Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, and literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.

Picaresque-Style Memoir

Catalina’s memoir follows the form of a traditional picaresque novel, a Spanish literary convention that was popular during her lifetime. Traditionally, the Spanish picaresque novel is about a loveable Spanish rogue’s adventures and is often episodic in nature. The rogue often has to live by his wits, has experiences with different social classes, and is usually traveling during the course of the story. Catalina’s memoir differs from the classic Spanish picaresque in two very dramatic ways—she is female, and her memoir is nonfiction (although some critics have questioned the latter). It is possible that Catalina herself was influenced by some of these works, which may explain why her memoir is told in a series of episodes rather than in standard chronological narrative form. As in many picaresque novels, Catalina’s recounting of her trials is often humorous, and although she uses violence to survive, she just as often has to rely on her intelligence.


One of the defining characteristics of Catalina’s story is the fleeting nature of the relationships and events in her life. The people closest to Catalina are often introduced in a few sentences and then never mentioned again. She travels from town to town and country to country, only rarely mentioning the differences between places. Even her social station changes rapidly—she goes from a page to the king’s secretary to a violent street thug, from a soldier to a deserter, and from a worker for the sheriff to a brutal killer. The impermanent nature of the events in Catalina’s life propels her story forward. Her memoir is based on action, not emotion, and what moves the reader from one chapter to the next is the rapid pace of events in Catalina’s life. Catalina’s lack of stability also helps her keep her biological gender a secret.


As Catalina grows older, her violent behavior becomes more and more pronounced as a means of protecting her honor, and these violent episodes trigger most of the action in the memoir. Catalina’s story begins when she runs away from the convent, an event precipitated by a savage beating she receives from one of the nuns. Once Catalina starts disguising herself as a man, the violence escalates: she stabs Reyes and must leave town, and many times she kills men over cards and flees into churches until the furor dies down. Many of the transitional events in Catalina’s story are precipitated by violence, and Catalina clearly feels that in order to maintain her honor she must commit these acts. Honor is extremely important in a society where the representation of public self is far more important than one’s private inner life, and for Catalina, violence and honor are inextricably intertwined.