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Catalina de Erauso c. 1592–1650

Catalina de Erauso
c. 1592–1650

Catalina de Erauso was a Basque noblewoman who, just before taking final vows to become a nun at age fifteen, escaped from the convent in San Sebastián where she had lived since the age of four. Using the name Francisco de Loyola, Erauso lived successfully as a man for almost twenty years, for a brief period in Spain and later in the New World using the name Alonso Díaz Ramírez de Guzmán. Although she was distinguished for her fearless deeds as a soldier fighting for the Spanish empire in Peru and Chile, Erauso's memoirs showcase her propensity for violence, gambling, and womanizing. However rebellious Erauso may seem, once she confessed her previous identity as Catalina, she quickly became the celebrity known as the "Lieutenant Nun" and was rewarded for her gender transgression in 1626 with a soldier's pension from the Spanish monarch Philip IV and dispensation from Pope Urban VIII to continue dressing in men's clothing. In 1630 she returned to the New World and spent the last twenty years of her life in Mexico working as a muleteer, using the name Antonio de Erauso, until her death in 1650.

There is no evidence from seventeenth-century documents that she was believed to possess any irregularities in primary sexual characteristics. After her shocking revelation, the matrons who examined her body for confirmation of her female anatomy declared her to be an "intact virgin" (Erauso 1996, p. 66). Other witnesses, nonetheless, described certain secondary sexual traits in terms of maleness. Erauso admitted, for example, to having used a poultice or plaster mixture spread on a cloth to flatten her chest. This invasive technique testifies to her intention to live permanently as a man, unlike the temporary cross-dresser who sooner or later returns to female garb.

By the end of the twentieth century, scholarship on Erauso began to show an increasing awareness of the identity politics implicit in narrating the lives of individuals who transgress traditional prescriptions for gender roles and sex assignment. Early modern historian Mary Elizabeth Perry, for example, alternates gender pronouns when writing about Erauso: "It seems neither fair nor accurate, however, to use exclusively feminine pronouns to refer to the Nun-Lieutenant, who worked so diligently to make herself into a man … it could be argued that Catalina de Erauso should be identified as a male who did not allow his family's mistaken identity of him nor his lack of some of the physiological characteristics of males to undercut his own understanding of himself" (Perry 1999, p. 395). Michele Stepto, on the other hand, reminds researchers of the colonialist, manipulative, and bigoted nature of Erauso's profile (Erauso 1996).

Given the contradictions inherent in Erauso's life (as a transgendered individual associated with colonial exploitation, violent crimes, same-sex desire, and so forth), it is not surprising that the Lieutenant Nun can be upheld as hero or enemy by competing ideological and identitarian positions, whether Catholic, transgender, lesbian, heterobiased, feminist, misogynist, colonial, racist, classist, and nationalist (Spanish, Basque, or Latin American) ideologies. In this way, Erauso remains an ambivalent icon: a rebel and conformist, a hero and an outlaw, able to represent either side of many controversies.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Erauso, Catalina de. 1996. Lieutenant Nun: Memoir of a Basque Transvestite in the New World, trans. Michele Stepto and Gabriel Stepto. Boston: Beacon Press.

Perry, Mary Elizabeth. 1999. "From Convent to Battlefield: Cross-Dressing and Gendering the Self in the New World of Imperial Spain." In Queer Iberia: Sexualities, Cultures, and Crossings from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance, ed. Josiah Blackmore and Gregory S. Hutcheson. Durham: Duke University Press.

Vallbona, Rima de, ed. 1992. Vida I sucesos de la Monja Alférez: Autobiografía atribuida a Doña Catalina de Erauso. Tempe: Arizona State University.

Velasco, Sherry. 2000. The Lieutenant Nun: Transgenderism, Lesbian Desire & Catalina de Erauso. Austin: University of Texas Press.

                                              Sherry Velasco

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