A Review of LIEUTENANT NUN: Memoir of a Basque Transvestite in the New World
by Catalina de Erauso, translated from the Spanish by Michele and Gabriel Stepto
Foreword by Marjorie Garber
Boston: Beacon Press
Review Copyright © 1996 by William A. Henkin
Four centuries ago, on the night of March 18, 1596, in the Basque region between France and Spain, dona Catalina de Erauso of San Sebastian stole the keys to the convent of Dominican nuns where she had lived since she was four and where she was to take her vows the following day, took scissors, needle, thread and "some of the pieces of eight that were lying there," and, opening and closing the doors behind her, "shook off my veil and went out into a street I had never seen, without any idea which way to turn, or where I might be going."
After cutting her hair and altering her presentation so that not even her parents recognized her when they met, eventually she turned to the New World, and became a soldier of fortune in the region we have come to call Peru. She became adept with sword, knife, and pistol, and killed many men in battle and in duels. She became a brawler and a gambler, making her way through life by her wits, winning enough at cards and in sharp deals to keep body and soul together on the Spanish Catholic frontier.
At least two matrons tried to marry their daughters to her, and with what grace she could muster in the time, place, and circumstances of her life, she eluded both. She saved her own life several times by taking refuge in whatever church was near, and she escaped hanging by mere minutes on a couple of occasions, once by declaring herself to be a heretic after the noose was already around her neck. After some 20 years she told her whole story to the bishop of Guamanga, friar don Augustn de Carvajal, who had given her refuge when once more her life was in peril, and was found upon an examination she herself offered under the auspices of local women to be female-bodied and an "intact virgin." She returned to Spain where she secured a pension for life from the king, went to Rome to receive permission from the Pope to wear men's clothing for the rest of her life (she was Catholic, and it was about 1626), and moved to Mexico where she continued to live as a man, Antonio de Erauso, until her death sometime around 1650.
According to Michele Stepto, one of this book's translators, one of her friends claimed that Catalina de Erauso wrote Lieutenant Nun because she had been given the choice of doing so or being hanged and chose the politic course. This option does not appear in the narrative, which is written without artifice or much in the way of literary style, but in a droll, nearly deadpan tone with fact piling upon fact; instead, the story seems to be part of the legend that has grown up around the author in some parts of the world.
In her Foreword, Marjorie Garber, author of Vested Interests: Cross-Dressing and Cultural Anxiety and a book about bisexuality, Vice-Versa, notes that "Ultimately the question of gender' as a category of analysis within seventeenth-century Spanish and New World culture remains a space of negotiation rather than a set of knowable answers." Clearly that is so: it will be impossible for most Americans at the turn of the 21st Century to even begin to imagine life for anyone living by the sword in the mining towns and wilderness of 1610 Peru, and all the more difficult to imagine it from the vantage of Catalina de Erauso's life. But whether in retrospect we see her as a woman who flaunted the conventions of her time and got away with it, or as a transsexual who, like Jack Bee Garland, lived when neither hormone therapy nor gender confirmation surgery was even a far-off fantasy, or as the "transvestite with passions, intelligence, and innate skill" Michelle Stepto describes, in reading her memoir we cannot help but see her as someone living on the gantries of gender, not by choice but because there was no other life for her to live.
I've referred to Catalina de Erauso as a woman throughout this brief review because that is what she called herself. But 400 years ago, how would an FTM have known what other options might exist? A 1639 account of her family, written nearly a decade after she went to Mexico, refers to her as Antonio de Erauso, a brother (hermano). The writer Pedro del Valle, who met her in Rome, said that, "Tall and powerfully built, and with a masculine air, she has no more breasts than a girl. She told me that she had used some sort of remedy to make them disappear.... She dresses as a man, in the Spanish style. She carries her sword as bravely as she does her life." Perhaps Lieutenant Nun, the handle by which she actually came to be known, is as close to an accurate rendering as we can get today.
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