Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Doña Catalina de Erazu, the ensign-nun

My favorite book about Mexico is Leslie Byrd Simpson’s Many Mexicos, first published in 1941 and gone through many editions since.  In addition to what you might expect, there are stories of interesting characters who have been part of Mexican history but of whom we in the North have never heard, such as Doña Catalina de Erazu, the ensign-nun, who drove mules.

Catalina was born in Spain at the beginning of the Seventeenth Century into a pious and respectable family  Her parents passed away when she was very young and her aunt forced her into a convent.   Bored and finding herself with no talent for the religious life, Catalina escaped from the convent in men’s clothing and made her way to the New World where, in Simpson’s words, “she swashbuckled her way from Spain to Peru and Chile. She became famous as a swordfighter.  Sometimes she worked as an arriero (muleteer), sometimes a soldier.”  In one hard-fought battle against Indians in northern Chile she recaptured their flag and for this piece of derring-do was made a junior officer.  No one thought this unusual for a member of the fair sex, as no one was aware that she was a woman.

As this was her immediate course of action upon leaving the convent, one may infer that her aunt probably had some cause for committing her there in the first place.

The thing about being a famous swordfighter is that you tend to kill a lot of people and even in the rowdy world of colonial muledrivers this attracted the Law’s attention and finally led to her being about to be condemned to death, whereupon she revealed that she was a woman and a virgin and, by the way, also a nun, which would put her under the jurisdiction of the Church.
    The authorities in Peru decided that this was above their paygrade, so they sent her to Spain to have her case resolved there. The Spanish authorities, similarly baffled, sent her case to the Pope.  While hindsight is said to be a great aid to discernment, infallibility is even better, and the Pope was so intrigued by her story that he gave her dispensation to wear male clothing the rest of her life. Once the Pontiff had cleared the air, King Philip IV, also taken by her story, granted her a pension of 500 pesos, the magnanimity of which was somewhat qualified by the bankruptcy of his government and its consequent inability to pay any of that.
    In about 1640, Catalina returned to New Spain and to muledriving, and, Simpson tells us, “became the terror of the Mexico City-Veracruz road”.
    At this point, love entered her life and she fell madly for the wife of a young hidalgo. When he proved unsophisticated about the arrangement she challenged him to a duel which was, fortunately or not, prevented, and Doña Catalina died a few years later, in about the year 1650.  Were this a novel she might have died of a broken heart, but I somehow suspect Doña Catalina was not that sort of person.
    She was, by the way, the subject of the first novel published in the New World, but that is another story.

But what a charming tale.  (There are, by the way, other versions of it.)  In the North, for various reasons we have the impression that nothing much happened in the vasty realms below of the Rio Grande in those long centuries of Spanish rule.  And from the point of view of Whig history, perhaps not; but of human history and adventure there was a fine amount, and I was delighted to catch some glimmer of this in Simpson’s wonderful book.

If you want to know about a place, it could help to know some of the stories that the people who live there know.  Stories that are part of their mental and spiritual landscape.

For example, if you are an American, the Mexican you are talking to knows the story of the Heroes of Chapultepec because he was taught it in school, and you, very likely, do not.  As he is looking at you, it is some part of what he is seeing.  This is unfortunate, as the version he has heard may be unnecessarily anti-American, and should the matter ever come up it could avoid awkwardness and perhaps be helpful to our mutual understanding if you could give an American view of the incident.

No one said going to another country was going to be easy.

1 comment: