In ‘La Monja Alferez’ Maria Felix Played a Real Life Spanish Nun Who Lived Her Life as a Man

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Remember that Spanish nun who dressed like a man, called herself Antonio, messed around with women, killed her uncle, killed her brother, killed a few dozen people in between, and was lauded by the King of Spain and the Pope alike? No?

I admit, a transgender soldier being invited to the Papal Court seems a little far fetched — especially in the seventeenth century when all this actually happened — but the fact is that the “Lieutenant Nun,” Catalina de Erauso, was something like an international celebrity back in the days of the Spanish Empire, and her legacy has been so enduring that she has inspired countless monographs, video games, works of fiction, and films over the years. So, to continue Remezcla’s celebration of Women’s History Month, we dedicate this week’s Throwback Thursday to that, by all accounts, ferocious, larger-than-life conquistadora/adventurer who swept through the New World like an early-modern category 5 hurricane.

Before we go into the details of her life, lets just say that the story of the Lieutenant Nun is another one of those situations where fact has seamlessly blended with fiction to create a sort of popular myth. In fact, while a fair amount of historical record exists, some of the more risqué details of Erauso’s life come from an autobiography of rather questionable origin. Be that as it may, Catalina de Erauso was born in the late 16th century to a comfortable family in the city of San Sebastián, Basque Country. After escaping from a convent at the age of 15, Erauso cut her hair and bummed her way around Spain working odd jobs and using pseudonyms like Pedro de Orive, Alonso Díaz and Antonio de Erauso.

It was ultimately her job working on her uncle Esteban Eguiños’ galleon (of course, he had no idea that Pedro, or Alonso, or Antonio was actually his niece Catalina) that brought her to the Americas, and according to legend, she shot old tío Esteban dead and ran off to Panama with 500 pesos before the ship set sail back to Spain from the port of Cartagena. From there, Erauso made her way down the spine of South America, displaying a pattern of behavior that had her landing sweet jobs, losing them after killing someone, being locked up in a church for a few months, then heading deeper into South America.

By the time she made it to southern Peru, the Lieutenant Nun joined a military expedition to suppress the Araucano Indians of Chile and proved to be particularly brutal in the treatment of her vanquished opponents, a fact which prevented her from moving up the ranks despite her skill in battle. By some accounts, her professional frustration sent her on a downward spiral that had her committing random acts of murder and setting entire fields ablaze for no particular reason. During this time, she also happened to kill the auditor general of the city of Concepción. Things then got particularly hairy when she killed the Chilean governor’s secretary — a man who had previously taken her in and protected her — in a duel. That man’s name was Miguel de Erauso, and no, he had no idea he was being killed by his sister.

María Félix in ‘La Monja Alférez’
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From there she fled across the Andes to the Argentine city of Tucumán, killed someone, fled north to Potosí, killed someone, fled to Cuzco… you get the idea? Yet, after successfully evading any serious trouble for the entirety of her American adventure, it was in the city of Huamanga, Peru, that Catalina de Erauso finally saw the need to drop trou in order to plead clemency from the local Bishop following a dispute. After a thorough examination, the church determined that Erauso was in fact a woman, and she was granted protection and sent back to Spain. There she was received by King Felipe IV, who allowed her to keep her military rank and dubbed her la Monja Alférez (Lieutenant Nun), then continued on to the Vatican to pay her respects to Pope Urban VIII, who kindly gave her special permission to continue living her life as a man. Talk about progressive church policy.

Erauso finally returned to the Americas and set up shop around the area of Orizaba, Veracruz, in Mexico, when she spent her twilight years transporting goods between the port of Veracruz and Mexico City. She died in Cotaxtla, Veracruz in 1650.

So, what might la Monja Alférez have looked like? Several portraits of the swashbuckling nun exist from her lifetime, and suffice it to say she looked nothing like María Félix. But for director Emilio Gómez Muriel, it was a logical choice for his 1944 classic of Mexican cinema, La Monja Alférez.

La Monja Alférez (Emilio Gómez Muriel, Mexico, 1944)

Beginning with her famous confession to the Bishop of Peru, La Monja Alférez is structured around a series of flashbacks as Erauso recounts her extraordinary life in hopes the Bishop will grant her clemency. While the film sticks fairly closely to the historical record, you can’t blame the producers for polishing up her story just a little bit.

A second film of the same title was directed by Spanish helmer Javier Aguirre in 1987 and starred Esperanza Roy, but unfortunately clips from the feature are hard to come by.

And for those of us from the Youtube generation who have trouble with the written word, we have a 10 minute history lesson from a goofy, but strangely intriguing European gentleman who goes by the handle “The Unemployed Historian.” Here, Mr. Historian plunges into some of the more racy details of Erauso’s biography and reminds us that, while she is a fascinating historical figure, she probably wasn’t the type of person we’d want to piss off at a movie theater.

Gives a whole new meaning to “I am woman, hear me roar.” But what can we say but hats off to you, Catalina, er, I mean… Antonio. Don’t hurt me.