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Chica da Silva

Chica da Silva

c. 1731
February 15, 1796


Francisca da Silva de Oliveira, known as Chica da Silva, was a slave who lived in Brazil in the eighteenth century at the height of diamond production. Her mythical figure has served to represent the sensuality of the black woman and the capacity for race mixing characteristic of Brazilian society. This slave woman became legendary for her relationship with the diamond contractor João Fernandes de Oliveira, who had the monopoly on extraction of ore in the region of the hamlet of Tejuco, today the city of Diamantina, in Minas Gerais.

The myth of Chica da Silva began to be built up by a nineteenth-century memorialist of Diamantina, who dedicated a few chapters of his book to the story of the slave and her relationship with the diamond contractor, although the author portrayed her in a negative way. At the beginning of the twentieth century, local writers began to add some positive features to the image of the legendary slave, describing her as a woman of rare beauty. Since then the character has been immortalized in poems, novels, television serials, and in the cinema with the film Xica da Silva, directed by Cacá Diegues, in 1976.

Francisca da Silva de Oliveira was the daughter of an African slave, Maria da Costa, who was born in the Costa da Mina, and the Portuguese Antonio Caetano de Sá. While still a slave, Chica had her first child, Simão, with her owner, the Portuguese doctor Manuel Pires Sardinha, who granted the boy his freedom on the occasion of his baptism. In 1753 she was bought by the judge João Fernandes de Oliveira, who had arrived in the hamlet to administer the diamond contract, bid for by his father in Lisbon. Soon afterward, in December of the same year, he granted Chica her freedom.

From 1755 to 1770 Chica and João Fernandes lived together as if they had been officially married. They had thirteen children, four boys and nine girls, but they never legalized their relationship, which would have been dishonorable for a white man, and such mixed marriages were discouraged by church and state. Having an average of one child every thirteen months transforms the sensual, lascivious, man-devouring image with which Chica was always associated.

The ex-slave tried to act like any lady of the local elite. She had her daughters educated at the best educational establishment of the Minas, which was intended only for the daughters of well-off families. Chica always sought the social placement of herself and her children in the bosom of the local elite. This was achieved by way of various expedients, not to be credited only to the importance and fortune of João Fernandes, as he had to return to Portugal in 1771 to resolve family disputes over the paternal inheritance and never returned. Since she had to depend only on herself, Chica found mechanisms to maintain her status, like other freedwomen of Tejuco. One of these was membership in several brotherhoods (Irmandades ), which most often joined individuals of the same origin and social condition as a way of obtaining distinction and social recognition. These rules were not always respected, however, and some people of color succeeded in becoming members of societies that were usually exclusive to white people.

The proof of the importance and degree of social success that Chica obtained was the fact that Dona Francisca da Silva de Oliveira, as she was always addressed, and her children belonged to the principal brotherhoods, whether of white, brown, or black people. She was also the owner of many slaves and of a house near those of the important local people. This was a solidly built, large and airy two-story house with a backyard, which had its own chapelthe privilege of fewwhere two of her daughters would later marry.

Chiua died in Tejuco and was buried at the Church of São Francisco de Assis, whose brotherhood was normally reserved for the local white elite, a demonstration of her importance and prestige. All the priests of the hamlet gathered in ceremony around her body, which was accompanied to the grave by all the brotherhoods she belonged to, a way of demonstrating the distinction she had achieved in life. In contrast to the myth that emerged around her, Chica da Silva was not the queen of the slaves or redemptress of her race, nor was she a shrew, a witch, or a seductress. She knew, as was common for freedwomen of the period, how to take advantage of the few possibilities that the system offered her. Her actions among the white elite of the hamlet of Tejuco were always aimed at diminishing the stigma that color and slavery had imposed on her and of promoting the social ascension of her descendents.

See also Folklore; Slavery

Bibliography

Furtado, Júnia Ferreira. Chica da Silva e o contratador dos diamantes: o outro lado do mito. São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 2003.

Higgins, Kathleen J. Licentious Liberty in a Brazilian Gold-Mining Region. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1999.

Russell-Wood, A. J. R. "Women and Society in Colonial Brazil." Journal of Latin American Studies 9, no. 1 (May 1977): 134.

Santos, Joaquim Felício dos. Memórias do Distrito Diamantino, 4th ed. Belo Horizonte: Itatiaia, 1976. Original publication, Rio de Janeiro: Typografia Americana, 1868.

Vasconcelos, Agripa. Chica que manda. Belo Horizonte: Itatiaia, 1966.

Film

Diegues, Cacá, director. Xica da Silva. 117 min. Brazil: Globo Vídeo, 1976.

jÚnia ferreira furtado (2005)

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