Neither Saints nor Sinners: Writing the Lives of Women in Spanish America

By Kathleen Ann Myers | Go to book overview

6
The Lieutenant Nun
Catalina de Eruaso (1592?–1650)—Soldiers' Tales and Virginity

I kissed the foot of His Holiness Urban VIII and told him succinctly, and as best I could all about my life, adventures, gender, and virginity. His Holiness appeared to be astonished thereby, and graciously gave me permission to continue to lead my life dressed as a man, urging me to lead an honest life from now on.

—Vida, chap. 25

News of this event spread everywhere very quickly, and people who had seen me before, and people, both before and after, who heard my story all over the Indies were amazed.

—Vida, chap. 20

Only a few years after the streets of Lima had filled upon news of Rosa de Lima's death, they filled again with onlookers as the now infamous Lieutenant Catalina de Erauso arrived in a litter escorted by ten men of cloth and six swordsmen. 1 After having disguised herself as a man for nearly twenty years and earned a reputation as a brave soldier and rogue on the frontiers of the Spanish empire in Chile, Catalina had been ordered to take the veil as a nun. 2 She had killed a man in a duel over a card game, and in order to protect herself from the law, she had confessed to a bishop and revealed her true identity as a woman who had once lived in a convent in Spain. The bishop spared her life under the condition that she return to her previous profession as a bride of Christ.

In her account to the bishop, Catalina reported having been born to a well-todo family in the Basque country, entering her aunt's convent at the age of four. She escaped before professing her vows at age fifteen, donned male garb to serve as a page, and finally embarked for America, where she worked at various occupations, including those of merchant and soldier. Catalina also confessed to having maimed and killed many men. Thus, after years of battles against fierce indigenous tribes, duels over gambling and ladies, and quick escapes, the Lieutenant Nun (La Monja Alférez) as she came to be known—entered a convent for several years. There she awaited official confirmation from Spain that she had been a novice but had escaped the convent before taking final and irrevocable vows, which carried with them mandatory enclosure for life. After letters crisscrossed the Atlantic and proof of her secular

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