The Female, Ex-Pat Warrior
Little is known about Maria’s childhood other than she was born in the late 1400s, a Jew, back when Jews and Arabs were being forced out from Spain. Some accounts believe she was raised by Gypsies who baptized her, changing her name from Miriam Perez to Maria de Estarada (for having found her by the side of the road, or Estrada). If so, it is believed it was from her Gypsy contemporaries she learned how to fight.
Maria traveled to the New World, perhaps with her brother, Francisco de Estrada, a conquistador that had served as Christopher Columbus’ cabin boy, or maybe she was expelled for a crime. Being sent to the New World on a one way ticket was a common punishment for female criminals in her day as a way to get European women to the Americas.
Maria’s ship sank just off of present day Cuba. She survives and lives for five years as a slave becoming the first European to successfully adapt to indigenous life in the Americas. Later rescued when the island is conquered by the Europeans, Maria moves on to Santo Domingo, which at the time was the only Spanish colony.
Maria fell in love and married Pedro Sánchez de Farfán, a bestie to Hernán Cortés who was living on the island at the time. Despite the bond of friendship that linked her to Hernán Cortés, he never mentions her in his writing but does always try to help her husband, Pedro.
Pedro and Maria join Cortes in his expedition to conquer Mexico. Eyewitness memoirs place her fighting with the conquistadors as the only European female soldier present. Maria is described as being adept at both hand-to-hand combat with knives and on horseback with a spear.
Cortés gave María and her husband several extensive encomiendas in what is now the state of Morelos. An encomienda is a grant by the Spanish Crown to a colonist conferring the right to demand tribute and forced labor from the indigenous inhabitants of an area.
When she was widowed, María de Estrada assumed direct control of the estate and in this capacity, she filed a petition to the king of Spain to ask for lighter taxation of her lands.
María de Estrada then married Alonso Martín, an immigrant Jew and one of the first civilian settlers in Puebla.
Maria died in 1527 in Puebla around the age of 40, a victim of cholera. Buried in the vault of an old church (where the atrium of the Puebla cathedral stands today) her remains were lost when the church was demolished a quarter century later.
By 1561, Alonso’s many children from a previous marriage were fighting over the inheritance from Maria. Instead, the land was annexed to the king of Spain since neither Maria, nor her first husband, had surviving descendants.