Lieutenant Nun: Memoir of a Basque Transvestite in the New World is Catalina de Erauso’s memoir about her experiences during the early 1600s in Spain and South America. Catalina was born in 1585 into a wealthy Basque family. Her parents, María Pérez de Galarraga y Arce and Captain don Miguel de Erauso, were native-born residents of San Sebastian, Spain, a city located in the Spanish Basque province of Guipúzcoa. Though the Basque people are technically Spanish citizens, they are thought to be the oldest ethnic group in Europe and have their own distinct language. Solidarity among the Basque people runs high, although they are still loyal to the Spanish crown.
In 1492, Christopher Columbus discovered the Americas on a voyage sponsored by the Spanish crown, opening the door to colonization in the area. During the sixteenth century, Spain dedicated enormous amounts of money and manpower to exploration and colonization. The heart of the Spanish-American empire was called New Spain and was located in present-day Mexico. However, the Spanish also laid claim to much of South America, conquering the indigenous peoples and killing any who resisted Spanish rule.
In approximately 1589, when de Erauso was four years old, her parents placed her in a Dominican convent. We know from other historical accounts that they did the same with three of her sisters and that consigning female children to become future nuns was a not uncommon way of displaying loyalty to the Catholic Church. In 1600, de Erauso, at the age of fifteen, ran away from the convent, disguised herself as a man, and took a number of jobs as a page before she left for South America. During her time in the New World, de Erauso, still disguised as a man, served as a soldier in Peru and Chile, fighting for the Spanish cause.
De Erauso came of age during Spain’s golden age and the Catholic Counter-Reformation. During this time, the role of women was extremely limited. Spanish society was heavily male-dominated and intensely religious, which meant that freedoms for women, both civil and religious, were rare. Even men themselves faced a great deal of constraint, and they had very few opportunities to break out of their rigid society’s confines. One of the few means of escape for men was leaving for the New World, either to assist in the military conquest of the indigenous peoples or to become a missionary and help convert them to Catholicism. Leaving for the New World allowed men to escape their pasts and gave them vastly expanded chances to shape their futures in ways that were unavailable to them in Spain. By dressing as a man, de Erauso allowed herself the same opportunities, which must have appeared considerably more attractive than spending the rest of her life in the convent where she had resided since age four—the fate of her three sisters.
Once de Erauso returned to Europe, she revealed herself as a woman and became a celebrity due to the reputation she created for herself in South America. In 1625, she presented herself to the king and was granted a military pension in honor of her service to Spain. She later met with the Pope in Rome, who granted her permission to continue dressing as a man, which was especially significant considering Spain’s history of outlawing female cross-dressing.
De Erauso wrote her autobiography sometime between 1626, the year the memoir ends, and 1630. She was likely influenced by the Spanish literary convention that would later become known as the picaresque novel, which was introduced in Spain in the sixteenth century but became more popular in the early 1600s—the time that Catalina was writing her memoir. A picaresque novel is a work of fiction that details the exploits of an adventurous or troublemaking protagonist. Although her work is nonfiction and features a female protagonist, it is still firmly planted in the picaresque tradition.
Little is conclusively known about de Erauso’s life after the close of her memoir. Some critics have suggested that she herself did not write her memoir and that it may have been penned by someone who was acquainted with her fame and deeds, someone who may have been working under de Erauso’s own supervision. In 1629, de Erauso signed over her portion of the family estate to her sister Mariana. The next year, she left again for the New World, where she remained for the rest of her life, under the name Antonio de Erauso. In the centuries since then, many books, plays, and films have been made based on de Erauso’s exploits and her astonishing secret.