Adventures

Cotaxtla, Veracruz
The Final Resting Place
Of the Strange Lieutenant Nun

Photos and Text by John Todd, Jr.

A Quiet Waiting Room
History and Old Legends
One day recently, while sitting at a government office waiting for my turn, after awhile I began to talk to the man next to me.

He was tall and older, and seemed like an interesting person. During our conversation, he told me he was from San Sebastian, Spain.

He told me that it´s a medium sized town in the Basque Country, on the Atlantic Ocean, about 20 km. from the border with France.

Somehow, San Sebastian rang a bell. A couple of weeks back I had been reading about Catalina de Erauzu, also known as the Monja Alférez, or the Nun Lieutenant.

She was born in 1595 into a wealthy family there and died in 1650, in Cotaxtla, Veracruz.

The man said that the Monja Alférez was very well known in San Sebastian, and there is even a street named after her.
The Quiet Cloisters of a Peaceful Convent
San Juan Bautista Cuautinchán,
Cuautinchán Puebla
Her Final Resting Place in Cotaxtla
"Do you know where she died?" I asked.

"No, I don´t remember", he replied.

"She died not far from here," I replied, "in Cotaxtla, Veracruz."

The man was astonished because not many people know that.

We began to talk more about San Sebastian, but the man´s turn was next, and we didn´t get a chance to talk any longer.

We were both disappointed because it would have been fun to continue to talk about the Ensign Nun. Unfortunately, it was one of those times in which we had to go back to the reality of our daily tasks and the magic of the moment was lost.

It was almost like having to leave a movie before it was over.

I hope that one day we will meet again, and I can find out more about San Sebastian, and I can tell him about my trip to Cotaxtla, Veracruz.
My Book of Legends
The Strange Story of the Ensign Nun
Old maps are fascinating and so are some of the old stories.

The story of Catalina de Erauzu, also known as the "Monja Alférez", is one of the strange ones.

At this point, I went to my favorite reference book, "Mexico a traves de los siglos". Althogh it was written in the 1880's many of these events seemed fresher than in the histories you read today.

After the conversation in the waiting room, I had to consult my reference book for a closer look.

I remembered the story of the Ensign Nun had been mentioned, and wanted to find out more about her story.

It is the story of a girl who was born into a wealthy Basque family and orphaned at age 4.

With the help of a wealthy aunt, she entered a local convent in San Sebastian where she remained until she was aged 16.
An Interesting Page
Tired of Convent Life
Perhaps after hearing the fantastic stories of the new colonies in America, she was restless, and tired of the peaceful life in the cloisters, and wanted to see more of the world outside the cloister walls.

So, she was 16 when she ran away to America, to the Spanish colony of Perú.

At the same time, being wealthy doesn´t necessarily mean you are free because you can´t go to the market, or walk the streets without body guards.

In those days, the streets of the cities in Spain and most of the other countries in Europe were rough, and it was probably better for a woman to be dressed as a man.

So, that´s what Catalina did. She dressed as a man, learned martial arts and swordsmanship, and joined the army in Peru.

In those days, only the roughest of people joined the army to go south into Chile to fight the wild Araucanian Indians, and most of them didn´t come back.
Catalina de Erauzu
A Feisty Temper
Young Catalina had a fiesty temper and seemed to enjoy military life. She became especially skilled at using the sword and always carried a daggar.

In one particular battle, she and her soldiers fought bravely to bring the batallion flag back from the Indians who had captured it. The other soldiers with her did not survive and although seriously wounded, she returned with the flag.

As a result of her heroic actions on behalf of the Spanish Crown, she was promoted to the rank of "Alférez", which is like an ensign in the Navy, or a lieutenant in the Army.

In later years, because of her wounds and heroism under fire, she was awarded a pension by the king for her loyalty.

When they weren´t fighting the Indians, the soldiers from the lower classes spent their time in bars and gambling houses.
Giovanni and the Convent
Cuautinchán, Puebla
A Chance to Visit a 16th Century Convent
The other day, I was invited by my buddy Giovanni to visit his family in Tepeaca, Puebla, so on Sunday we packed up to a day of sightseeing.

He had told me there were a lot of very old buildings to see in the area.

After stopping off at his house in Tepeaca, his mother who also knows the area well, said, "let me tag along and enjoy the visit with you."

"First let´s go to the old church at Cuautinchán," said Giovanni.
Giovanni´s Mother
Cuautinchán, Puebla
Cuautinchán´s full name is San Juan Bautista Cuautinchán, and it´s about 30 minutes from Tepeaca in the arid country past the town of Tecali, famous for its onyx quarries and artisans.

As we drove through town, I added Tecali to my list of places to come back to for a closer look.

The church there looks very old and there are several markets that specialize in articles made from onyx.

During the short trip to Cuautinchán, I found out that Giovanni´s mother is also the "mayordomo", or operations manager of her local church.

She knows a lot about local church things and made the trip a lot more interesting.
The Old Wall
Cuautinchán, Puebla
During our visit, I thought to myself that this is what an old Spanish convent in the Basque Country of Spain must have looked like.

Even though it was a pleasant Sunday afternoon, it seemed like we were the only ones there.

Then I saw the sign that the church closed at 2PM. We decided to walk the grounds anyway. It was a beautiful day.

Then I remembered the Declaration of Independence in the US was in 1776.

By that time the ruins we are walking through now, had already been here for at least 200 years.

A Place to Walk and Reflect
Cuautinchán, Puebla

The Church
Cuautinchán, Puebla
Back then Cuautinchán must have been a well known bustling religious community that had been in existence for many generations.

As I walked through the old Moorish portals of the abandoned convent, I remembered the story of the Ensign Nun who lived just after the times these structures were built in the late 1500´s.

Back to Catalina´s Controversial Life
No one knows why, but at times, Catalina got in fights in challenges over card games in these places.

During one of these encounters, she killed a man and was taken before the civil authorities in Lima.

Much to the surprise of the authorities, she told them that she was a woman.

Not only that, she was a nun who belonged to the Church and therefore should be judged under the rules of the Church and not the civil laws of the time.
An Ancient Portal
A New Chance
She was taken to see the Bishop where she made her confession that she had escaped from a convent in Spain.

To prove this she asked to be examined for her virginity by the nuns.

When this was proved to be true, the bishop said that he would spare her life if she would change her ways and return to her convent in Spain.

She agreed and waited several years in one of the local convents until the truth could be confirmed by the convent in Spain.

The case was so strange that it became well known throughout the New World and also in Spain.

Shortly after her arrival in Spain, she once again rejected the convent and went back to the streets dressed as a man.

She also spent these years settling her large estate and dictating her memoirs to a writer which became the book "Vida i sucesos de la Monja Alférez".
A Chance for a New Life
A Life of Penitence
Because of her heroic deeds and perhaps because of her wealth and that of her family, she met with King Phillip IV and Pope Urban VIII.

During the long meeting with the Pope, she made a full confession of her sins, and it appears that she was truly repentant for the people she had killed and wanted a change in her life.

Although cross dressing was prohibited in those, she asked for permission to do so.

The Pope agreed that she could continue to dress and work as a man, and suggested she demonstrate the sincerity of her confession by going to New Spain, which was the part of Mexico between Mexico City and Veracruz.

She could do penance for her many sins as an unknown mule driver carrying goods to Mexico City from Veracruz.

He even allowed her to change her name to Antonio de Erasu.

The Cloisters
Life was Difficult on the Camino Real
The life of a muleteer in those days must have been a rough one.

In addition to the beastly heat of coast of the Gulf of Mexico from Veracruz to Cotaxtla, there were many discomforts of the "nortes".

These are storms in the winter months that have 150 kph winds that blow the sand like a thousand little daggers.

In the summer months, there were the monsoon rains each day that turned the primitive dirt roads into sloppy mud holes.
The Cloisters
Drenching Rains and Strong Cold Winds
Soaking wet, it must have made it difficult to take care of the precious animals carrying merchandise imported from Spain from Veracruz to Mexico City, and the great wealth of silver and gold back to the port of Veracruz.

On the coast there were also the dangers of deadly illnesses such as the dreaded "vómito negro", the graphic name given to a malarial illness spread by mosquitoes that killed within a few days after arrival.

The local people somehow had developed an immunity to the illness, but new people from Europe were highly susceptible to this illness which sometimes decimated foreign armies forcing them to live aboard their ships.

In the mountains there were different hazards.

Bandits beyond Orizaba and Xalapa were prolific and these large caravans if mule teams always needed the protection of armed guards.
A Walk Along the Wall
The Pack Animals Came First
During the dry season from October until June when the rains stopped, the streams dried up and finding adequate water for the animals must have been a continuing problem.

It was not an easy life for a mule driver in those days and her penance must have been a rough one.

Yet, the Monja Alférez seemed to have been well known in those days along the old Camino Real because she always observed special saints days and fasted during Lent.

In 1650, Catalina de Erazu finally died on the road, in the little village of Cotaxtla, Veracruz.
An Old Clipping
After her death, Bishop Palafox y Mendoza of Puebla requested that her body be exhumed and moved to Puebla for burial with all the honors due a famous nun.

It is not known if his request was granted.
Across the Wide Valley
No Fixed Spelling Rules
In the early documents, it said that Doña Catalina died in Cotaxtla. It was spelled "Cuetlaxtla" or "Cuitlaxtla" which was confusing. It looked like later, in the 19th century, it was spelled "Cotastla".

Back in those days, there didn´t seem to be many fixed spelling rules.

I guess it was because The Royal Spanish Academy wasn´t founded until about 60 years later in 1713 when the best scholars in the country began to formalize the rules on grammar and spelling for the Spanish language.
Tall Strong Walls
One Last Stroll Around
Since the convent wasn´t open, there wasn´t much to do but stroll around and look at the outside.

The inside must be impressive, and I put Cuautinchán on my list off places to visit before 2PM the next time I am in the area around Tepeaca.

The structure of the buildings was built to last, even though it was damaged during an earthquake less than 10 years ago.

I don´t know what it is, but Cuautinchán is a special place that leaves you with a peaceful feeling, as if you have been blessed.

Perhaps it is the timelessness of the the location. Or perhaps it was a sacred location for the Aztecs or the local tribes even before the Spanish came.

Even after the trip in Veracruz, I felt a special energy of one who has been blessed, and I want to go back.

El Mirador
A Footnote:
When traveling with friends I´ve found some of the best places to eat in the country are in unexpected out of the way places.

One of my favorites is El Mirador. It´s along the highway going up the mountain on the toll road from Orizaba to the Esperanza toll house at the top of the mountain.

It´s where the weather in the mountains becomes crispy cold, at least for those of us from the coast, and the food seems to taste better.

On the way up to Tepeaca, we stopped for some breakfast of scrambled eggs with longaniza, or Spanish sausage.
Longanizas
It´s home-made right there at the restaurant.

Since the restaurant is perched on the side of the mountain and space is important, the kitchen is in the front part of the structure.

So, you walk through the kitchen to get to the restaurant.

After a great breakfast, I asked the lady for one of the strings of longaniza to take back home to Veracruz.

It would probably last a week.

The Camino Reals of New Spain
The Search for Cotaxtla
After reading the story about the Monja Alférez again, I was struck by a curiosity to go to the little town of Cotaxtla and walk the same streets.

I might even find her final resting place.

On a modern map, it´s only about 45 minutes from Veracruz, about 6 miles off the highway near La Tinaja.

On the surface there didn´t seem to be much there.

Just another little town by passed when the new highway was built.
A Closer Look
Near Veracruz is an agricultural extension station called "Cotaxtla", but later on down the road I found that it´s not even near the town of the same name.

It´s still another 35 km. away.

Getting out my Old Maps
In preparation for my trip, I got out my old maps of the area around Veracruz.
The Camino Real in Veracruz
I wanted to see what the old mule caravan routes must have looked like in the old days.

Once you get out into the countryside, it probably felt the same, except today there would be no threat of bandits or the dreaded "vómito negro."

I found there were several Camino Reals, and Cotaxtla was along the southern route from Veracruz to Rancho de la Virgen, Paso de Hierro, then to Cotaxtla.

I also realized there were inaccuracies in my map.

From other searches, I had found the longitudes weren´t exactly right.

On my map dated 1805, Cotaxtla was categorized as a "village".

In those days, a village was probably still a cluster of huts next to the river.

I was where you could water the animals and get some food for yourself before pressing on the next day to get out of the "tierra caliente".

Trees in Bloom Near Cotaxtla
The Road to Cotaxtla
Cotaxtla is hidden in a little pocket behind the Pemex sweet gas processing station called Mata Pionche.

When you drive by it on the toll road, you can see the flare stack from the road as you whiz by.

Cotaxtla is a little village hidden behind the flare stack.

I decided to take the old federal highway to Los Moralitos, and drive the 6 km to the town.

I wanted to see how it must have felt to someone taking the old Camino Real on a blazing hot day in May when the heat factor sometimes reaches 115 degrees F.
A Pink Tree in Bloom
I must have chosen the right day because it was really hot, and perhaps since Cotaxtla is located at the beginning of the foothills leading up to Orizaba, I thought it wouldn´t so uncomfortable.

I was wrong. It was still hot and uncomfortable that day.

One the nice things about the month of May, even though the countryside is bone dry from the lack of rain since around November of the previous year, is that it´s the time that certain trees bloom in bright pinks and reds.

Around Veracruz the flaming red "Framboyan" trees bloom in May. In the Caribbean they are called "Flamboyan", but it´s the same tree.

Just before arriving in Cotaxtla, I stopped the car to look at one of the pink trees and wondered if they had been here when the Ensign Nun was driving her caravans of mules.
Framboyan Blossoms
A Left at "El Moralito"
After driving through several hamlets along the federal highway, I arrived at El Moralito.

A couple of months before, I´d had a great breakfast at one of the restaurants here with some friends, and can say that El Moralito is a good rest stop for some eggs and a Coke.

After a couple of miles over some hills and dales, I saw the flare stack at the Pemex plant and the underpass that looked like a small tunnel under the toll road to Veracruz.

Then around the hill and into the small town of Cotaxtla. I had arrived at last!
School Kids in the Street
A Busy Little Town
Cotaxtla is a busy little town, even though it was the middle of the week.

It was just before Mother´s Day and the kids were practicing their dance program in the street in front of the school.

The local school teacher had blocked the street, so parking was hard to find that day.

To find a place to park, I had to drive several blocks past the church on the right and the town plaza on the left.
A Tree in the Churchyard
A Visit to the Church
To find some traces of the Lieutenant Nun, the local parish church would be a good place to start.

The small church has a huge side courtyard dominated by a large shade tree.

Next to the tree was a lady sitting at a card table selling flowers and talking to a friend sitting on the low concrete wall that protected the tree.

It looked like they were the only ones around.

Talking in the Shade of the Tree in the Churchyard

The Atrium Cross
Meeting a Friend
I sat down on the wall, too, and said hello. It was a way of introducing myself.

I looked around the large yard while they finished talking. Then they turned to me as if it were my turn to say something.

"Cotaxtla is a very old town," I said. "Not many towns conserve the atrium cross which symbolized the protection of God and the Church when people entered this Holy Ground."

"Yes, that´s true," he replied.

"I live in Veracruz and sometimes do tour guide work. From this map, I saw that Cotaxtla is along the Old Camino Real."

"Yes," the man agreed, "Cotaxtla is very old. For many years, our town was an important way station along the Camino Real."
The Local Church
Then came the big question:

"I am wondering if you´ve ever heard the story of the Lieutenant Nun?"

"Oh, yes, we´ve heard the story and there´s even a small street down the hill called "La Calle de la Monja Alférez"."

Over the years, she had not been forgotten in this little town, even after 350 years.

Looking around the empty church yard, I realized that this once must have been the cemetery.
Inside the Church
Like many churches in Veracruz, these old cemeteries have been paved over and turned into parks.

In Puebla, most of the churches still have the church cemeteries on the holy ground next to the church.

"Of course, we don´t know where La Monja was buried because our records here in Cotaxtla don´t go that far back. It was a long time ago," he said.

"You might find something at the Archives in Xalapa or maybe in the church records in Puebla when this area was part of the Diocese of Puebla."
The Virgin Mary
My Name is Hugo
"My name is Hugo. I work as an administrative assistant across the street at the City Hall," he said, stretching out his hand with a warm smile of welcome.

"I also enjoy reading history in my spare time. Would you like to see the inside of our church?" he asked.

We said goodbye to the lady selling flowers and walked over toward the church.

From the front door, the church looked clean and fresh, a welcome place for people who were looking for peace and relief from their daily problems.

It is an important place where many people come to ask for help, and get relief from the severe problems in our lives when everything humanly possible has been done and there is no hope left.

At the same time, I realized the church was very new, and any evidence of the tomb of the Ensign Nun would not be found.
Jesus Bound
This church was for the living and those who had gone on before us were now resting in peace.

Off to one side was a chapel with a life size statue of Jesus.

It looked very old, and because of the votive candles, it appeared to be a place to pray for special miracles.

Hugo told me about the special custom during Holy Week in Cotaxtla.

"It is a time when we accompany Our Lord during his imprisonment."

"Each year at midnight on Holy Thursday, which is the eve before Good Friday. In one corner of the church we place the boughs of weeping willow trees in one corner and we move the statue to Jesus to this area."

"The faithful people in town come here to stay all night with Jesus who is tied up, and we wait with Him until it is time for Him to go."
The Local Gazebo
I could tell that Hugo needed to get back to work at his office across the street so we walked out past the atrium cross into the loud music of the kids across the street at the school practicing for their Mother´s Day presentation a couple of days away.

The town plaza was beautiful and well kept, and the gazebo looked pleasant for Sunday evenings when the local band plays for the townspeople who come here to walk the plaza and buy ice cream for their children.

It has probably been that way for hundreds of years in Cotaxtla.

The gazebo is probably a relatively recent addition.
Aztec Calendar
An Aztec Calendar
Off to one side of the plaza is what looks like a real Aztec Calendar.

Hugo told me that during the times before the Spanish Conquest, Cotaxtla had been an important Aztec outpost. Just outside of town are some pyramids that are being studied.

The Cotaxtla civilization covered an area from Cempoala, just north of Veracruz, and as far south as Los Tuxtlas, around Lake Catemaco.
Statue to Hidalgo
Local Heroes
I thanked Hugo for helping me learn more about the history of Cotaxtla, and we said our goodbyes in front of the City Hall.

"Come back anytime, John, you are always welcome here," Hugo said.

I walked back across the plaza one last time before heading toward the river.

In the plaza were other local heroes, like Father Hidalgo, one of the leaders of the Independence Movement from Spain in 1810.

It looked like a pleasant place to spend a little time sitting on a park bench.
The Cotaxtla River
Down to the River
The main street leads down to the river, and I wanted to see it. I like looking at rivers.

I realized it was still a blazing hot day, and I bought a Coke at the corner store across from the plaza and continued my walk down the street past the little shops selling mostly things that farmers buy.

I wanted to see the river where the caravan animals found relief on a day like this.

Enjoying the Cool River on a Hot Day

The Cotaxtla River
Songs about Rivers
There is something fascinating about rivers.

As I reached the end of the town, and arrived at the bridge high above the Cotaxtla River, the verses of "Shall we gather by the river, the beautiful, beautiful river..."

It was truly beautiful, and the townspeople where out enjoying it, too.

That day, I wished I weren´t so proud. I almost wanted to go down to the river and jump in with all my clothes on, along with the rest of the people down there. It looked like fun!
The Cotaxtla River
Then I looked at my watch and realized it was time to go.

As I walked the 3 blocks back up the main street in Cotaxtla, I thought about the Ensign Nun and how she must have walked the same streets back so long ago.

At last, I had reached her final resting place but her remains were not be be found, at least yet.

I wondered if I might find any evidence in Xalapa or in the old church records in Puebla.

Maybe one day, I´ll find out.
May is for Mangos
May is the Month for Mangos
Veracruz is well known for its "Mango Manila", and that day they were for sale everywhere. They were so cheap that I don´t even remember the prices.

When I got back to the car, I turned on the air conditioner in the car full blast and headed for the toll road.

I would be back in Veracruz in about 30 minutes, and it would be good to have a mango when I got home.

At the El Moralito crossroads, I picked out a bag of mangos from a lady with crates of mangos for sale to take home.

On the drive back, I wondered if the people back in 16th century New Spain enjoyed mangos as much as I do, and if they´d really been brought over from Manila.

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