It is January of 1819. In the port of Santiago de Cuba, the sailing ship La Helvetia docks. A slim, white youth, about 4’10” tall, with rosy cheeks, blue eyes, small forehead and mouth, bulbous nose and blond hair, disembarks and steps onto Cuban land. Nobody is waiting for him. His documents say that his name is Enrique Faber, he is 28 years old and he is Swiss.
He comes from Europe. That is where he left behind the corsets, skirts, feathers, hats and other ornaments befitting his real sex—a woman. To fulfill her dream of becoming a doctor, she had to dress up like a man. She studied medicine in France, served in the army of Napoleon Bonaparte as a surgeon during the invasion of Russia, and was imprisoned in Spain.
She arrived in Cuba almost by chance, upon the request of her Uncle Enrique, the Baron of Avivery, who had taken the young woman, Enriqueta, into his home when she became an impoverished orphan at the age of 16. When she arrived in Cuba, she inquired about the most remote corner of the archipelago. “Baracoa,” somebody told her, and that is where she went.
Her pressing need to hide her secret, a problematic one for the 19th century, led her to seek distance and privacy in Baracoa, Cuba’s first villa, capital and bishopric, where she made her home.
There, on Aug. 11, 1819, to avoid social pressures, Enrique married Juana de León, a young orphan girl who was sick with tuberculosis, and with whom she made a peculiar pact: matrimony without sex. Because of her weakness, Juana was not to fulfill her marital obligations, the young doctor told his new wife. But that pretext, like almost everything the doctor did, soon faded away.
In 1820, the Protomedicato Court authorized Enrique to live and work anywhere in the archipelago. It looked like everything would turn out fine, but Juana, his wife, was gradually recovering her health and she began to desire her husband.
One day, in a moment of carelessness, a house servant discovered Enriqueta’s real sex. In seconds, Juana learned the truth. She was offended, and she reported Faber to the legal authorities in 1823.
Still today, people in Baracoa tell the story of how Enriqueta traveled to Havana, and visited the bishop, Juan José Díaz Espada y Landa, saying, “I am a dreadful criminal.” Others say that she traveled to the town of Tiguabos, where many brawls were attributed to her; in fact, some accounts tell of a wager to prove whether or not she was a man or a woman by undressing her. A lot of things are always said about great individuals.
On the day of her trial, Enriqueta arrived dressed as a lady. She once again wore the clothing that, years ago, had tied her to ridiculous conventionalisms. She was sentenced to 10 years of prison for dressing in men’s clothing, marrying another woman and deceiving society. She appealed, and in the end the sentenced was reduced to four years and exile in New Orleans.
Her case was defended by lawyer Manuel Vidaurre. At the Regional Hearing of Puerto Príncipe, in what is now Camagüey, Vidaurre said:
“Enriqueta Faber is not a criminal. Society is guiltier than she, from the moment that women were denied their civil and political rights, and turned into objects for the pleasures of men. My client was acting wisely when she dressed in male clothing, not only because it is not prohibited by law, but also because by appearing to be a man, she was able to study, work and have freedom of action, in every sense, for the practice of good works. …Although she is a woman, she did not want to aspire to the sad but comfortable means of prostitution….”
The years go by. It is now 1844. In Veracruz, Mexico, a 60-year-old woman introduces herself to Dr. Juan de Mendizábal. She looks like a monk and she is seeking work as a midwife. She wears the habit of the Sisters of Charity, and she tells people to call her Sister Magdalena. However, her legal papers, the ordinary ones, list a different name: Enriqueta Faber, the first woman to practice medicine in Cuba.