1. And a couple of days later, she let me know it would be fine by her if I married her daughter—a girl as black and ugly as the devil himself, quite the opposite of my taste, which has always run to pretty faces.
Many critics believe that this passage, from Chapter 7, offers evidence of Catalina’s sexual preference for women. However, the phrase pretty faces does not necessarily refer to women, and all the line really proves is that Catalina has a predilection for attractive faces, whether they be men or women. Better evidence of Catalina’s possible preference for women lies in the tone she uses to talk about her relationships with women, which are much more playful and flirtatious than her relationships with men. Otherwise, Catalina is deliberately coy about her sexuality and erotic life. This reticence is not surprising, given the time and place that her memoir was written, and the line about pretty faces stands out because such an idea was taboo. At the very least, this line is Catalina’s way of admitting that despite how she portrays herself, she is not unaffected by desire.
This passage also reveals Catalina’s racism, but this, too, must be understood within the context of her era. She describes the half-Indian woman’s daughter as being “as black and ugly as the devil himself,” which suggests that her skin color is as much an impediment to their marriage as Catalina’s sex. Catalina’s descriptions of the Indians are no different from her descriptions of her horses. She describes them in terms of whether they serve her purposes or impede them, but she does not name them or give them any human characteristics. Such attitudes were not unusually in seventeenth-century Spain. The Spaniards who helped colonize South America used a system of land distribution called encomiendas that rendered the local Indians virtual slaves. In this context, Catalina’s view of the Indians as little more than animals is not surprising.
2. It just goes to show that persistence and hard work can perform miracles, and it happens regularly—especially in the Indies!
This line closes Chapter 10 and summarizes Catalina’s feelings after she is released from the prison where she had been incarcerated for a crime she did not commit and sentenced to ten years of hard labor without pay. Catalina is jailed and released for numerous crimes throughout her memoir, but few seem as miraculous to her as this one, perhaps because in this case she is genuinely innocent. Catalina makes clear that she believes miracles are more likely to occur in the New World than anywhere else. The thrust for colonization was based on the belief that a man, even one with a murky past, could conquer new lands and become incredibly rich, something that would be considered nothing short of a miracle in Spain. Catalina recognizes that the New World has allowed her to live freely as a man and keep her biological gender secret—a feat that would have been unlikely in Spain. Catalina’s ability to conceal her biological gender and evade detection is the result of her persistence and hard work, but underneath Catalina’s bravado, she recognizes how miraculous it is that a fifteen-year-old girl could accomplish such a feat.
This quote also reflects Catalina’s deep religious beliefs. Her beliefs remain deeply ingrained even after she leaves the convent, which isn’t surprising, since she was raised by the nuns since the age of four. She often makes light of her religious feelings, but she reveals her faith in the most emotional lines of her memoir, though it is unclear how much credit she attributes directly to God. These sincerely held, although not openly apparent, religious convictions are the basis for Catalina’s belief in the possibilities of miracles. However, she eventually displays a shift in her attitude toward religion, and as an adult she is more likely to attribute the miracles she sees to persistence and hard work rather than to God, even if she can’t fully discount his influence.
3. And seeing that he was such a saintly man, and feeling as if I might already be in the presence of God, I revealed myself to the bishop and told him, “Senõr, all of this that I have told you . . . in truth, it is not so. The truth is this: that I am a woman. . . .”
In Chapter 20, after Catalina has been relentlessly pursued by the law, she is rescued by a bishop who both keeps her out of prison and saves her life. For the first time in her many decades of living as a man, Catalina confesses the truth of her biological gender. Her choice of confidant is especially significant. Despite Catalina’s official rejection of the church, she still gravitates toward the church in times of trouble. This is partially due to the church’s ability to protect her, but it also indicates her desire to seek absolution from the church for her sins. At the moment when she thinks she is near either death or arrest, she confesses her sins to a bishop and tells him the truth about her sex. Catalina was raised in the church, and her relationship with it is much like that of a child to a parent. Catalina rebels against many of the church’s rules and laws, but when she reaches a point of desperation, she seeks acknowledgement of and forgiveness for her greatest secret.
4. Brother Luis Ferrer de Valencia, who is a great man, arrived and took my confession—and seeing as how I was about to die, I told him the truth about myself.
Although Catalina is ambiguous about whether or not she has told anyone before the bishop about her biological gender, she strongly implies in Chapter 18 that she reveals it to another priest as well. The clear implication of this statement—coupled with the astonishment the priest expresses at her words—is that she has told him she is actually a woman. Her downplaying of this possible first confession may stem from the priest’s failure to react expansively enough to her news. When she tells the bishop, she revels in his intense astonishment and offers to submit to a medical examination. She may very well have been disappointed when the first priest did not react this way—and so minimized the importance of the incident in her memoir, finding it lacking in drama and effect.
5. At one point during the afternoon, I found myself chatting with three cardinals, one of whom, Cardinal Magalón, told me that my only fault was that I was a Spaniard. To this I replied, “With all due respect, your Holiness, that is my only virtue.”
This is the last line of Chapter 25, and it appears after Catalina receives permission from the Pope to dress in men’s clothing. Although the memoir has one more short chapter, this line serves as an appropriate ending. Catalina has renounced her conventional Christian and female identities, but she has not made any attempt to rid herself of her heritage, namely her identity as a Spaniard and a Basquero. Catalina attempts to deny her past at all possible turns, yet when asked where she comes from, she readily says she is Basque, although she falsifies the names of her parents. Each time she admits her Basque heritage, she is rewarded with favors and camaraderie from other Basqueros. Catalina makes clear that her Basque and Spanish heritage trumps all other affiliations, including gender identification or the sworn duty to uphold the law. As Catalina readily abandons her identity and her past, what she holds onto—her heritage—becomes increasingly important.
In this quotation, Catalina minimizes the importance of her Basque identity to her. The Basques are technically Spaniards, so Catalina is including her Basque self when she talks about her national identity as being her only virtue. However, to the Basque people, self-identification as a Basquero is of the utmost importance and supersedes all other loyalties—Basques identify as Basques first and as Spaniards second. Growing up as a Spanish Basque, Catalina had ample opportunity to feel marginalized and oppressed, as she also felt as a woman. However, her connection with her cultural identity proves to be much stronger than that with her sex, for she is willing to abandon her identity as a woman but not as a Basque. Catalina’s Basque and Spanish identity both defines her as a person and is responsible for saving her life on many occasions. Strangers who know nothing about Catalina except her cultural background believe her Basque identity trumps any crimes she may have committed, thus encouraging her to believe that perhaps her only virtue is her heritage.