Cuban Woman Who Lived as a Man

By Dalia Acosta

 Enriqueta Favez was jailed for dressing like a man.  Photo:
Enriqueta Favez was jailed for dressing like a man. Photo:

HAVANA TIMES, August 4 (IPS) — When Cuban historian and anthropologist Julio César Gonzalez and his Spanish friend Alberto Gongora Sanz arrived at the birthplace of Swiss physician Enriqueta Favez, in the city of Lausanne, Switzerland, their joy at finally reaching their destination was so great that they broke into tears and dropped to the ground in the square across the street from her house.

“I even kissed the door,” Gonzalez told IPS. “The people passing by didn’t know what to make of us. Her home is still standing, but there’s no plaque, nothing to remember her by. There’s nothing there or in any other of the many places this woman – who was Cuba’s first female doctor – passed through in her life,” he added.

“Such a remarkable woman and history ignores her,” he said.

“When she was tried, she was judged as a sad creature, when in fact she was a woman who disguised herself in men’s clothes so she could study medicine and succeed in an era when such professions were denied to her sex. Dressing like a man was for Favez an act of rebelliousness against the establishment of her time,” he added.

Fourteen Years of Research

After a long quest, which began in the United States in 1995 and took him to different places in Switzerland, France, Guadalupe, Mexico and Cuba, following Favez’s trail, on July 16 the Cuban researcher launched his book “Por andar vestida de hombre” (For Dressing Like a Man) in Havana, at a presentation organized by the Jose Marti International Institute of Journalism in Havana.

In a digital version by the Colombian publishing house Carisma, Gonzalez puts out the results of 14 years of research, made possible through grants from the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC), the Autonomous University of Barcelona, and the Community of Iberian-American Forums, in addition to support from many friends.

A range of documents and sources – including love letters between Favez and Juana de León preserved in a private collection in the United States – are interwoven harmoniously into a story that may sound fictional but was pieced together through careful historical and archaeological research and is entirely true.

In this first, multimedia edition, the story is also told through numerous images, including a photo album depicting Favez’s childhood home in Lausanne, her residence in the Mexican city of Veracruz, the classroom she studied in at the Sorbonne University in Paris, and her cousin Maria Cavin’s house in Cuba.

Expelled from Cuba in 1824

Best known for the sexual scandal that ended in her incarceration and final expulsion from Cuba in 1824, Favez is rediscovered by Gonzalez as a woman of her time who, like so many others throughout history, refused to conform to the roles imposed by men and defied male conventions in the only way she could: by pretending to be a man.

“As a soldier, doctor, lover, prisoner and nun, she challenged dominant power structures,” said Gonzalez, who heads the Iberian-American Masculinities Network, an organization created to discuss alternative forms of masculinity and promote gender equality and a culture of peace.

Little is known about her early years, except that she was born on Apr 1, 1791 into a Swiss bourgeois family. The most accepted account has Favez marrying French officer Juan Bautista Renau at 15, and accompanying him as he served in Napoleon’s army in Germany.

“I saw my husband die. I was a widow at the age of 18 and was left childless when my infant daughter died eight days after she was born,” she told the court when she was tried in Cuba in 1823. The trial was later published as a serialized account in 1860, in the magazine “La Administración”, which is preserved in Cuba’s National Library.

Shortly after her husband’s death, Favez decided to pose as a man and pass herself off as a military officer so she could enroll at the Sorbonne University in Paris to study medicine. Upon graduating in 1811, she enlisted as a surgeon in the French army, participated in Napoleon’s failed Russian campaign, and was taken prisoner in Spain.

A Marriage that would Land Her in Jail

When the war ended, she sailed off to the island of Guadalupe, in 1814, and from there she traveled to Cuba “without changing my attire, dressed like a man, which is how I was accustomed to dressing and how I felt free, because that way I could practice my profession and make my fortune, with no intention of hurting anyone, but rather with the aim of helping the needy with my trade,” Favez herself explained.

Julio Cesar Gonzalez Pages – Photo:
Julio Cesar Gonzalez Pages – Photo:

She settled as Dr. Enrique Favez in the eastern city of Baracoa, some 1000 kilometers from Havana, and built up an important practice, treating the city’s wealthiest residents while also providing free medical care for the poor and traveling long distances to teach illiterate people, including slaves and former slaves.

It was one of those teaching expeditions that would take her to the town of Tiguavos, where on April 20, 1819 she met and fell in love with Juana de León. After rescuing Juana from a state of poverty and disease, Enriqueta arranged the marriage that would later land her in jail.

Although throughout the trial Juana de León was portrayed as a victim of deception, from the letters the two women wrote each other Gonzalez gathers that Enriqueta confessed her true gender to Juana before they were married, and that they both agreed to live as husband and wife.

“I never blamed you for what happened. It was they who could not understand that we loved each other no matter what,” Favez wrote in a letter from New Orleans, dated May 23, 1846.

By then she was known as Sister Magdalena. Following her conviction and a brief period in prison in Cuba, at the age of 33 she was sent to New Orleans to live with relatives, who in an effort to protect the family name, swore her to secrecy and packed her off to a nunnery.

Enriqueta would spend her last years as a missionary in Veracruz and Guadalajara, Mexico, where she donated part of her fortune to the desperately poor, and worked as a nurse, combating epidemics, and as a midwife for women inmates.

She died in 1856, ten years after Juana, at the age of 65. “The cemetery where she was buried in New Orleans was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Even her remains are gone,” Gonzalez says.

The author is excited about bringing Enriqueta’s story to the public in this multimedia format that provides “a digital and environmentally-friendly book, written in a language that is attractive to young readers,” and has made the book available for download at the Iberian-American Masculinity Network site.

“Favez’s life is a testimony of transgression that reaches out to us from the past. It makes us realize that what we face today is nothing compared to what women like her were up against. Men and women have been challenging established norms since they began living together in society,” the historian says.

According to Gonzalez, author of another book on Cuban women, “Favez was a woman challenging gender roles; it wasn’t about sex. That was what she herself claimed in her trial: she dressed like a man because that was the only way she could find respect. No trials or rules could ever crush her.”

One thought on “Cuban Woman Who Lived as a Man

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