Date of Performance/Collection: April 2007
Xica da Silva was an African slave woman in Brazil long before the nation abolished it in 1888. She was able to gain her freedom through marriage into the Portuguese court. A particular royal Portuguese official (Tax Collector according to my informant) “fell desperately for her” and she gave him sexual favors, winning her emancipation. The collector, who was becoming wealthy and powerful due to the success of gold mining in Brazil, had a palace built for his wife. Even though the colony in which they lived was landlocked, he also built a ship and a lagoon for the ship, just so Xica could feel the sensation of sailing.
My informant says that it was Xica’s rise out of slavery and into wealth and luxury that made her legendary among the slaves. I asked her if Xica was some kind of hero to the slaves or did anything to benefit them, and my informant said that Xica, through sex, earned only her own freedom and in fact had slaves herself. This story remained a popular local legend until the emancipation of the slaves in 1888, and has now apparently become a migratory legend. When the slaves were freed, their labor was replaced by that of immigrants. My informant’s family, originally of Italian descent (she had one Portuguese grandmother; the rest of the family were Italian), emigrated to Brazil in 1890, where her grandfather grew up on a coffee farm. He heard this historical legend from the local workers, who were former slaves, and he passed it to my informant, who recalled it as the story “that impressed me the most” of all those she heard from Brazilian lore. She said that Xica was indeed a historical person, and that the essence of the story is true (how Xica used sex to buy freedom and lived in abundance as the wife of a wealthy nobleman), but that the popular imagination among the slaves may have exaggerated the amount of gold and luxury she enjoyed.