Friday, August 25, 2017

Summary of a Basque Nun's Memoir of her Life as a Conquistador

Lieutenant Nun: Memoir of a Basque Transvestite in the New World is a firsthand account of the cultural aspects of the 17th-century Spanish colonial empire. 

The Spanish world that Catalina de Erauso is born into is an extremely violent one in which lethal duels are only a matter of a day’s work in the life of a Spanish conquistador. A man’s life depends on how well he can handle a sword, and his honor depends on how quick he is to use it when insulted or defrauded, and it is this world that Erauso has to quickly adapt to when she assumes a man’s life.

Law and order are rare commodities in colonial South America and when acquired, are poorly maintained by the Spanish government. Although Erauso strongly identifies with her Basque home region and is shown friendship and favoritism by various Basqueros she comes in contact with in the New World. She nevertheless comes to feel she is part of a greater Spanish nationalism and accepts and embraces the Spanish identity in which non-Spaniards see her.

Erauso’s change of personality is not limited to a change in clothing. Her fierce temper is in perfect harmony with the macho culture of the day in which an insult to one’s honor is a personal offense and met with a duel. The first example that can be seen in which she fulfills the part of her new masculine role in life is when she confronts and attacks Reyes, severely wounding him and killing his friend when he jumps to Reyes’ defense because Reyes had blocked her view at the theater and threatened to “cut [her] face wide open” (45). 

Such a turn of events becomes common for Erauso as she finds herself time and again forced to kill or be killed. It is as if the Spaniards, being so accustomed to bloodshed, are unable to make the connection between death and the sorrow that comes with it and the sport of dueling. In fact, it is under these circumstances that she kills her brother, not recognizing who he is until it is too late (55). Throughout the course of her adventures, she kills many and comes dangerously close to being killed herself on many occasions, both by dueling and warring adversaries, as well as nearly getting herself hanged by the law in Piscobamba (75).

Erauso’s violent adventures include not only dueling with other Spaniards but also assisting the empire in the Indian wars in Chile and putting down the Alonso Ibanez uprising in Bolivia (54, 64). The retribution that the Spaniards carry out on rebellious Native tribes is both swift and fierce. One example Erauso gives is when her troop’s fieldmaster Bartolome de Alba is ambushed by a “devil of a boy about twelve years old” (66). “The arrow lodged in the fieldmaster’s eye and he went right over, so badly wounded that he died three days later. We carved the boy into ten thousand pieces” (66).

Erauso's Travels

“Lieutenant Nun” presents an aurora of lawlessness about colonial South America; however, there is never anarchy. The local Spanish authorities are able to exert considerable control over the armed forces, such as when the governor is able to deny Erauso and her fellow soldiers their desire to stay longer in the conquered Indians’ land and collect gold (67). Law and order are, however, kept randomly and diversely from region to region. For instance, when Erauso and the barber are falsely accused by an Indian of cutting Dona Francisca Marmolejo’s face, the justice of the high court comes to town and tortures the barber on the rack Inquisition-style and nearly does the same to her (70). Erauso was sentenced to ten years in Chile without pay, but through the help of her fellow Basqueros is allowed to go free. Her summary of the scenario smells of corrupt justice: “It just goes to show that persistence and hard work can perform miracles, and it happens regularly, especially in the Indies” (70).

Throughout her story, Erauso makes it clear that being Basque is not merely a geographic fact concerning her birth, but rather her national identity. The Basques have their own language and separate identity from the rest of Spain. This becomes evident throughout “Lieutenant Nun” as time and time again Erauso is aided by fellow Basques who feel a common blood kin to her. One example is when the Trujillo sheriff and his deputies apprehend Erauso right after she killed one of Reyes’ friends. When the Basque sheriff discovers she too is Basque, he suggests to her in Basque that she might loosen her belt, which he is holding her by when they pass the cathedral. By doing so, she is able to escape inside “while he stood outside bellowing for help” (50).

However strong her ties are to her native Basque Country, Erauso nevertheless feels a strong national identity with the Spanish Empire as a whole. In Genoa, Italy, she meets up with an Italian who exclaims, “you sir, are a Spaniard” (110.) She does not deny this or correct him by telling him she is a Basquero. When he begins insulting Spaniards and Spain, she defends her fellow Spaniards, accepts his challenge to a duel and kills him. Later, in the chapel of Saint Peter’s, in a conversation with Cardinal Magalon, he tells her that her only fault is that she is a Spaniard. Her reply clarifies what she considers her national identity: “With all due respect, your Holiness, that is my only virtue” (110).

Erauso the Lieutenant Nun is a woman in a man’s world who defies the social rules of her day to experience that world. It is a world of violence and bloodshed in which the slightest insult to one’s honor can mean the difference between life and death, but it is nevertheless preferable to Erauso than a dull life as a nun. The story of her adventure in the New World is filled with many different cultural insights into the life of a Spanish conquistador on the semi-lawless frontier of 17th century South America, as well as the jingoistic, nationalist imperialism that defined that era of Spanish dominance in southern Europe and South America. Erauso is ultimately granted not only the satisfaction of succeeding in her new life but, permission to continue, albeit more peaceably in her new life by the Pope himself (109).


de Erauso, Catalina. Memoir of a Basque Lieutenant Nun Transvestite in the New World. Boston: 
           Beacon Press, 1996.

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