Why you should care
Because not all murderous colonialist bastards were men.
Meet the badass women that history forgot — but we didn’t. Check out the rest of this OZY series here.
After 20 years of roaming the Americas brawling, gambling and murdering close to a dozen people, the man known as Alonso Díaz Ramírez de Guzmán had one last option. Having often turned to the church for sanctuary when waist-deep in trouble, and now facing execution, the soldier and explorer chose the nuclear option: admitting to the bishop that he was actually a woman.
Now known as Catalina de Erauso, a mesmerizing and confusing figure in Basque history, the prisoner not only avoided being executed but also got to meet the pope. Given the protection of Peru’s Bishop Agustín de Carvajal following an examination that determined she was not only a woman but also a virgin, Erauso was sent back to Spain, where she wrote a memoir that remains eye-poppingly off-putting to this day.
The fact that Erauso was able to live a transgressive life and still be accepted by the church and crown is quite inconceivable.
Sonia Pérez-Villanueva, professor of Spanish literature, Lesley University
The 1620s, when Erauso confessed that she’d been living as a man since she escaped a Basque country convent at the age of 15, were not a permissive decade. The Inquisition, which aimed to religiously purify the region, was in full swing. “The fact that Erauso was able to live a transgressive life and still be accepted by the church and crown is quite inconceivable,” says Sonia Pérez-Villanueva, professor of Spanish literature at Lesley University. And yet the Lieutenant Nun, as Erauso referred to herself in her autobiography, embodied the complexities, exceptions and loopholes of her time. As a man, she was sentenced to die; as a woman and a virgin, she avoided punishment, even as her gender-bending was in itself a social transgression.
It helped that Erauso came from nobility: Her father, Captain Miguel de Erauso, was a high-ranking military commander under Philip II of Spain when she was born. In 1600, after an 11-year stint in a convent, which she had entered at the age of 4, Catalina made herself some men’s clothes, cut her own hair and left the religious life. Three years later, after a series of exploits that included Erauso encountering her father and aunt, neither of whom saw through her disguise, she set out for the Americas.
When Erauso arrived in South America, her exploits continued: She landed in Venezuela, killed and robbed her uncle, survived a shipwreck, was ordered to marry a woman (she avoided going through with it) and managed a shop in Peru for nine months until she was let go for allegedly fondling the leg of her boss’ sister-in-law. Off to Chile she went, part of a conquering army, where she became notorious for her cruelty toward the native people — so much so that Erauso missed out on a promotion, a slight she responded to by going on a violent rampage. After committing yet another murder, she hid out in a church for half a year, only emerging to serve as a second in a duel, where, in the dark, she leaped into the fray and killed her ally’s dueling opponent — who turned out to be her own brother, Don Miguel. When Erauso discovered the victim’s identity, she was stricken, and watched his funeral from the church to which she’d retreated to keep from being arrested.
Several duels, murders and close shaves later, Erauso was caught, and faced her moment of truth: To avoid the noose, she would have to confess her gender assignment. Once her examiners determined that she was a virgin, Erauso was returned to Spain, introduced to Pope Urban VIII and awarded a pension for her years of military service. Supposedly the pontiff also granted her special dispensation to dress as a man, and she briefly became a celebrity before returning to the New World, where, with a man’s name and living in relative anonymity, she worked as a merchant until her death.
Two centuries later, that anonymity faded with the publication of Erauso’s autobiography, Historia de la Monja Alférez, Catalina de Erauso (it’s unclear whether Erauso wrote her memoir herself or dictated it). Published in 1829, the memoir caught a wave of public fascination with lesbians who dressed as men, according to Sherry Velasco, author of The Lieutenant Nun: Transgenderism, Lesbian Desire & Catalina de Erauso.
But Pérez-Villanueva cautions against thinking of Erauso’s gender or sexuality in modern terms. She sees Erauso’s story not as a nonbinary person searching for internal truth, but as “a clever story of survival, adventure and transgression.” That transgression earned Erauso a place in history, and the respect of her fellows, even at a time when her exploits would have been reviled by mainstream religious traditions and strict societal gender roles.
Attestations from Erauso’s commanders speak to her bravery, and portraits captured her likeness as she would have wanted: in a soldier’s garb.