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Francisca Zubiaga Y Bernales de Gamarra

Other names/titles: La Mariscala,La Presidenta, Pencha Gamarra, doña Pancha
Gender: F
Ethnic origin: White

Biographical details

She was born on 11 September 1803, in a department of Cuzco, the daughter of a Spanish merchant and Cuzcan mother. She lived in a convent before ill-health forced her to leave. In 1825 she married General Agustín Gamarra, the Prefect of Cuzco, 1785-1841, (later President of Peru from 1829-33). His ambition made Gamarra an enemy of Bolívar and Sucre. In Sánchez de Velasco, Memorias para la historia de Bolivia, (no further details) it is claimed that she led the expedition to Bolivia in the middle of winter. (Basadre, Peruanos, 85-86.)

Flora Tristán described her, giving a childhood friend of Pencha Gamarra as her source: Pencha was very devout and when aged 12 she wanted to enter a convent and become a nun. When she was 17 her parents made her return home due to her poor health. Many officers wanted to marry her. Her father took her to Lima to restore her health and introduced her to society. After 2 years she returned to Cuzco where she married “an ugly, stupid little officer, the least distinguished of all her suitors [...] a humble captain”. Tristán claims that Pencha was “still in poor health and nearly always pregnant” but followed Gamarra “wherever the war took him”. She thus gained sufficient strength to conceal her illness and it was only after Gamarra became president that it became public knowledge. “Her solicitation and intriguing had raised her husband to the presidency, and once he was installed she took Escudero as her confidant and skilfully exploited everybody she thought capable of furthering her interests. [...] This woman, raised in a convent, without education, but gifted with a strong, moral sense and an uncommonly powerful will, governed a people even Bolívar found ungovernable with such success that in less than a year order was restored, rival factions were tamed, trade flourished, the army regained confidence in its leaders; and even if parts of Peru were still unsettled, most of the country enjoyed peace.

"With such a character, Doña Pencha seemed destined to continue the work of Bolívar for many years to come, and she would certainly have done so had not her all too feminine exterior stood in her way. She was beautiful, she could be very gracious when she chose, and she had the power to inspire great passion. Her enemies spread the vilest slanders about her and, finding it easier to attack her morals than her political actions, attributed various vices to her to console themselves for her superiority.”

Anyone who boasted of being her lover was punished by whipping. This, Tristán claims, was because “she was intoxicated by her power and convinced that she belonged to a superior order of creation. Ministers had to submit every act of congress to her scrutiny; she struck out any passages which did not suit her and substituted her own, so that in the end she became an absolute ruler within a constitutional republic. Tristán saw in Pencha Gamarra “all the virtues necessary for the exercise of power at this stage of Peru’s development, but her harshness created an opposition so strong to oppose her. To retain power she “resorted to a trick”. Realising he wouldn’t be re-elected, President Gamarra claimed ill-health prevented him from running for office and the Gamarras gave their support to their friend Bermúdez. In exile in Valparaiso, she lived with Escudero and other retainers in a “splendid furnished house”, but Valparaiso society shunned her, as did foreigners living their and most of her former comrades. She died 7 weeks after leaving Callao. (Tristán, 302-305)

She wore a colonel’s uniform and put herself at the head of the army. “But if Doña Francisca didn’t know how to darn a sock, not cook meat, nor to suckle a child (she didn’t have one) on the other hand she was an able and useful director of politics, and her husband the president, would follow her inspirations with his eyes closed.” At the end of 1833 Gamarra fell to Pedro Bermúdez. “Doña Francisca sorted out the confusion, and with such skill that the opposition party almost lost hope that its candidate would triumph.” (Palma, 81.)

In 1831 President Gamarra left Vice President La Fuente in control while he went to war. “La Mariscala” and Prefect of Lima, Eléspuru, watched over La Fuente who tried to usurp Gamarra. La Mariscala intercepted messages and letters, controlled the press and sent a mob to flush him out of his house. La Fuente escaped and took refuge in a US ship in Callao. Basadre quotes a US marine, Ruschenberger (no further details) who stated that the President of Peru is a tall, attractive woman, who is too stout to be beautiful. “Her manners are masculine and far from graceful. Her actions are those of a man. She fires her pistol with great precision and accuracy, handles a sword with great agility and is a daring and intrepid horseman.” He added that at tertulias she played chess, but never danced and it is acknowledged that Gamarra owed his position as president to her. She fled from Arequipa on 18 May 1834, dressed as a clergyman jumping from a roof onto a patio before sailing from Callao to Chile, on an English boat in the company of Spanish writer and military man, Bernardo Escudero. She met Flora Tristán in June 1834. Exiled, impoverished and alone she died of tuberculosis in Valparaiso, on 8 May 1835 aged 32. (Basadre, Peruanos, 85-91)

Tristán describes how Zubiaga and Gamarra overthrew Orbegoso so that they could install their puppet president, Bermudez. Señora Gamarra “dictated policy and commanded the troops”, as she and Monk Valdivia struggled for power. (Tristán, 174)

According to Tristán, Gamarra and his wife entered Arequipa on 27 April 1834 and raised funds by threatening imprisonment and sanctions against the richer Arequipans. Their soldiers took their orders to extremes by demanding money from the peasants and antagonised the inhabitants so that the soldiers’ safety was at risk and the people pledged support for the opposition [Orbegoso]. On 18 May, the town was taken in the name of Orbegoso. The Arequipans turned on soldiers on both sides. Señora Gamarra hid in a neighbour’s house. Pío Tristán was appointed military commander as the people of the town joined forces to drive out the Gamarras. Orbegoso was recognised as president. Gamarra went to Bolivia and his wife “the principal object of the people’s hatred” (under darkness and the protection of Pío Tristán to shield her from the people’s rage) to Chile. She was accompanied by Escudero and both he and Gamarra asked Tristán to visit them in Callao. Tristán quotes Escudero: “You behold me shacked here forever. Poor Señora Gamarra has been driven out everywhere, her cause is irretrievably lost. Her weak-minded cowardly husband has taken refuge in Santa-Cruz, and if any chances come his way he will be certain to bungle them. I cannot abandon this woman.” He went with her voluntarily into exile. Tristán claims that Gamarra wanted to feature in Tristán’s journal. Tristán describes her as “a being as exceptional for her will-power as for her intelligence […] of medium height and wiry frame, though she was very thin. Her face was not beautiful by accepted standards, it possessed something more than conventional beauty. She had a long, slightly turned-up nose and a large but very expressive mouth; her whole face was long, with prominent cheekbones and muscles, while her skin was very brown but full of vitality. She had an enormous head crowned with a mass of thick long hair which hung over her brow; it was a dark chestnut colour, with a lustrous and silky texture. Her voice was heavy, harsh, imperious; she spoke in an abrupt and jerky manner.” She’s wearing a European-style dress to please her mother and sister who hope that it will change her luck. “So I yielded to their entreaties and put on this gown which hampers my movements, these stockings which feel cold to my legs, this big shawl which I am afraid of burning with the ash from my cigar. I like clothes which are comfortable for riding, clothes which will stand up to the strains of campaigning, visiting camps and barracks, and going abroad Peruvian ships: those are the only clothes that suit me. For years I have been travelling all over the country in breeches of the coarse cloth they make in my native Cuzco, a greatcoat of the same material embroidered in gold, and boots with gold spurs.” She also wore a long cloak that had belonged to her father. She kept her hair long, she is reputed to have said, so that when her courage was more powerful than her physical strength she used her attractiveness to obtain the support of men. She maintained “it is precisely because I have never been able to submit my invincible pride to brute force that you see me a prisoner here, driven into exile by the very men I commanded for three years.” (Tristán, 290-305)

She suffered from epileptic fits that worsened and were apparently brought on by strong emotions: “You can judge what an obstacle it has been to my career. Our soldiers are so badly trained and our officers so cowardly that in every serious engagement I had to take command myself. For the past ten years, long before I had any hope of getting my husband nominated president, I have taken part in every battle to accustom myself to fire. Often when the fight was fiercest I would grow so angry at the apathy and cowardice of the troops under my command that I would foam with rage and then I would have one of my attacks. I had only enough time to throw myself onto the ground; several times I was trampled by the horses and carried off for dead by my servants.” Tristán then claims Gamarra said that her enemies spread rumours that it wasn’t an illness but fear that caused these symptoms: “The noise of the cannon, and the smell of gunpowder were attacking my nerves and making me faint away like some little lady of fashion!” (Tristán, 300)

Tristán was deeply affected by her two meetings with Gamarra: “It wrung my heart to see one of God’s élite, herself a victim of the very qualities which set her apart from her fellow creatures, forced by the fears of a cowardly people to flee her country, abandon her family and friends, and go, stricken with the most frightful infirmity, to end her painful existence in exile.” (Tristán, 302)

Agusto Tamayo Vargas claims that Flora Tristán recognised the semi-heroic spirit of “La Mariscala” as opposed to the negative side and by writing about her, secured a more benevolent place in history. (Tamayo Vargas, 557-558.)

Clorinda Matto de Turner wrote about her. (Arambel-Guiñazú, 66)

Knaster points out that Zubiaga's epilepsy was later refuted. (Knaster, 512-513.)

Basadre describes her: "Mujer excepcional de salón y de vivaz, personaje sin par para un film de aventuras y para un estudio psiquiátrico." In October 1829 Vice-President La Fuente accused her and Prefect Eléspuro of running a flour business under the name of a German businessman, Pfeiffer. At this time, General Miller hosted a dance, to which Zubiaga did not go because (Basadre quotes Eléspuro) "como todos saben padece de un mal que la asalta intempestivamente". Nor did Eléspuro attend, his wife was ill.
Basadre states that Zubiaga's lasting image is that of ambition (as opposed to more usual qualities in women such as heroism, sweetness or beauty): "Otras nombres de mujeres semejan un arpa o una guitarra o un laúd; algunas apenas si semeja un perfume. El nombre de doña Francisca tiene un redoblar de tambor y aún suena convocando a los azares de la emoción. Otras mujeres fueron joyas, ánforas, o vasos; ella fue esbelta, tersa, vibrante, agresiva como una espada. Aún en el amor, en medio de los desfallecimientos de la voluptuosidad, debió inspirar el marcial denuedo con que el soldado iluso sigue a su capitán.
[…] Si otras mujeres tuvieron en la política peruana con su actuación intermitente, un rol de "tapadas" por actuar en la capital, por alcanzar la importancia máxima en los conciliábulos, en doña Francisca Gamarra mujer consagrada a la acción y a la lucha, culmina el tipo de rabona. Fue ella la venganza de las rabonas frente a las orgullosas tapadas limeñas en los cuatro años que imperó en la capital con sus arrebatos y su poder; y porque les disputa ahora la sugestión y el atractivo." (Basadre, Iniciación, 139-140, 202, 337-338)

A letter from Gamarra to Francisca Zubiaga, Tacna, 13 de mayo de 1834 is reproduced. (Tauro, 257)

Neuhaus states that she did not suffer from epilepsy. (Neuhaus Rizo, 140-142)

In 1942 César Miró wrote a three-act opereta about her.

She was a novice at the Monasterio de Santa Rosa "y empezó a martirizarse con castigos y ayunos extremos que obligaron a sus padres a retirarla del convento". Afterwards she continued "encerrada en un mutismo excluyente, dedicada todo el día a la oración y a la meditacion". Her parents tried in vain to distract her; only when she went to Lima (aged 19) did her character change. Then she joined in dances and fiestas; whereas in Cuzco she had dressed in black, not speaking to anyone. There she met Agustín Gamarra, a widower since 1813 with a young son, Andrés. They married on the eve of his departure to meet up with General Sucre. Zubiaga stayed behind in Lima with her mother. Gamarra was named Prefect of Cuzco and the pair settled there. Bolivar visited the town and was taken with Zubiaga's beauty and vivacity. There are rumours of a passionate romance between them and others that meeting Bolívar awoke Zubiaga's ambitions. But, Guardia maintains, what is certain is that after this meeting Zubiaga began to use a pistol, "el florete, practicar la equitación". Mundane life interested her little and she became Gamarra's manager, with the aim of making him President. Guardia writes of a picture of Zubiaga's young daughters, who she says could have been her nieces, who seemed to die young. Andrés, her stepson, is also in the picture, Zubiaga became a mother to him. Guardia quotes Valdelomar who claims that Zubiaga fed the soldiers, gave them orders and received information. She was the first to start work and the last to finish. Guardia also quotes Sánchez de Velasco's Memorias para la história de Bolivia, (no further details) that Zubiaga led "un destacamento que se apoderó de la Plaza de Paria" in mid-winter and that she not only participated in military campaigns, but also held political meetings with Bolivian leaders. Gamarra became president and on 29 November 1829 he and Zubiaga entered Lima. "Ella impuso a la oficialidad la pulcritud y la elegancia de uniforme, la finura del trato y los buenos modales. Para sentarse a la mesa tenían que pulirse más que para presentarse al Estado Mayor. Pero la adultación de la sociedad la perdió y poco a poco cayó la arrogancia y el despotismo, produciendo una enconada reacción contra ella," There were 14 uprisings to deal with in three years, some of which Gamarra had to confront himself, leaving Zubiaga at the palace. Despite her efforts, Gamarra was defeated and fled to La Paz, where she could not travel. Pío Tristán helped her to travel to Islay disguised as a priest with Escudero. Her epileptic attacks became more frequent. Many believed Escudero was her lover, and Clorinda Matto de Turner claims that Zubiaga and Gamarra split up before he went to La Paz, but Andrés Gamarra wrote a letter to El Correo del Perú, on 12 March 1876 claiming that his parents' separation was due to political circumstances and was not a personal break-up: "Nadie como yo que no me separé de mi madre política sino en periódos cortos, ha podido estar al corriente de todos los pormenores de su vida, tanto privada como públia. Habiendo sido por una parte testigo de sus virtudes y por otra habiendo recibido de ella las tiernas caricias de una madre." Guardia quotes Cornejo Bouroncle, that Zubiaga knew she was about to die and asked to be left alone in her room. "Sola, cambióse de ropa, vistíose toda de blanco, redactó un lacónico testamento en el cual declaraba ser cristiana y ordenaba que su corazón fuese extraído, y enviado donde su esposo, si aún vivía, y si no al Cusco." She brushed her hair and waited serenely for death. Guardia cites Basadre that her image was of a rabona, "pero lejos estuvo de ser justamente segidora de su hombre". Valdemar described her as "una mujer de inextinguible energía, cuya vida fue una corriente tumultuosa de vibraciones sonoras". (Guardia, 53-57)

Chirinos Soto says of her: "Era, en verdad, todo un hombre doña Francisca Zubiaga […] ninguno con la impatiencia de gloria y tan extraordinario apetito de poder como la bella esposa de Agustín Gamarra. Matrimonio éste que, más que coloquio de ternera, fue diálogo de voluntades tensas, y alianza ofensiva y defensiva de una pareja que lanzó al galope su ambición por los ásperos caminos republicanos. Algo hay de demoníaco en su carrera, y mucho de portentoso en la imagen que de doña Francisca Zubiaga se forma el populacho. De ahí arrancan la proeza y el mito, la historia y la leyenda de la que había de ser Mariscala del Perú por los siglos sucesivos.
Amazona estupenda, brioso el corcel, terciada la capa con vueltas de oro, el látigo inquieto y propicio al ultraje en sus blancas dilleras, en la alternativa obligatoria de victorias y derrotas, su magnífica arrogancia de mujer con el alma de varón.
Excelente estampa de hembra: porte distinguido, claros ojos rasgados, nariz graciosa, abundante cabellera con reminiscencias áureas. Seguramente, como diría un poeta nuestro, a su paso convoca ´un mitín de miradas por las calles´. Sabe, empero, reprimir con dureza de maledicencia, y hace castigar, por ejemplo, a tres oficialillos - tenorios de tertulia - que se ufanan de una aventura imaginaria con la Presidencia de la República.
No pertenece doña Pancha al romanticismo amatorio de lágrimas y de lunar melancolia: su romanticismo tiene dimensiones de epopeya, y aspira directamente a seducir la posteridad. Experta en la intriga, infatigable en el vivac, altiva en el infortunio, esplendida en el éxito, cruel en la venganza, doña Pancha todavía disputa, brazo a brazo, con Santa Rosa y Perricholi, la cumbre de la celebridad entre las mujeres del Perú.
El matrimonio de Gamarra […] y de la Zubiaga, se celebra en vísperas de la batalla de Ayacucho. Después de la victoria, don Agustín asume la prefectura del Cuzco, y su esposa, a nombre de las damas de la ciudad, corona la frente de Bolívar. El libertador seducido por doña Pancha, acaso intenta seducirla. Acaso lo consigue. Gamarra invade a Bolivia para desalojar a Sucre. Doña Pancha lo acompaña. Ella misma comanda una fracción de tropa y captura una plaza. Más tarde, sofoca una revuelta - ´cholos: ¿ustedes contra mí? 'increpa a los soldados - . En seguida, respalda a su marido en el golpe de Estado contra La Mar en plena guerra con la Gran Colombia.
Sin nombramiento ciertamente, por espontánea decisión multitudinaria, se le confiere, fuera de escalfón, el rango de Mariscala del Ejército. La Zubiaga está ya en el Palacio de Pizarro. Gobierna ella, que no el marido, durante cuatro años. Se adelanta a Gutiérrez de la Fuente, Vicepresidente encargado del mando en ausencia de Gamarra, fomenta una asonada contra él, y lo obliga a embarcarse en el Callao.
Fracasa la Mariscala en el intento de imponer como Presidente, en el Congreso, a Burmúdez sobre Obregoso. Huye ante la reacción legalista del pueblo de Lima. En Arequipa, se va obligado a saltar desde una azotea. Embarca también en el Callao, como antaño sus enemigos. A bordo se entrevista con Flora Tristán. […] Parte rumbo a Chile. Muere, en el destierro, el 5 de mayo de 1835. (Chirinos Soto, 111-112.)

She is described as an interesting woman with three facets: incomparable beauty, inimitable philanthropy, and her bravery. The first child of Antonia Bernales and Antonio Zubiaga. She was born in the country house of Huacarpay or Anchibamba, Quispicanchi, Province in 1803. She spent her first few years in Cuzco, before the family moved to Lima. From an early age her intelligence and strong character were apparent. She preferred to play boys games and her gruff voice, likes and inclinations fitted in perfectly with those of the lads. She was physically one of the most beautiful women of her era: a round face and alabaster complexion, a penetrating and alert gaze, a slightly turned up nose, small mouth, thin red lips, thick silky blonde hair, tall and slender with energetic aptitudes. Robust and courageous, she rode a horse with elegance and majesty, she could use every type of arms with great skill, especially the pistol. She was a strong swimmer, and one of her favourite pastimes was cock fighting and she seldom lost because she had great knowledge of these creatures. She preferred the company of men to women, but she was gentle, compliant and sincere with female friends. She had limitless expectations for her position in society, and her beauty earned her a group of enthusiastic courtiers. She married widower Agustín Gamarra, a manly intelligent figure shortly before the battle of Ayacucho. Gamarra was named Prefect of Cuzco, his native city. They moved to Cuzco. Bolívar visited the city and Zubiaga was chosen to greet him with an elegant speech, and offered him a gold crown in the name of Cuzco. Bolívar accepted it and denoted her the most beautiful woman, as did Sucre. As a mother she was "muy mujer", although all her own children died in infancy. She lavished great care on her step-son Andrés from Gamarra's first marriage, being a true mother to him. She accompanied Gamarra on his Bolivian campaign in 1828 following the patriot army. Leading a battalion with her guard of 25 lancers, she personally took the plaza de Paria and her advice and political aptitude contributed to the settlement with Bolívar's army in Piquiza when Gamarra was proclaimed Gran Mariscal by the Peruvian army. They returned to Peru, first to Lima and then Cuzco where they learned that an infantry battalion had turned against them. She dressed in men's clothing, a man's cloak and jumped onto a horse and rode alone to the rebel troops saying "cholos ¿es posible que ustedes estén contra mí?" They replied "¡Viva nuestra patrona!" and the rebellion ended. In 1833 Gamarra went back to Bolivia, leaving Zubiaga in Lima. There she learned that General La Fuente was refusing to sent Gamarra the reinforcements he needed. Zubiaga imprisoned La Fuente and stripped him of his authority. On 28 January 1834 there was a rebellion against General Bermúdez, Gamarra's presidential candidate. Zubiaga put herself a the head of the few remaining loyal troops, seizing her pistol as the people had declared themselves in favour of Orbegoso who had taken the Castillos de Callao. She prepared the defence against Orbegoso when she received news of Gamarra's return from Bolivia to Lima where they were reunited. She was in Arequipa when a revolution in favour of Orbegoso broke out. The public attacked the house in which she was staying (Gamio's). Left without protection from troops, she jumped from the second floor of the house. She escaped but the fall began a terrible illness that eventually killed her. She dressed as a priest and casually walked out into the street without being recognised. After a few days in hiding she disguised herself as a man and went to the coast where she caught a boat to Valparaiso. After this Zubiaga's health was precarious and on medical advice she left Valparaiso for Quillota as it had a better climate. This did not cure her, however, she is said to have insisted that her doctor to tell her the truth of her condition, and when he reluctantly told her that she did not have long to live she bore it calmly, called for a priest. She was serene and tranquil, asking to be left alone without interruption as she wanted to rest. She then changed her clothes, brushed her hair, and wrote her last wishes. She ordered that her heart be removed and returned to Peru to be given to her husband if he were still alive and if not to her uncle Pedro Bernales, dean of Cuzco cathedral. She few possessions were to be given to her servants. She died on 5 May 1835 at the age of 32. Her wishes were fulfilled, her heart was preserved in alcohol and taken to Cuzco. It later went to the Santa Teresa monastery where it disappeared. (García y García, 317-320)

Zubiaga took an active interest in the care of the troops. She gave them the best food possible and ensured they were paid, including bonuses paid according to the actions of each soldier. She also nursed the sick, helped the wounded on the battlefields, fulfilling the ministry of the hijas de San Vicente de Paul. (García y García, 320)

She was also known as “La Mariscala” “La Presidenta” “Señora Gamarra” and “Pencha Gamarra”.

Life Events

Born 1803She was born on 11 September 1803.
Other 1822She was taken to Lima by her parents.
Married 1825She married General Agustín Gamarra.
Other 1828She accompanied Gamarra on his Bolivian campaign.
Other 1829Her husband was President of Peru from 1829-33.
Other 1829In October 1829, she was accused of running a flour business under the name of a German businessman.
Other 1831She thwarted an attempt to usurp her husband.
Other 1834She fled into exile in Chile.
Other 1834She fled from Arequipa on 18 May 1834, and went into exile in Chile.
Died 1835She died on 5 or 8 May 1835, in Valparaíso or Quillota.


Basadre, Jorge, (1981), Peruanos del siglo XIX

Jean Hawkes, (1986), Peregrinations of a Pariah

Palma, Ricardo, (1984), Las mujeres y el amor: tradiciones

Tamayo Vargas, Agusto, (), Literatura peruana

Arambel Guinazu, Maria Cristina , Martin, Claire Emilie, (2001), Las mujeres toman la palabra: Escritura feminina del siglo XIX. Volume: 1

Knaster, Meri, (1977), Women in Spanish America: An Annotated Bibliography from Pre-Conquest to Contemporary Times

Basadre, Jorge, (1929), La Iniciación de la República

Tauro, Alberto, (1952), Gran Mariscal Agustín Gamarra, Epistolario

Neuhaus Rizo Patrón, Carlos, (1997), Las Mariscalas

Guardia, Sara Beatriz, (1985), Mujeres peruanas: El otro lado de la historia

Chirinos Soto, Enrique, (1985), Historia de la republica, 1821-1930

García y García, Elvira, (1924), La mujer peruana a través de los siglos

Davies, Catherine, Brewster, Claire and Owen, Hilary, (2006), South American Independence. Gender, Politics, Text


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Gendering Latin American Independence

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