On a typical warm and humid March evening in Rio de Janeiro, Jamilly Marques walked through a crowded and vibrant sambadrome, a venue where the big samba schools parade during carnival, for dress rehearsal with Império Serrano, the samba school where she fell in love with the music, dance, and show as a kid and where she is now a passista. “I remember my dad taking me to Império’s street rehearsals and putting me on his shoulders to see the show,” the 19-year-old dancer tells Refinery29 Somos. “When I first heard the sound of the agogô, I immediately thought, ‘Oh my God, I want to parade with this school.'” After two years without stepping into what she calls “the holy ground” due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Marques feels privileged to be taking part in the resuming of Rio’s carnival.
On April 20, after a sad gap year in its carnival culture, Brazil will finally reintroduce the parade season in Rio and São Paulo — capitals that birthed the samba school tradition in the country more than 90 years ago. For many living in these cities, the resumption of carnival carries huge meaning. “Many people who are fundamental to the making of carnival died of the coronavirus and won’t be able to experience this again,” Marques says. “I feel grateful that I have the opportunity to see this coming true.” But more than reviving an event that is key to the economic security of informal street vendors, choreographers, cooks, and costume designers, it also reactivates a culture that, by strengthening community bonds and promoting the dignity of historically marginalized groups, tells a story of Black resistance and joy.
In truth, there’s really no such thing as a “Brazilian carnival.” From São Luís do Maranhão to Porto Alegre, the festivities are multiple and differ from each other in their rites and traditions. Nevertheless, contemporary Brazilian carnivals that have arisen as a people’s phenomenon have a common denominator: they are a response to the violence that has marked the country throughout history.
It also reactivates a culture that, by strengthening community bonds and promoting the dignity of historically marginalized groups, tells a story of Black resistance and joy.
“Carnival has always expressed or translated, in different places and times, and in a comic and playful way, the racial inequalities and disputes that arose from the slaver and the patriarchal system that existed in Brazil,” social historian Maria Clementina Pereira, who is a professor at São Paulo’s Universidade Estadual de Campinas, tells Somos.
In such a society, where patriarchy and slavery so long penetrated all spheres of life, carnival was the one time in the year when the country’s most marginalized, most notably enslaved people of African descent and women, could, at least symbolically, turn the status quo upside down.
“Since before Brazil’s independence [in 1822], when carnival parties were very different from what we see today in the streets or in the samba schools, enslaved workers used the occasion to whiten their faces and impersonate their lords in a mocking way. Women, normally so repressed by the moral codes and etiquette of the time, used carnival to take the initiative in flirting games on the streets or in the saloons,” adds the researcher, who considers this inversion of values, and the symbolic breaking of boundaries, one of the primary ways that generations have found joy through carnival.
For Black Brazilians, and women in particular, finding joy through carnival remains political. Racial and gendered structural inequalities and violence persist in the South American country, as they do globally. Black Brazilians represent more than 75% of the homicide victims in the country, experience high rates of police brutality, and women, specifically, endure domestic violence and sexual violence at alarming numbers. In this social climate, daring to found or attend a samba school, an institution that celebrates the lives and traditions of those who have always been under attack, is, to say the least, revolutionary.
“Black communities founded samba schools with the aim of rescuing meaning to their own lives,” Larissa Neves, a 28-year-old independent carnival researcher who owes much of her identity and worldview to Salgueiro, the school she has attended since childhood, tells Somos. “This pursuit of meaning through the samba school institution leads us to a strong encounter with our own self, to the maintenance of our mental wellbeing. This is joy, ultimately.”
"Black communities founded samba schools with the aim of rescuing meaning to their own lives."
This makes a lot of sense to Renato Sorriso, a street cleaner who, for many years, has swept the Rio sambadrome during intervals on parade nights. The son of long-time members of the Portela samba school, Renato Sorriso became famous for dancing the style while sweeping the sambadrome. His infectious charisma earned him the nickname “Sorriso,” or smile, throughout the last 20 years ago.
“I come from a poor family. My mother was a washerwoman, and my father was a construction painter. Carnival is the moment where they have always had freedom of expression,” he tells Somos. “It’s the moment when my mother was a star in her samba school and when my father could play being a doctor, a president, or whatever he wanted to be.”
But carnival is more than just a temporary reinvention of the self; for many, it’s a welcome home. The sense of belonging to a samba community, and the building of new meaningful relationships, is, too, a central pillar to the joy shared by carnival makers.
“Considering the attacks against Black culture until the present day, belonging to a carnival community is an act of resistance itself,” Marques, who doesn’t receive any financial support to participate in her samba school as a dancer, says. Despite these challenges, being a part of Império Serrano couldn’t be more rewarding to her. “When I arrive at my samba school court, I feel healed. It feels like a refuge. Additionally, seeing the school you belong to becoming a champion is something so beautiful that it's hard to explain.”
It’s an indescribable feeling that Antonio Gonzaga knows as well. At the age of 14, Gonzaga became the youngest person to be a part of the composers' group at Salgueiro samba school in Rio. Today at 27, splitting his time between Salgueiro and the creation team at Grande Rio, he is proud that carnival occupies most of his life. “What used to be a passion that I only accessed through watching the television or through the sambadrome benches became my daily life,” he says.
And this new life he found in samba schools gave him a community that is accountable to each other in order to maintain tradition and culture. “The community is the instrumentalists, the composers, the dancers, and the costume designers. ... It’s thanks to the community that the schools keep surviving and recreating their own stories.”
"When I arrive at my samba school court, I feel healed. It feels like a refuge."
This feeling of gratitude toward a samba school community is also shared by Neves, the carnival researcher. “My aesthetic empowerment, my self-understanding as a Black woman, as an activist, as a professional … My understanding of history and of science … I learned it all with my samba school. I only am who I am because of my samba school,” she tells Somos.
Knowing the role her samba school played in shaping who she is today, Neves creates spaces for other Black women and girls to find sisterhood, build confidence, and experience joy. In 2016, she helped found Samba Pretinha, a Black women's collective that organizes talks with different samba school communities to discuss the place of women in samba, the objectification of the Black female body, and the working conditions of carnival artists, among other themes.
For artist and performer Bernadete, the president of São Paulo samba school Peruche, the feeling of belonging is so strong that she calls her school her “second home and second skin.” “After my son, it’s Peruche I like the most,” the samba singer, who has worked at the school for 32 years, half-jokes. “There, I am respected, looked after, and appreciated.” Thanks to Peruche, Bernadete became the first woman to sing during a samba school parade at São Paulo’s sambadrome in 1991.
For many Black Brazilians, this is sanctuary, community, opportunity, and jubilance. In Rio’s and São Paulo’s carnivals, joy is seen in dancers dressed in elaborate, colorful costumes and heard amid the cheers and Brazilian percussion instruments, but it’s felt in the celebration of people whose material and epistemological existence have been continuously under attack. Joy is there, too, when carnival births communities that allow experiences to be shared and passed on. Joy is all that, and everything else that can’t be anything but felt. “Only those who love and are immersed in the carnival culture,” Marques says, “know what I am talking about.”