Latin American history
Tamara Bunke, also commonly known as Tania the Guerrillera, was an Argentine-born German communist revolutionary who played a key role in the post-revolutionary Cuban government and in other Latin American revolutionary movements during the 1960s.
Raised in Buenos Aires by a family of expatriate German communists, Bunke grew up surrounded by the Argentine Communist Party as well as being a keen athlete and intelligent student. In 1952 the family returned to East Berlin where she studied political science and acted as a translator for the Socialist Unity Party of Germany. In this capacity she met the hero of the Cuban Revolution, Che Guevara, when she was assigned to be his interpreter.
Inspired by the revolution, Bunke moved to Cuba in 1961, quickly graduating from voluntary work to a range of high-profile tasks in the militia, the Cuban Literacy Campaign and a number of government departments. She was later selected to take part in “Operation Fantasma”, Guevara’s guerrilla expedition to Bolivia aimed at sparking revolutionary uprising across Latin America.
The only woman in the operation, Bunke was trained in the use of knives, pistols and submachine guns, as well as the transmission of coded radio messages. Styling herself as ‘Tania’, she quickly impressed her superiors with her intelligence, stamina and skill for espionage. In 1964 she served as secret agent, infiltrating Bolivian high society so successfully that she became a personal friend of the Bolivian President. In this role she became an invaluable source of information for Guevara for two years.
However late in 1966 Bunke’s cover was blown due to a failure of the spy network, forcing her to join Guevara’s armed guerrilla campaign in the mountains. It is rumoured but unconfirmed that during this time she and Guevara became lovers. She became responsible for monitoring radio communications but without access to her previous information sources the operation became increasingly isolated and desperate.
Injured in the leg and suffering a high fever, Bunke was included in a group of 17 ailing combatants that Guevara tried to send safely out of the mountains. The group was ambushed by the Bolivian army while crossing the Río Grande river and Bunke was shot while wading through high water with her rifle above her head. On hearing the news of her death Guevara initially refused to believe that such a thing was possible. She was later declared a hero of the Cuban Revolution.
Catalina de Erauso, also known as the ‘Nun Lieutenant’, was a legendary Basque soldier and duellist in the 17th century.
Raised in a convent, De Erauso ran away at age 15 shortly before taking her vows as a nun. As Spanish society allowed little freedom for women, she took to disguising herself as a young man. After a few years roaming Spain as a page, she signed up on a ship to Peru as a cabin boy.
She worked in the Peruvian town of Trujillo in a store, but had to leave after injuring a relative of her employer in a duel. She moved to Lima but again had to leave in shame following a scandal involving a young woman. This led to her enlisting in the Spanish army and fighting in Chile during the Arauco War. At one point she was under the command of her own brother, Miguel, who never recognized her.
On the front lines in Chile, De Erauso reached the rank of lieutenant and became famed for her sword-fighting skills, however she fell into disfavour for killing an enemy leader who her superiors wanted captured alive. Disgraced, she fell into the habits of drinking and gambling, which in turn led to her fighting in a number of duels. This led to tragedy when she inadvertently killed her own brother in a duel gone wrong.
Grief-stricken she became an outlaw and con-artist, on one occasion absconding with a dowry paid to her to marry a young woman. She eventually entered into a convent in Lima after confessing her sex to a bishop. On return to Europe in 1624 De Erauso’s story had become public knowledge and she toured Italy as a celebrity. She was so famous that she was reportedly granted special dispensation by Pope Urban VIII to wear men’s clothing.
She returned to New Spain in 1645, using the name Antonio de Erauso, where she worked as a mule driver on the road from Veracruz. She died in Cuetlaxtla in 1650. Her autobiography, Memoir of a Basque Transvestite in the New World, is still widely read today.