Academic journal article MELUS

Celtic Women and White Guilt: Frankie Silver and Chipita Rodriguez in Folk Memory

Academic journal article MELUS

Celtic Women and White Guilt: Frankie Silver and Chipita Rodriguez in Folk Memory

Article excerpt

Frankie Silver, a white woman from the mountains of North Carolina, was hanged in March 1832 for axe-murdering her husband and then chopping his body into pieces in order to hide her crime. Josefa (Chipita) Rodriguez, a Mexican American woman from the South Texas town of San Patricio, was hanged in 1863 for axe-murdering John Savage. A trader on the Confederate Cotton Road to Mexico, Savage had frequented her small roadside inn on the banks of the Aransas River. In addition to their similar fates, what Frankie Silver and Chipita Rodriguez share are personal histories that are impossible for modern scholars to unravel. The ravages of time on historical records and the geographical isolation of their communities have limited the usefulness of conventional archival research. Moreover, the crimes themselves were carried out in secret; thus, only the testimony of the condemned women themselves could shed any light on their guilt or their possible motivations for committing violence. While both women pleaded "not guilty," however, neither woman testified on her own behalf.

In her poem "Chipita," Teresa Palomo Acosta honors the memory of a Tejana, a mejicana from Texas, who was hanged under acutely questionable circumstances. Her poem, though, does not lament the loss of Anglo-produced archival records so much as interrogate Anglos' subsequent usurpation of representational authority. In her epic-length poem, Shadows on the Nueces, for example, Rachel Bluntzer Hebert assumes such authority. In both Hebert's poem and Sharyn McCrumb's bestselling Appalachian novel, The Ballad of Frankie Silver (1998), the authors comment on the imposing silence of the women they are depicting. Thus, the fictional character of Frankie Silver in McCrumb's novel compares herself to mountain "deer, who live out their lives in silence" (40). While deer often "scream when they are being killed" (40), however, Silver will remain silent. Similarly, the narrator of Hebert's poem comments that "silence ... betrayed" (52) Chipita Rodriguez. Even on the gallows, in fact, she remained "passive--silent--resolute" (61). Drawing upon Hebert's account, Keith Guthrie also blames the victim for remaining silent. "The fact that Chipita stubbornly remained silent," he comments, "was damning to her case" (35). Rodriguez's resolute silence, however, does not necessarily reflect a perverse passivity; instead, perhaps, Rodriguez chose silence as the best means to resist the appropriative distortion of her language within Anglo hegemonic discourse. Nevertheless, angered that Rodriguez and Silver were silenced by their oppressors, both Hebert and McCrumb determinedly provide them with "voices." Chipita Rodriguez's grave, Hebert laments in her preface, "is unmarked and forgotten. This poem has been written that she may not lie unsung" (xv).

Having neither the testimony of the central historical protagonists nor complete archival records, both Hebert and McCrumb must rely extensively upon the legends and ballads that comprise the folk memory of the residents of Morganton, North Carolina, and San Patricio, Texas. Such folk narratives often repress or relieve through confession the feelings of guilt within the communities that condemned Silver and Rodriguez to die based on strictly circumstantial evidence. Perhaps believing that their own female identities allow them to assume the mantle of representational authority, Hebert and McCrumb obscure the fact that their creative narratives are discursive representations rather than factual, unmediated accounts of the deaths of Rodriguez and Silver. Through extensive documentation or simply the practiced ease with which they transform folklore into popular literature, the authors achieve authority for their fictions by exhibiting their scholarly research and folkloric fieldwork. (1) Foregrounding the "Celtic" identity of both nineteenth-century Irish colonists in South Texas and of Appalachian mountain people, the accounts by Hebert and McCrumb do not provide "voices" for Silver and Rodriguez so much as reflect upon the historical development of their own white female identity. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.