Gender-bending nun. Bloodthirsty soldier. Shameless womanizer. Catalina de Erauso is an anti-hero for the ages. Growing up in the blood-soaked fall of the Spanish Empire, Erauso's chilling life replicated the violence of their youth. They travelled the world and led colonial armies with an iron fist--and yet, Erauso can't be defined as a simple villain. Catalina has also gone down in history for rebelling against gender norms and living on their own wholly unique terms. So, is Erauso friend or foe? Read on and decide for yourself.
But before we begin, a note: To this day, people aren't sure whether to call Catalina de Erauso a lesbian, a transgender person, or another term. Since we can't know which pronouns Erauso would prefer, we're using the "they" pronoun to reflect Erauso's gender-nonconformity.
Erauso entered a life of conflict, thanks to their father's job as the commander of the King of Spain's forces. Unfortunately, this particular king, Phillip III, wasn't the best boss. Philip brought the Spanish Empire into so many bloody conflicts that historians now credit him with destroying the empire. Maybe seeing this vicious downfall influenced Catalina's bloodthirsty actions later in life?
Thanks to their commander-dad Miguel, Erauso learned to fight as soon as possible. Miguel threw Catalina and their siblings into the trenches of training, no matter their gender. Even though Catalina began life as a girl, they learned the art of combat alongside their brothers. Already, their life was shaping up to be two things: utterly unique...and completely violent.
Even though the Erauso family decided to train their kids in combat, mom and dad didn’t actually want that type of life for their children. When Catalina was only four years old, mom and dad sent their little tyke off to a convent alongside their two sisters. To say that Erauso didn't like life in the strict convent would be a huge understatement.
Erauso rebelled against convent life from the very first day they set foot in the stone building. But being unfairly confined ended up making an enormous impact on Catalina. While they were cooped up at the nunnery, Erauso realized that gender roles could not define them. With this epiphany, young Catalina began to rebel against societal rules.
While Catalina was stuck in the convent, they developed a fiery personality and a short fuse. Erauso gained a reputation for being quick-tempered and starting fights--and unfortunately for Catalina's opponents, Erauso was a tough cookie. With Catalina's strong and stocky frame, Erauso took down anyone who got in their way. It was a skill that would serve Catalina well later in life.
Can you imagine being put into a convent as a child, but not caring about religion? What about being shoved into a place because of your gender, even though you didn't identify with being a girl? Unfortunately for Erauso, they had to deal with all this turmoil. Catalina was deeply unhappy at the convent and eventually, refused to take vows to become a nun. To get back at their disobedient charge, the nuns came up with a brutal punishment.
The nuns trapped little Catalina in a cell, but they didn't confine Erauso just because of the whole not-taking-vows situation. They also did it because Catalina got involved in a serious beef with a woman living at the convent. Erauso's rival was a prim and proper widow who loved convent life and happily took her vows. Unsurprisingly, Catalina and this lady didn't get along at all. As punishment, the nuns would confine and, even worse, constantly beat Erauso.
After one too many beatings at the hands of the nuns, Erauso decided that it was high time to get out of Dodge. By this time, Catalina was 15 years old, meaning that they had suffered a brutal 11 years of imprisonment and spent most of their life inside the gloomy convent. Of course, escape wouldn't be easy...but our pal Catalina was up to the task...
After a lifetime of unhappiness, Erauso finally got a lucky break when they decided to get out of the convent. The cunning teen waited for the San Jose holiday to put their plan into motion. As prayer distracted the nuns, Erauso went looking for the keys of the convent. Easy peasy, a nun accidentally left them hanging in a corner. Catalina snatched them up and walked right out of the place. So far, so good--but this good luck would run out fast.
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Having escaped the convent, Erauso became an outlaw. As the authorities searched for the teen escapee, Catalina cleverly took on a disguise: Already rocking short hair, they spent a week sewing boy's clothing before settling in the city of Vitoria. While there, our nun-on-the-run realized that passing for a boy wasn't just easy, but liberating. By dressing as a young man, Erauso felt free.
Life at the convent was tough for Catalina, but in a way, this harsh upbringing was a good thing. It helped prepared Erauso for life on the run. While in Vitoria, they befriended a doctor who just so happened to be their distant relative. Sensing that the "young man" meant him no trouble, the doctor offered Erauso refuge at his home. Things started well, but things quickly took a turn for the worse.
Unfortunately, it didn't take long for the doctor to start harassing his young housemate. Three months was all that Erauso could take until they ran away from the doctor’s home. But before leaving, Erauso got their revenge. They robbed money from the doctor, rented a mule driver, and made their way to Valladolid on their enemy's coin.
Valladolid was home to the king’s court and, as such, always welcomed a helping hand. Going by the name of Francisco de Loyola, Erauso quickly got a job working in the court as a page for the king’s personal secretary. Things went smoothly, until one day, when Erauso's father Miguel came to the king’s court to meet with the king’s secretary.
When Erauso's father arrived, he met Francisco de Loyola without realizing that "Francisco" was actually his own child! Miguel told the page that he was looking for his daughter Catalina, who had recently escaped from a convent and was on the run from the law. Desperate, Miguel looked "Francisco" in the eyes and described his daughter so that the king could put a notice out.
With that, Erauso knew it was time to skip town. Even if Miguel couldn't recognize them with a male disguise, that didn't mean someone else wouldn't catch on. "Francisco" stepped their way right out of Valladolid as soon as possible and headed to Bilbao, where only misery awaited. While there, Erauso lived on the streets, with neither roof nor food. But life on the street comes with other dangers.
Erauso was a tough cookie, but this quality sometimes hurt more than it helped. While living on the streets of Bilbao, a group of boys began picking on them. After the hellions ganged up on them one too many times, Erauso threw a rock at one of the boys and hurt him so badly that the authorities came and locked Erauso in a cell.
After the authorities released Erauso, they bounced around before going home to San Sebastián. By now, they had decided to present themselves publicly as a man. While home, they returned to their family, taking care of relatives and even attending mass with them at their old convent. The entire time, no one had any idea that the man at their side was actually their beloved lost relative, Catalina.
Not long after returning to Seville, Erauso decided to embark on a journey that would change everything. On Holy Monday, 1603, they joined the crew of their uncle's ship. It would set sail for "The New World" and explore the Americas.
Erauso did their best to pass as a man by donning short hair, wearing male clothing, and living under male aliases like Alonso Diaz. But Erauso used other methods too. "Diaz" picked up male mannerisms, tried to look ugly, and even went so far as to stop bathing...completely. But still, there was one, or rather two, problems: their chest. Eventually, Erauso went to extreme measures, using a mysterious ointment to flatten their chest.
Whatever Erauso did to their appearance, it seems to have worked. Ladies just couldn't resist Catalina's charms, and when you look at a portrait, it's easy to see why. Catalina had thick dark hair, a masculine jawline, and a strapping build. What's more, they knew they looked good. Erauso used their handsomeness to leave a trail of broken hearts all over South America.
When Erauso's ship stopped near modern-day Venezuela, our hero experienced their first live combat against a fleet of pirates. Drawing on their combat training, Catalina rose to the occasion and helped defeat the enemy fleet. But this victory lap was short. As the ship sailed through South America, many of the other sailors became ill and lost their lives. As hard times fell, Erauso took control of the voyage with chilling consequences.
Exhausted and ill, the crew decided to pack it in and return to Spain. Catalina, on the other hand, wasn’t sure about going back. As Erauso quarrelled with their uncle, the ship's captain, the fight escalated until Erauso fatally wounded their own relative. As though that wasn't bad enough, Catalina then robbed him of all his money, hid his body, and snuck off the ship before the crew was any wiser.
When the crew discovered that their captain was no more, they took it as yet another sign that their trip was doomed. After Erauso snuck off the ship, the crew took off for Spain. Erauso, on the other hand, kept exploring. They headed to Ecuador with the famous merchant of Trujillo, Juan de Urquiza. But, as always, once Erauso got out of one mess, they fell right into another.
Horrible storms and turbulent weather battered Erauso's ship as it sailed for the port of Manta. As the rain poured down, everyone aboard the ship perished...everyone, that is, except Catalina, who miraculously survived. While swimming to shore, Erauso spotted the captain, Juan de Urquiza, and swam out to save him. Erauso's heroic efforts would not go unappreciated.
Urquiza rewarded Erauso by bringing them to his hometown, where he gave them a house, clothing, large sums of money, and three African servants. For anyone else, this would be where the story ended, but for Catalina, a life of privilege would never be enough. It didn't take long for our hero to make some trouble once again...
One night, Catalina was passing the time at a theater and enjoying some comedy--until a young man accosted them. It was a bold move, considering Erauso's reputation. After a vigorous fight, Catalina emerged as the champion...and they had a bloody souvenir: the winning blow saw Erauso slice off their opponent's face.
After this gross event, Catalina was landed inside a cell once again. Luckily, their pal Juan de Urquiza sweet-talked the authorities until they agreed to let Erauso go. They just had one condition: Remember Catalina's faceless foe? Erauso now had to marry that guy's aunt. Awkward...
Catalina agreed, but once out of the clink, refused to tie the knot in fear that the bride would discover that Erauso didn't have male privates. Desperate, they fled to Trujillo, with their faceless foe hot on their tail. The young man, now horribly scarred, eventually caught up to Catalina and challenged his assailant to another fight. This time, Erauso fatally wounded one of the faceless man's friends and, shocker, went to jail yet again.
At this point, Juan de Urquiza was used to bailing out his pal Erauso. After he helped them out yet again, Catalina headed to Lima to try their fortunes as a shop-worker. Yeah, it didn't go well. In just nine months, Erauso was looking for a new job, thanks to some dicey at-work behavior. Catalina's boss discovered that his employee was having an affair with his wife’s sister. And by having an affair, I mean the boss walked in on Erauso intimately caressing his sister-in-law in the back of his shop.
According to Erauso, they were innocent in the whole "My boss caught me with his hot sister-in-law" situation. If you believe Catalina's version of events, the lady was so thirsty for Erauso that after weeks of flirting, she shoved them against a wall, gave them her best "come hither" eyes, and ordered Erauso to take her to bed. Well then!
At this point, Erauso realized that they couldn’t continue their wild lifestyle. They'd either end up in jail or blow their cover. Lucky for them, Spain was in conquest mode, so they decided to go colonize Chile. In this vicious conflict, Catalina showed their chilling true colors. They began making a name for themselves as a conquistador by ruthlessly conquering the Mapuches and massacring native peoples. Just the qualities that the Spanish crown was looking for.
Erauso's bravery and whip-fast combat style gave them a fierce reputation, until some family drama got in between them and military greatness. While in Chile, Catalina fought under the leadership of, of all people, their own brother, Don Miguel. He was the governor’s secretary and for three years they got along, with Don Miguel having no idea that his new friend was his long-lost sibling.
After Erauso spent three years secretly alongside Don Miguel, everything fell apart. In a wild twist, Don Miguel personally banished his own sibling and forced Catalina to live in the land of the natives. What happened to wedge the siblings apart? A girl, of course! When Don Miguel found out that Erauso was, uh, romancing his long-time mistress, he showed them the door.
While we don't know which Erauso sibling the mystery woman preferred more, we do know that Catalina had a way with the ladies. In their memoirs, Erauso often provides, ahem, spicy details about their love life, with one passage reading, "I had my head in the folds of her skirt and she was combing my hair while I ran my hand up and down between her legs.”.
Erauso gained a reputation being being a formidable conquistador, but a vicious streak tainted their good name. Catalina's cruelty towards the natives was extreme even for Spanish conquistador standards, and that's saying something. After fighting the Mapuche tribe, Erauso defied orders by capturing the Mapuche leader and, instead of handing him over for interrogation, mercilessly hung the man themselves. Yikes.
Catalina's chilling act led the Spanish forces to pass on giving Erauso a promotion. Ticked off at the snub, Catalina reminded the Spanish that during one battle, a group of Mapuche got their hands on the Spanish battalion’s flag. To get it back, Catalina went behind enemy lines, slaughtered anyone who got in their way, and rescued the flag. Despite this valiant act, the Spanish forces were clear: Erauso would not get the promotion. With this rebuff, Catalina went mad with fury.
During this period of Erauso's life, the ex-conquistador lashed out at anyone who stepped in their way. Catalina hit the road and began vandalizing all the properties they passed through. On one especially bad day, they burned entire crop fields. But that was nothing compared to the carnage that awaited Catalina in the city of Concepción.
In Concepción, Erauso ran into a shocking person: their estranged brother, Don Miguel. Neither sibling had forgotten their love triangle feud, and it didn't take long for things to get messy. Erauso and Don Miguel began to duel, and the violence only stopped when Don Miguel's body hit the floor. No one knows if, at any point, Don Miguel realized that the person who ended his life was his own long lost sibling.
After slaying their own brother, Catalina fled Chile and took the treacherous path across the Andes to Argentina. While crossing the Andes, Erauso finally met their match. The perilous journey through the harsh mountains led Erauso to desperation. Having already eaten their own horse, Catalina thought the end was nigh...until a villager swooped in and saved them. However, before the villager would save them, Erauso had to promise to marry two different young women.
Just like last time, Erauso said whatever they had to say to get out of a bind--without having any real intention to make good on their promises. However, this time, Catalina took their deception one step further. They agreed to marry both women and went so far along with wedding prep that they pocketed their fiancée's dowries...before skipping town. Ice cold, Erauso.
It was life on the road again once more for Erauso, and they returned to conquistador's life by fighting against the natives and participating in the genocide of the Chuncos. However, again their compatriots took their efforts for granted, and Catalina was falsely accused of misconduct, taken captive, tortured, and released. This time Erauso may have been innocent, but it didn’t steer them from their bloodthirsty ways.
Before long, Erauso returned to the fugitive lifestyle. After smuggling wheat and cattle, the authorities caught onto Catalina's illict activities and pursued the ex-conquistador. Erauso hid in a church to evade their captors, but as always, they just couldn't stay out of a trouble. After getting into a fight, Catalina wound up killing their opponent. With bloody hands, the authorities stepped in and sentenced them to death.
Facing their demise, Catalina was once again somehow saved at the last minute. This time, Erauso's savior was their cell-mate, a man who was also set to lose his head for his crimes. Knowing he'd have to face the sword anyway, this other prisoner confessed to Erauso's offences and took the fall. Thanks to his sacrifice, Catalina went free.
Erauso had amazing luck--and it seems to have made them kind of egotistical. Every time they narrowly escaped doom, they got in trouble almost immediately! Catalina just couldn't resist two classic vices: violence and women. And so, just after escaping the blade, what did Erauso do? Get involved with a married woman and challenge her husband to a duel. Sigh.
By this point, the authorities were desperate to catch Erauso and put an end to their bloody ways. Eventually, armed forces caught up with them, but before the guards could take their charge into custody, Catalina ran their sword through their captor's stomach. Lucky for Erauso, the Bishop Agustín de Carvajal just so happened to be in town. Catalina begged him for mercy, but to get it, Erauso would have to reveal their big secret...
It was at this time that Erauso finally revealed their true identity. The stunned bishop couldn't believe what he was hearing: this bloodthirsty soldier had begun life as a nun-in-training? Flabbergasted, the bishop had a group of nurses examine Erauso to, shall we say, fact check their story. The nurses confirmed that Catalina had female anatomy. With his jaw on the floor, the bishop pardoned Erauso and put them on a shop heading back to Spain.
By the time Catalina returned to Spain, the story of their fantastical life had spread, making Erauso a bit of a celebrity. It's safe to say that they enjoyed their time in the spotlight. Erauso used their newfound fame to demand the Spanish Crown to pay them for their service on the battlefield, and to foot the bill for their travel expenses. But Catalina's most brazen demand was still in store...
Erauso took the opportunity of meeting the pope by the horns. During their meeting, they personally asked Pope Urban VIII for permission to live as a man. It was a risky move for Catalina, but then again, they were quite the risk-taker. The pope said yes to the request, and gave Erauso permission to dress and sign their name as a man.
After a few years in Spain, Erauso had enough of the old world and moved back to the new world, settling in modern-day Mexico. They took up a job transferring goods with a pack of mules and eventually passed on in Mexico under mysterious circumstances. No one knows how or when they actually died and the last years of their life remain a mystery to this day.
The reason why we know so much about Catalina de Erauso, and they haven’t been completely lost to history even if people have tried to bury the truth, is that they wrote an autobiography during their later years in Spain before moving to Mexico. The autobiography has been a source of inspiration for many writers and academics since the nineteenth century. However, because they wrote it in Spain, their last years in Mexico are likely to forever remain in the dark.
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