Catalina de Erauso (1592-1650). Portrait attributed to Juan van der Hamen, via Wikimedia Commons
“Buckle up your seat belt, Dear Reader, since you are in for a wild ride!” The words of William A. Douglass, which introduce Eva Mendieta’s In Search of Catalina de Erauso: The National and Sexual Identity of the Lieutenant Nun, set the scene perfectly for this lively account of one of Basque history’s most marginal and controversial characters. This is the tale of Catalina de Erauso, the young woman destined to be a nun who ran away from a convent in her home town of Donostia-San Sebastián at the age of fifteen and, initially passing herself off as one “Francisco Loyola,” ultimately transformed herself into “Antonio” Erauso, soldier, adventurer, and ne’er-do-well, traversing early seventeenth-century Spanish America, getting into swordfights, fleeing the hangman’s noose on more than one occasion, and taking an active role in several military campaigns. Once her secret was out, Erauso would personally (and successfully) seek a special dispensation from the Pope to continue to live as a man and, subsequently, return to her swashbuckling lifestyle in the Americas.
While this story has been recounted before, the originality of Mendieta’s study is its focus on the specifically Basque dimension of Erauso’s identity as well as its contextualized study of gender transgression within both the Old and New World of the seventeenth century.
As regards the former, in a chapter provocatively subtitled “The Basques against Everyone and Everyone against the Basques,” we are treated to a rare glimpse of Erauso’s participation in the clashes between Basques and the so-called Vicuñas (a group made up of Peninsular Spaniards, principally from Castile, Extremadura, and Andalusia together with their Creole allies) in seventeenth-century Potosí. Some of the events associated with these clashes are described in Eraso’s own words:
It wasn’t long after [my return to Potosí] that the Alonso Ibáñez uprising occurred. The sheriff at that time was Rafael Ortiz, a knight of Santiago, and he raised more than a hundred men, myself included, to go up against the rebels. We went out to meet them one night in Santo Domingo street, and the sheriff shouted “Who goes there?” at the top of his lungs. The rebels backed up without saying a word, and again he shouted, “Who goes there?”
“Liberty!” some of them shouted back.
Then the sheriff bellowed out “Long live the king!” with many of the men echoing his words, and he charged toward them, with the rest of us behind, stabbing and shooting. At that same instant, the rebels prepared to defend themselves, but we backed them into an alley and then came at them from behind around the other end, lashing away at them until they were forced to surrender.
Some had escaped but we arrested thirty-six, among them Ibáñez. We found seven of their men dead, and two of our own, with a pile of wounded on both sides. Some of those arrested were tortured and confessed that an uprising had been planned for that night. Three companies of Basques and men from up in the mountains were raised to defend the city, and after fifteen days, all of the rebels had been hanged, and the city was quiet again.
Regarding the latter, Mendieta concludes the study with a detailed inquiry into the nature of sex and gender in seventeenth-century European society, the ideologies that underpinned these notions and the roles that they forced on people. “Was Erauso a man or a woman?” she asks. The answer, for Mendieta, is that “she was a woman only physically. Hers is a case in which sex and gender are totally divorced; that is, in her we find an individual who was biologically a woman, but psychologically a man. Erauso’s transvestism is total and definitive; far from being a disguise, a man’s attire becomes her own skin.” Moreover it was in the Americas, concludes the author, that Erauso found less rigid codes of social conduct and more possibilities, more freedom, to live the footloose adventurous life she craved.
This utterly compelling story is told with both clarity and humanity and challenges readers to critically think about gender roles in society and history. It will appeal to anyone with an interest in Basque or Latin American history as well as women’s history and, more broadly, gender studies.
Enjoy the ride!