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Erauso, Catalina de (ca 1592-ca 1650)  
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Relations with Women

In her memoir Erauso stressed her chief virtues as a man--physical courage--and as a woman--virginity. While she did not stint at recounting transgressive acts of "manly" bravery such as fights resulting in murder, she was more oblique when referring to acts that were sexually transgressive.

At no point does Erauso speak of physical attraction to a man. She did, however, include several incidents that show her affection for women. Early in her American adventures she worked for a wealthy Lima merchant with whose two younger sisters-in-law she became "accustomed to frolicking." The merchant fired Erauso after discovering her reclining with her head in the lap of one of the sisters-in-law and running her hand up and down between the young woman's legs.

Erauso also had a falling-out with her brother over a woman. Captain Miguel de Erauso, delighted to meet a fellow Basque, took his disguised sister under his wing, befriended her, and brought her/him along when he visited his mistress. He became irate, however, when he learned that the young soldier was sneaking back to visit the mistress on his/her own. Predictably, a brawl ensued.

On several occasions Erauso was wooed by women whose families saw her as a good catch for their daughters. Erauso seems to have had no intention of attempting to marry another woman; rather, she exploited these situations to gain gifts and dowry before absconding. She complained of the ugliness of one prospective bride, noting that her "taste [had] always run to pretty faces."

Dramatizations of Her Life

A story as extraordinary as Erauso's invited dramatization. Since authors emphasized different ones of the multifarious aspects of her life--and sometimes added their own inventions--the image of her is far from consistent.

One of the earliest works, Juan Pérez de Montalbán's La Monja Alférez (1626), gives the protagonist Guzmán, a love interest, Doña Ana, who reciprocates Guzmán's feelings but does not know that "he" is a woman. When Guzmán learns that Doña Ana has been tricked into making love with another character, Diego, who was pretending to be Guzmán, he/she presses Diego to do the honorable thing by marrying Doña Ana. Guzmán, who has been so determined to keep her biological gender secret that she declared death preferable to discovery, finally relents when Diego balks at the marriage because of doubts about Doña Ana's chastity.

Diego promises to keep Guzmán's secret but reveals it in order to save her when she is sentenced to death for killing a man in self-defense. Guzmán thus loses both her secret and her love but not her life.

In other works Erauso is, in Sherry Velasco's term, "de-lesbianized." In his 1847 telling of Erauso's life entitled "The Nautico-Military Nun of Spain," Thomas De Quincey uses "sisterly love" as an explanation for Erauso's behavior with other women.

Carlos Cuello, in his 1866 zarzuela (popular operetta) La Monja Alférez, presents Guzmán as a heterosexual woman who flirts with another woman not just to maintain her masculine disguise but also to dispel rumors that "he" is gay. By the end of the piece Guzmán is re-identified as Catalina, who in a song-and-dance number with the stage direction "with charm and flirtation" declares herself "a gentle woman and lover."

Cinematic Versions of Her Life

Versions of Erauso's story have also been told in the cinema. Mexican director Emilio Gómez Murillo's La Monja Alférez (1944) was intended as a star vehicle for actress María Félix, whose "disguise" as a man was utterly unconvincing. Added to the story-line is a character named Juan, Catalina's childhood sweetheart who winds up sharing her adventures. It is he who provides the male attire that allows her to assume a new identity as Alonso; thus, he is in on the secret from the beginnning. The film ends with a kiss between the lovers—clearly heterosexual, although it causes some comic confusion to an onlooking character who does not realize that Alonso is really a woman.

In Javier Aguirre's 1986 film La Monja Alférez, which was subsidized by the Basque government, Erauso is portrayed as drawn to women from an early age, beginning with a close friendship with a fellow novice named Inés. It is the death of Inés that prompts Erauso to leave the convent. During her adventures in South America, she has romantic encounters with women, through which she comes to recognize her lesbianism. While in the Peruvian convent she falls ill with a fever, and in her delirium mistakes another nun for Inés, for whom she declares her love. The film ends tragically with Erauso alone in Mexico, remembering her first and true love, Inés.

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