that of “female soldiers”, who were sometimes given dispensation for gender transgression when their motivations could be framed as patriotic. In addition to this, Catalina can be seen as something of a pop culture celebrity, who was able to trade on being an entertaining “spectacle”.

Introduction

The text is presented as a “confession narrative” and therefore had specific functional purposes. Catalina made contradictory claims for herself to escape the consequences of her various actions, alternately identifying herself with the nobility, as a heretic and, on her eventual revelation, as a chaste virgin. The confession served its purpose, gaining her not only immediate physical safety, but eventually a pension from the Spanish crown, and later a dispensation from the Pope to continue wearing male clothing.

Catalina was born (most likely) in 1585) to a prosperous Basque family during the height of Spain’s conquest in the Americas. All four of her brothers became soldiers in the New World (and ended their days there). In contrast, the five de Erauso daughters were all sent to a convent for education and to protect their chastity, of which only one left the convent to marry, three lived out their lives in the convent, and Catalina escaped by more dramatic means. She describes how she remade her female clothing into a suit of male clothes, cut her hair short, and walked to the next town, where she presented herself in a changing series of roles until she eventually took ship for the New World as a ship’s boy. During this intial stage, she regularly interacted with people who were either blood relatives (the captain of the ship she traveled on was an uncle) or associates of her family. These interactions may have been part of the motivation for going overseas, but at this time becoming part of the colonial expansion was the easiest means for any young Spanish man to expand his horizons and seek a fortune.

On arriving in the New World in 1603, Catalina stole some of the silver her uncle was receiving for transport back to Spain and set out for adventure. Criminal activity (including targeting unwitting relatives or employers) was a common feature of her exploits, with the violent consequences of a hot temper being another regular feature.

At this time, Spain’s conquest of Peru and surrounding areas was solidly established and normalized. This wasn’t a frontier war zone, but a thriving colony, based on the coerced labor of the native population. At the same time, Spanish newcomers could expect wealth and status far above what was available back home. The resulting instability was a problem to manage, and newer arrivals who had no solid stake in the colonial strucure yet were often sent off on expeditions to subdue the frontiers. Some succeeded in becoming part of the very profitable colonial structure, others (in which category Catalina falls) led a boom-and-bust existence where short term gains were lost to robbers, rivals, or legal penalties.

Catalina spent 20 years as an itinerant soldier, mercantile agent, gambler, and troublemaker. And then, perhaps tired of the struggle to manage the consequences of her activities, she revealed her secret to a bishop and became something of a sensation. She spent three years in a Peruvian convent while her story was investigated. When it was confirmed that she had never taken final vows as a nun in Spain (if she'd taken final vows, she would have been held to them), she was released and returned to Spain. In 1625, she petitioned the Spanish king for a pension, essentially for being a celebrity, and indicated a desire to return to Peru. During this same period, she wrote or dictated her story, framing it in the tradition of the picaresque novel. Eventually, she traveled to Rome and received dispensation from the Pope to continue wearing male clothing. In 1630, she allowed her relatives to buy out her share of the familial estate and returned to Peru. There are later records of her living as a merchant and mule driver in Mexico (in 1639) using the name Antonio de Erauso and being referred to as one of several “brothers” of the de Erauso family. There is also an account dicated in 1693 by a man who met her in 1645 in Vera Cruz, Mexico. Her death is less directly documented, but is placed in 1650 near Vera Cruz.

Catalina’s story revolves primarily around action, travel, and detailed recitations of names and facts. It is not particularly introspective and makes no attempt at presenting her in a consistently heroic light, nor is there any imposition of an overall narrative plot.

Translator’s Note

The manuscript of Catalina’s story was copied some time in the 18th century and then re-copied with the names Hispanicized in 1784. This later version, with the Basque forms of the names restored, was printed in Paris in 1829. Neither the original, nor the first copy are known to still exist. The present translation is based on the 1784 version.

Given that the narrative is in the first person, the narrator’s presentation of gender is largely revealed in the grammatical inflections of adjectives. This aspect is, of course, lost in the English translation. Catalina  uses both masculine and feminine grammatical forms for herself in the text, but not entirely randomly. In the majority of contexts--and especially when discussing martial matters--masculine forms are used, while feminine forms more typically appear in more reflective or neutral contexts.

The Text

After all the above discussion, my ambition fails at giving an overview summary of the text itself. The basic outline of Catalina’s life, as contained in the work, is decribed above. The rest is a random and episodic account of the details. I encourage those who are interested in the specifics to pick up a copy. It’s relatively short and quite readable.

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