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Erauso, Catalina de (ca 1592-ca 1650)  
 
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The life of Catalina de Erauso reads like a picaresque novel. Born, probably in 1592, to a noble Basque family in San Sebastián, Spain, she bolted from a convent before taking her vows, assumed masculine clothing, gave herself a new identity as "Francisco de Loyola," and, early in the seventeenth century, made her way to the New World, where she led the rough-and-ready life of a soldier in the Spanish colonies.

On the battlefield she was a formidable warrior; in her other exploits she gambled, engaged in dalliances with women, brawled, and faced death sentences for murder. Once her true sex was revealed, she became a celebrity in Spain.

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She wrote--or perhaps dictated--a short memoir of her adventures. Public attention was not to her liking, however, and so she soon returned to America and lived in relative anonymity in Mexico. There she went by the name Antonio de Erauso and worked as a mule-driver and merchant.

Erauso's life soon turned into the stuff of legend. Throughout the centuries, her story has been retold in plays, novels, and films, some of which deny or obscure her lesbianism, while others reclaim and celebrate it.

Erauso's Memoir

Erauso's claim to literary fame is her memoir, which has also served--sometimes very loosely--as the source of some of the many dramatizations of her life.

Erauso's memoir was probably set down between 1624 and 1626 but was not published during her lifetime. The whereabouts of the original are now unknown. The Spanish poet Cándido María Trigueros copied the manuscript sometime in the eighteenth century. Spanish royal historian Juan Bautista Muñoz made another copy in 1784. He was certainly working from the Trigueros document and may have consulted the original.

Muñoz included the Erauso memoir in his Historia del Nuevo Mundo, but he died before publishing the book. Sometime in the 1820s, however, a Basque scholar, Joaquín de Ferrer, secured a copy, and in 1829 he brought the memoir to print as Historia de la Monja Alférez Doña Catalina de Erauso, escrita por ella misma ("The Story of the Lieutenant Nun Doña Catalina de Erauso, written by herself").

The Lieutenant Nun

Erauso became known as la Monja Alférez, "the Lieutenant Nun," a dual image that fascinated the public. In her memoir she recounts instances of her capability and valor in military combat in Peru and Chile. On one occasion, when her company's flag was captured, she rode off amidst the enemy forces and retrieved it, receiving serious wounds in the process, but also "killing and slaughtering more men than there are numbers."

In a 1625 petition to King Felipe IV of Spain for a yearly stipend, Erauso referred to her fifteen years as a soldier under the name Alonso Díaz Ramírez de Guzmán. She stated that she had endured "the discomforts of military service like the strongest man" and that she had shown "great courage and valor" in battle.

She further alluded to her "rectitude and rare purity," but "rectitude" hardly describes the brawling, gambling, thievery, and dueling in which she frequently engaged.

Erauso's dueling led to a tragedy. In the early 1620s, she was seconding a fellow soldier when both of the principals were wounded. She and the other second jumped into the fray. Since the sword-fight was conducted in the dark of night, she could not tell who her opponent was, but when the man fell, mortally wounded, and cried out, she realized that it was her older brother Captain Miguel de Erauso, under whose command she had served for several years without revealing her true identity to him.

Erauso was frank in her memoir in describing her numerous brawls. Quick-tempered, she readily drew her sword, sometimes with apparently little provocation but often with disastrous results. By her own account she killed over a dozen adversaries. She was arrested and thrown into jail on many occasions but always managed to escape with her life.

It was while Erauso was under arrest for murder that she revealed that she was a woman. She told her story to the sympathetic Bishop Agustín de Carvajal of Guamanga, Peru. Erauso expressed her willingness to be examined by other women to prove that she was a female. The bishop called for two elderly women to see her, and when they declared her a woman and an intact virgin, he arranged for her to stay in a convent while the account was verified, a process that took about three years.

Erauso then returned to Spain, where she petitioned for and received a military pension from the king. She also traveled to Rome and was received by Pope Urban VIII. When she told him of her military exploits--presented as in defense of the Catholic faith and the Spanish monarch--and of her verified status as a virgin, he granted her request to be allowed to continue to dress as a man.

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