Raised under exceptional circumstances, the exploits of this member of the Spanish armed resistance against Franco´s regime have become legendary.
From Fact To Fame
In 2011 the Spanish author, Alicia Gimenez Bartlett, won the prestigious Nadal prize for literature with her novel, Donde nadie te encuentre. This work is all the more compelling because it faithfully recreates the true story of Teresa/Florencio Pla Meseguer, widely known during life as La Pastora. Raised as a girl, he reclaimed his male identity and was among the last of the resistance fighters against the Franco regime to be captured, after which he was accused of 29 murders and sentenced to death. Nethertheless, the astonishing history of La Pastora is virtually unknown outside Spain.
Teresa Pla Meseguer was born into a poor family in 1917, in the small Valencian village of Vallibona in the north-east of Spain. He had a genital abnormality that would later be identified as male pseudohermaphroditism. However, his parents were so uncertain of his gender, and his mother feared how he might be treated when he came to do his compulsory military service, that the baby was registered as female. From then on, he was dressed in girl´s clothes and treated as one of the family´s daughters.
As he grew, he developed the strength and manners more typical of a boy and was bullied by his sisters because of this unusual behaviour. His family decided to send him to live with a shepherding family when he was nine years old and from then on he spent his time tending sheep and goats in the mountains. He came to know these wild regions intimately and developed a phenomenal strength that enabled him to carry an 80 kg sheep over his shoulders with ease. His affinity with this solitary lifestyle bestowed upon him the title by which he would be known throughout his life: La Pastora, or, The Shepherdess.
La Pastora´s stature and strength would be of service to him during his uncomfortable encounters with other people. The curiosity regarding his uncertain gender was so great that he was subjected to attempts to see what was under his clothes, but he managed to repel these intrusions with his fists. Even so, the violations persisted and he once arrived at a village fiesta carrying an axe because he had heard that a group of boys planned to strip him naked. Ridiculed by his neighbours, it is little surprise that he turned to the mountains and the company of his cherished livestock.
Civil War And Resistance
During these years, great changes were sweeping across the country. In 1936 a right-wing Nationalist uprising led to war against the democratically-elected Republicans, who were defeated in 1939. Even before the end of the Civil War, an armed resistance movement was organising that would continue the fight against Franco´s dictatorship.
The resistance, known as the Maquis, was initially divided into organised regional militias. Performing acts of sabotage and robberies to fund their activities, they were most active before 1947, even staging a large incursion across the Pyrenees from France before they were driven back. However, the rebel dream of international support came to nothing, and many bands were destroyed. Others fled the country, while those who refused to leave continued fighting for survival as outlaws in the mountains.
In the course of his solitary work, La Pastora came into contact with the Maquis and began to run errands for them. They were most active in forested and mountainous regions where they could conceal themselves, but in order to survive they depended on extensive support networks to supply them with food and munitions. The punishment for collaboration was severe, and Franco´s Civil Guard became increasingly active in searching out, interrogating and torturing suspects. Therefore, the only option for collaborators was to flee to the mountains and join the Maquis.
Up to now, La Pastora had quietly pursued his shepherding existence but events were to force his hand into taking sides. One day, he witnessed the Civil Guard torture and castrate one such suspected collaborater, the manager of the country house where he was working. On another occasion, the lieutenant of the local Civil Guard threatened him with a beating and forced him to strip. In 1949, to save himself from further violation and threat, La Pastora turned his face to the mountains and joined the resistance.
Life In The Maquis
This decision had a profound effect on him for, by joining the rebels, he gained a sense of family and belonging for the first time in his life. Here, he was treated as a comrade at arms, free of judgement, and here he could excercise choice regarding his identity. From now on, “The Shepherdess” would cut his hair short, adopt men´s attire and call himself Florencio.
Florencio was indispensable to the group and became their guide, for he knew every corner of the region. He would stand guard at the door during a raid on a remote farm, enabling them to slip through the fingers of the Civil Guard and vanish into the night. Sometimes there were near misses or shoot-outs with the aurthorities but always they managed to escape, aided by Florencio´s knowledge. Slowly, the name of “La Pastora” became incorporated into local legend.
Discipline in the Maquis was harsh, and those who attempted to return to their former life were generally treated as deserters and shot. When a comrade was killed during an assault, Florencio and another man were so afraid they would be accused of abandoning their companion that they deserted from the Maquis and formed their own band. Together, Florencio and his comrade, Paco “El Serrano”, continued to conceal themselves in the mountains, executing raids whenever they could and keeping one step ahead of the authorities.
There is little doubt that Paco was a hardened outlaw and after capture, Florencio would be accused of having committed 29 murders in his company. This he always denied and no proof was ever put forward that Florencio was a murderer. Such matters aside, Paco´s fate was sealed when they decided to raid the home of the wealthy Nomen family in Tortosa. During the ensuing shoot-out, Paco was fatally wounded and, while Florencio managed to flee, he was now alone.
Capture And Trial
Astonishingly, Florencio managed to survive alone for another two years, living in a cave and managing on what he was able to steal. In 1956, he walked to the Pyrenean Principality of Andorra where he found work and even managed to save a little money. He was also involved in smuggling cigarettes and it was another smuggler – who owed him money – who betrayed him to the Andorran administration. Expelled from the Principality, Florencio was arrested by the Spanish police who were, in part, able to identify him as La Pastora due to the scar on his face, the result of an operation to correct a hare lip.
Even though he was growing a beard, Florencio was given women´s clothes until an examination confirmed that, medically and hormonally, he was a man and thereafter, he was treated as such. When accused of murder during his trial, he protested his innocence, saying that all he had ever done was search out those who had ridiculed him in the past to give them a beating. Initially sentenced to death, this was commuted to 30 years´ imprisonment.
In prison, Florencio was noted for his good behaviour but he associated little with his fellow inmates. However, a prison worker named Marino Viniesa Hoyos befriended him and when he was released in 1977, Viniesa took Florencio into the family home in Olocan, Valencia. Florencio was by now in his sixties. In 1980, he was granted the alteration of his official documentation that finally recognised his gender as male. He continued to live quietly with the Viniesa family and was devoted to his two pet dogs, Betty and Tuna. During this time, he was interviewed by Jose Calvo, the author of La pastora: Del monte al mito, the definitive account of his life.
Florencio Pla Meseguer died on January 1, 2004, aged 86. His story is one on an ordinary life altered by extraordinary circumstances and perhaps, above all, a testament to the human ability to endure.