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Chica da Silva without an X

Book shows that the myth of the slave-queen hides the hypocrisy of Brazilian racial democracy

Forget all you think you know about Xica da Silva. Beginning, by the way, with her name: Chica, in actual fact, Francisca da Silva, mulatto, the child of a black woman and a Portuguese man, born between 1731 and 1735 (date uncertain) in the diamond mining region of the hamlet of Tejuco, bought and freed by the diamond contractor João Fernandes de Oliveira, with whom she lived 16 years and had 13 children. The sensual black woman who would elicit howls from her Portuguese lord and horrify society is a myth invented in the 19th century and reappropriated, in various forms at various epochs, each interested in its own vision.

Getting to know Chica with “ch” is to discover that the would-be “racial democracy” in Brazil is a myth, just as groundless as that slave herself who was a queen. “Chica would frequent the white elite of the city and all the white brotherhoods of Tejuco and, when she died, she was buried in the cemetery of the Church of St. Francis of Assis, a privilege for the well-heeled whites. All this proves that she was a woman who behaved in accordance with the social and moral standards of the era”, argues researcher Júnia Ferreira Furtado, from the Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG), the author of the recently launched Chica da Silva e o Contratador dos Diamantes [Chica da Silva and the Diamond Contractor] (Companhia das Letras, 400 pages, R$ 48.50), a historical study about gender and race relationships in 18th century Minas Gerais, which is just as pleasing to read as a novel.

In contrast to the mythical figure, Júnia shows that Chica was not a sui generis , albeit special, case in which a black freed woman, in search of social ascension, would unite herself to a powerful white man. It is that, counter to the stories, what Chica really wanted was her inclusion in the elite of the epoch, devoid of any libertarian nature. The ex-slave ended up as an owner of slaves and adopted the values of the elite, to be able, in some form, to belong to it. “They tried to imitate habits and customs of the elite, in such a way as to reproduce, on a smaller scale, the world of those who had submitted them to slavery”, says Júnia.

“Instead of a starting point for the affirmative constitution of a black identity, the freeing from slavery was the start of a process of acceptance of the values of this elite, so as to be inserted into it, just as their descendants, in this society,” the author observes. And there was nothing so common, given the circumstances of the natural isolation of the region (“A colony inside another colony”, as Charles Boxer defined it, in his The Golden Age of Brazil), which made union between white men and black women interesting. “Her case is not unique, but it is a strong example of the strategy for erasing slave origin, that is, one could marry a black woman provided that she were ‘whitened'”, says Júnia. “Chica was used as a model of racial democracy (of how the white men united themselves to black women), when, actually, it reinforces the hypocrisy of this concept and shows how race relations in Brazil went on – and still go on: having relations with black women is not something bad, provided it is not official. All it needs is, afterwards, to ‘clean up’ the family. This is the underlying thinking.”

Also underlying the union between Chica and the contractor is the very history of the hamlet of Tejuco. The diamonds were discovered there in 1729, although before this there had been incipient explorations. Whenever riches were encountered in the colony, the metropolis would set itself into motion, to guarantee its part in the exploitation and in the taxes. The Crown created an exemplary model, based on contracts auctioned out every four years to an interested party or to a company that would organize the exploitation for the government of Lisbon and guarantee for the court the lion’s share. One of the contractors was sergeant-major João Fernandes de Oliveira, the father of the future husband of the same name of Chica da Silva. The hamlet that the contractor-father encountered was inhabited predominantly by black women. Hence the prodigality of the white men’s relations with them: Chica, for example, used to be a slave of Manuel Pires Sardinha, who took her as his lover when she was still an adolescent.Not content with having one Chica, Manuel had two Chicas as lovers.

This exaggeration led him to receive a “paternal” reprimand from the reverend vicar, and, when he lapsed again into this vice, he was fined by the Church. According, when the contractor-son arrived at the hamlet, coming to replace the father who had decided to stay in Portugal, Sardinha sold one of the Chicas for 800 reis to the young newcomer. João Fernandes had had a refined education, being a doctor at Coimbra, and he granted her her freedom after having purchased her, a rare event amongst the owners in Minas. Be that as it may, women had better chances of winning their freedom than men.”Sex was a determinant factor in the conditions that were more or less facilitated for access to being freed, and concubinage with white men offered on the one hand some advantages to black women, since once they were free, they would see the stigma of color and slavery diminish, for them and for their descendants”, Júnia explains.

In a few years, now free and with Silva as her surname (a common name for former slaves), Chica found herself the owner of a house and of slaves. “It was an essential mechanism for their inclusion in the world of the free, where disdain for work, for earning a living with one’s own hands, held sway”, the author analyzes. “And the figure of her as a redeemer of slaves does not stand up, as she was often romanticized in historiography. Only a single clear reference was found that she had granted freedom to a female slave”, she says. Chica came into contact with European culture by means of the contractor, and she gave her children the best education possible in the sticks of Tejuco.

In 1770, João Fernandes’ father died, and a hitch in the will obliged him to go back to Portugal to fight for his interests, inseparable from his father’s business, given the partnership between the two. Chica stayed with the children in Minas. Oddly enough, the departure of the contractor was to cause, in two years, the collapse of the contracting system, since in the absence of the great professionals in the business, the court preferred to bring into force the regal monopoly and created the Royal Extraction of Diamonds. The court wanted that it itself, by means of its members of staff, should take care of exploiting the riches.

Dona Francisca da Silva de Oliveira died in February 1796. João Fernandes had already died, in 1779. Chica was buried in tomb number 16 in the Church of St. Francis of Assisi. In the contractor’s will, her name was not included. “This was not a sign of forgetfulness or ingratitude: by omitting the existence of Chica in his legacies, he sought to dignify their children in the eyes of the elitist society of the kingdom. Even at a distance, João Fernandes was, indirectly, taking care of Chica, to whom he had left in Tejuco considerable assets”, says the researcher.

Both remained forgotten until the 19th century, when a lawyer from Diamantina, Joaquim Felício dos Santos, as the executor distributing the estate of a relative of Chica, discovered the deeds of the process for coming into possession of the assets of João Fernandes. Fascinated with the story, he included, in his own way, full of prejudices and myths, the life of Chica in his book Memórias do Distrito Diamantino [Memories of the Diamantina District], of 1868. “She had no graces, she had no beauty, she had no wit, she had had no education, in short, she had no attraction at all that could justify such a strong passion”, wrote the lawyer.

Poetry and cinema
The myth gained many versions and even merited verses by Cecília Meireles in her Romanceiro da Inconfidência [Novelist of the Uprising]: “Contemplate, little white ladies / on her veranda / Chica da Silva,/ Chica who deals the cards”. The New Cinema saw in this black woman who dominated white men with her sex a libertarian muse. In 1976, with screenplay by João Felício dos Santos (a great-nephew of Joaquim Felício), Cacá Diegues invented Xica da Silva. “In the film, redemption is attained by means of Xica: by putting sexuality in her favor, she inverts the mechanism by which white men guaranteed their domination over her race, by using colored women to satisfy their sexual appetite”, Júnia Furtado observes.

“Like the other freed women of the era, Chica attained her freedom from slavery, loved, had children, educated them, sought to go up in society to lessen the mark imposed by her condition of being colored and a freed woman, for herself and for her descendants”, she goes on. “Because, under the mantle of a would-be racial democracy, subtly and under cover, colored society sought to whiten itself and hid the cold social and racial exclusion, symbolizing what was happening in Brazil.” Exclusion that took away from a good part of the blacks and for a good time their self-esteem. “Hence the lack of a unified movement, like there was in the United States. Racism here is concealed, and the blacks buy the discourse of the elites ‘why fight if I can become integrated’. Even Machado de Assis acted in this way after rising to the intellectual elite. This is the X of the question, the X that distorts Chica.