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10 September 2022

Although this monument in Orizaba, Veracruz bears the name “Catarina de Erauso”, it is actually a monument to Antonio de Erauso… the first legally recognized transgender.

Born afout 1585, Catarina Erauso was a recalcatrant child, packed off to a convent at the age of four, where she proved too much for the kindy “day care” nuns to handle, who sent her off to the Convent of San Sebastian, known for his high standards and disciplined mode of life. Which did not appeal at all to Catarina, especially once she reached puberty and … uh…. acted out her teenage rebellion, starting fist fight with the other nuns, eventually breaking a habit (so to speak), robbing the convent treasury, and going over the wall.

Hitting the road as “Francisco de Loyala” she surfaced in 1602 when she beat up a boy for insulting her, and served a month in prison, again under the name of Francisco. Sometime around 1605 she emigrated to the Americas, next popping up in Peru in 1612, where she joined the army as Francisco in its war against the Mapuche people of Chile, serving until 1617, earning the rank of Lieutenant. It’s said that at some point she had met with ther brother, then an aide to the Viceroy, earning the rank of Lieutenant. It’s said that at some point she had met with ther brother, then an aide to the Viceroy, who did not recognize her, nor was she disposed to give away her forner identity.

Either before, or during, her military career, she’d become a professional gambler, whcih led to at least two murder warrants in Lima. She fled to Cusco, and… likely to be hanged… thowing the dice (so to speak), she threw herself on the mercy of the local bishop, pleading she was a repentant nun and a virgin who didn’t deserve to be hanged.

The Bishop could believe she was a nun, and had what passed for credible testimony that she was a virgin, but was a bit dubious about the repentent part. Not comfortable with the idea of turning a nun over to be hanged, but not wanting to have a nun of such dubious reputation on his hands either, he had her shipped back to the motherland, where the sensational story of the nun turned soldier had already reached the court of Felipe IV.

Felipe might have been as ridiculously formal and reactionary as any of his inbred Hapsburg relations, but he did have the saving grace of a sense of irony, and seemed to find joy in the less conventional of his loyal subjects. Famously, when he commissioned Diego Velaquez’ to portray the royal daughers, he specifically wanted his favorite jester, the dwarf Maria Babaso, included (she’ standing on the far right) mostly just to annoy the Queen, who Felipe richly rewarded for Maria’s practical jokes on his humorless spouse.

Whether out of that sense of irony, or a genuine tolerance for human differences (we’d like to think the latter), Felipe came to a suprisingly modern conclusion. The former Caterina Erauso was a member of the Erauso family (which included some aristocratic pretentions and priviliges), BUT as a SON… Antonio Erauso. In fact, Felipe was so charmed by the adventures of “Franciso de Loyala” … which were soon written up by an anonyous author as “The Lieutenant Nun”… that he sent (at his expense) now famous Antonio to Rome to meet with Pope Urban VIII, who also decreed that the person he met was Antonio Erauso. And you can’t get more official that that.

Antonio returned to the Americas… to New Spain, in 1630, living a somewhat less adventurous, but also less public, life, spending the next 20 years as a mule driver (a good job in colonial Mexico) on the Vercruz to Mexico City route. He’s buried in Cotlaxtla, having died in 1650 on the trail.

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