Tragedy and Resilience in Brazil’s Carnival 2019

Paraiso do Tuiti’s allegory car. Cris Gomes.

By Thais Pavez and Camila Góes

Unlike Europe and the rest of Latin America, Brazil’s Carnival developed uniformly and throughout all the country, turning it one of the country’s most striking collective performances. As “The Country of Carnival”, Rio de Janeiro remained the capital, even after the creation of Brasilia in 1960. The apogee of the celebration takes place in this city, whose role as a “propagating center of ideas” has been reinforced continuously since the 19th century, giving it a privileged place in evoking national issues (Queiroz, [1992] 1999).

This year, the performances of the samba schools União da Ilha do Governador, Paraíso do Tuiutí and Estação Primeira de Mangueira, which paraded consecutively during Carnival on March 4th, dramatized contemporary national issues.[1] The storylines and allegories of their performances are an opportunity to understand the current political tragedy with greater clarity, as it provided multiple perspectives on the social forces shaping political conflict.[2]

Parades and Politics: A Brief History of Carnival as Hegemonic Challenge

Throughout the 1950s, following accelerated industrialization and urbanization, urban popular classes began to express themselves massively by voting, coinciding with the triumph of popular samba schools over the decadence of so-called “bourgeois parades”. With the rise of the popular samba schools, the latent conflict between dominant classes and subaltern classes became central to the analysis of social forces that is articulated by the festival, previously dominated by conflicts among the upper classes (Queiroz, [1992] 1999, 58-60).

Regarding the electoral field, the dispute was once more organized as between “rich and poor” in 2006, but now including the agrarian masses of the Northeast. This polarization, in these terms, emerged from an electoral realignment produced by Lulismo,[3] which through the vote in the candidates for the presidential elections of the Workers’ Party (PT) constituted unprecedented unity among the poor in Brazil. This dynamic that emerged in 2006 underwent significant changes in the 2018 national elections, marked by a huge intensification of social conflicts. The most important change involved the arrest of former President Lula, in April 2018. The main candidate of the popular camp was unable to contest the elections.[4]

The enormous setback of the recent election, in conjunction with a spiral of political violence in the country – in the midst of which we highlight the murder of the Rio de Janeiro councilwoman Marielle Franco in March 2018 – invites us to focus on how much this political earthquake has destroyed things that once seemed solid. However, some phenomena remain intact, despite the upheaval. On the one hand, we have an openly radical and authoritarian candidate in the anti-Lulismo spectrum ascending, running over the hitherto moderate center-right direction of the Brazilian Social Democracy Party (PSDB); on the other hand, popular social forces aligned with Lulismo (Singer, 2012 and 2018) have maintained their political strength, despite the electoral defeat.

The Performance of History in 2019 Carnival

Mangueira’s restyled Brazillian flag. Alexandre Brum/Agência O Dia/Estadão Conteúdo.

The performance of Mangueira, the samba school that won the Carnival, offered a “story that history does not tell”. This storyline is synthesized by the school’s Front Commission,[5] entitled “I want a country that isn’t in the portrait”, in which official heroes were substituted by black and indigenous heroes. This possibility was dramatized through the desire of a black girl who, while reading a history book, sees herself as the protagonist of the Brazilian storyline.

This performance communicated the idea that despite the fragmentations, interruptions and deaths inflicted by conquerors, explorers and military forces, there would still be a possible alliance  of the subalterns, in the “struggle”.[6] Instead of the national integration ideology expressed by the Brazilian flag which carries the motto “order and progress”,[7] commonly claimed by conservative sectors, Mangueira’s performative storyline emphasized the abyssal inequality – substituting the official and national motto “order and progress” for “Indian, black and poor people.”[8]

As the saying goes, “All history is contemporary history.” During this year’s Carnival, the remarkable presence of Marielle Franco, a Rio de Janeiro city councilor who was murdered in March 2018, was depicted in the samba performance and in a great flag that finished the parade. Her example summoned us, through emotion and unrest, to think about Brazil today. The challenge posed by Mangueira is further elaborated through the clues left by the samba schools which paraded before Mangueira, helping us identify an unifying subaltern struggle.

If Mangueira highlighted, with due drama, the persistent violence with which the dominant class acts, killing, silencing and interrupting with both brute force and official narrative, the União da Ilha and Paraíso do Tuiutí samba schools provided clues as to contemporary political strength and its historical continuity, using literary and folkloric approaches.

The representative strength of the poor people was center stage in the parades of União da Ilha and Paraíso do Tuiutí. The northeast region, Ceará state in particular, was the theme of both schools. The popular culture aspects that specifically concerned Ceará’s population, as well as what they have shared with all the poor northeastern people, was made evident in the form and content of the performance.

Percussion wing as Father Cicero. FABIO MOTTA/ Estadão Conteúdo.

The schools’ choice to focus on Ceará is emblematic and powerful. In spite of all the efforts towards their interruption, silencing and death, the poor, regionally concentrated in Northeast, have sustained a political perspective of their own through their votes in the dramatic election of 2018. In Ceará, Brazil’s current representative had one of the worst voting rates. The cities in the countryside of the state had impressive voting rates for Lulist candidate Fernando Haddad,[9] of the Workers’ Party (PT), particularly in Juazeiro do Norte, a gravitational center of popular religiosity in Brazil and of the mass phenomenon of pilgrimages[10]. Pilgrims, who have maintained their activity for over a century, are guided by the figure of Father Cícero, who reminds them of their own history. His symbolic force is expressed by a statue in a high peak of Juazeiro do Norte, occupying a place that is comparable to the universal image of Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro.

The Front Commission of União da Ilha, entitled “The miracle of faith”, presented the pilgrims, the poor northeastern people waiting for the miracle of rain, and the end of drought and misery. In the performance, the power of faith makes Father Cícero emerge and elevates him to the prayers’ spot of devotion, flying out of a fish from Ceará’s river. The miracle, emanating from the poor, is accomplished when the water comes, pouring from the fish’s mouth.

Through the storyline “The poetic struggle between Rachel and Alencar in the porches of heaven,” the school shows us literature from the popular viewpoint, introducing the works of both writers in the form of Cordel.[11] By this perspective, the storyline gives us more indications of conditions faced by poor people, enabling the audience to see their own historical persona, to which the force of faith is attached. In this sense, União da Ilha paraded all the elements of popular culture, “sewn” together by the thread of the Cordel and the lacemaker women, highlighting that this set represents a system of ideas unique to the northeastern and Brazilian individual, integrating specific aesthetics, gastronomy and religion.

The percussion wing, which sets the pace of the school and the beat of the samba, was composed of allegories of Father Cícero, showing that the devotion of the poor towards him has enabled the historical continuity of pilgrimages. Whilst the central figure of popular religiosity is not interrupted – the percussion wing is the only one that is active throughout the entire parade – it is noteworthy that there is a symbolic expression of the enduring faith and devotion of those who are on their side and who suffer violence. As for the priest, to whom the dominant class directs continuous attempts of demoralization: the more he is pushed to the edge, the higher he flies.

Ioio goat with presidential sash. Rodrigo Gorosito/G1.

The northeastern people are also the subjects of the Front Commission of Paraíso do Tuiutí, but now we see migrants that fled from the drought of 1915. Tuiutí’s storyline, “Savior of the nation”, by bringing the narrative of the goat Ioiô, reenacts the emergence of a political leadership that is representative of the poor. In 1922, Ioiô is elected city councillor by the subaltern classes as a form of protest against their terrible life conditions, bearing in mind that ballot paper was their tool of protest.

Differently than União da Ilha, in Paraíso do Tuiutí’s Front Commission, entitled “Brazil for sale”, poor northeastern people initially show up as puppets in a public square, under the political dominance of an unconcerned class. In this case, violence is expressed when politicians buy votes and poor people are kicked, humiliated and dehumanized.

The so-called “voto de cabresto” [“halter vote”] characterized the historical electoral behavior of the poor until the arrival of Ioiô.[12] While climbing the rostrum, the goat transforms into a subject wearing Brazil’s presidential sash. This change of attitude expresses a turnabout in which the poor cease to be puppets and start acting politically, according to their own worldview. The brilliant analogy with the national reality illuminates recent political history, in which the popular sphere has found representation in Lula. The drama is that the leader of such popular sphere has been prevented from the possibility of occupying the position for which he seemed favored before his imprisonment in April 2018.

Memory, History, and Political Resilience

The storylines and allegories of the three schools compose a synthesis in Paraíso do Tuiutí, which succeeds in demonstrating not only the side of interruption and violence, suggested by Mangueira, but also the side of continuity and faith, indicated by União da Ilha. The sequence demonstrates the equivalence between faith and vote, whose force is expressed in the miracle and in the election of those who represent the poor.

Alongside the accusation of absence of popular leaderships in Brazil’s History, carried out by Mangueira, Tuiutí reminded us that the goat is stuffed in the Ceará museum, having left “the public life to go down in history,” reinforcing the perspective on the vote as a possibility of fight. The storyline of the school concluded with the note: “voting for animals is and always will be possible”. The school showed that this horizon is affirmed by the memory of the people that, by possessing their own point of view, were able to translate it into continuous political action. Through the parades, we can see the persistence of a Lulist consciousness, living on a translation of the popular sphere’s system of ideas into a resilient political course of action.

Thais Pavez is a professor at the graduate program in Social Sciences of Universidade Estadual Paulista UNESP-Marília. She holds a doctorate (2015) and a master’s degree in political science at the University of São Paulo – USP (2006) and a degree in public administration at the University of Chile (2001). As a researcher at the Center for Metropolis Studies at the Brazilian Center for Analysis and Planning (CEM/CEBRAP), during 2006 and 2011, she concentrated in projects on poverty, social inequality, violence, urban outskirts and public policies. Since 2013, she carried out research on political and electoral activity of the popular classes in Brazil. She studied the phenomenon of Lulism in her doctoral thesis and ministered seminars on these subject as a visiting professor at the Institut d’études politiques (SCIENCE PO, Lille) in France: “Politics and Society in Contemporary Brazil” (2017), “The Political Cycle of Lulism in Brazil: trajectory and crisis” (2018) and “Presidential Elections in the Post-Brazilian Parliamentary Coup” (2019). Currently, she is conducting a comparative regional study in Brazil about the different ideological levels and worldview of subaltern classes.

Camila Góes is a PhD candidate in Political Science at Campinas State University (Unicamp). The research carried out in her master’s at Sao Paulo State University (USP), on the group of Indian intellectuals of the Subaltern Studies, resulted in the book “Is there a subaltern political thought?” edited by Alameda (São Paulo) in 2018. Currently, she conducts a comparative study between groups of Argentine and Brazilian intellectuals that, inspired by Antonio Gramsci, tried to do a “translation” of their specific realities into theory. As a researcher, since 2018 she also has carried out studies on the phenomenon of Lulismo, the worldview and activities of the subaltern classes in Brazil.


[1] It is important to point out that samba schools find in their formation a relationship with the popular neighborhoods of the city of Rio de Janeiro. In the case of the schools analyzed here, the “Paraiso do Tuiuti” originates in Morro do Tuiuti, located in the neighborhood of São Cristóvão, characterized by the Northeastern migration. In the case of “Ilha do Governador”, the school was founded in 1953 and represents the Cacuia neighborhood, that is located in north of Rio. Both schools were sponsored by traditional schools such as Mangueira and Portela, a practice oriented to neighborhoods that were excluded from the carnival until the 1950s. Finally, Mangueira, created in 1928, is one of the most traditional schools, along with Portela, and occupies the position of second-highest winner in the league champions of the carnival of Rio de Janeiro. Mangueira was formed in the process of “ranchos” participation in the Rio’s Carnival, which was a first movement of incorporation of the working classes, in this case, proletarians and wage earners in the decade of 1930. The second movement also integrated poor, migrants and subproletarians in the 1950s.

[2] Following, the sources consulted for this analysis. The storylines were found on the samba schools’ official websites and the full parades were found on Youtube videos with the edition made by the official broadcast of the Carnival at Rio de Janeiro, offered by TV Globo. Storyline Synopsis of União da Ilha do Governador. Available on: Full Parade of União da Ilha. Available on: Storyline synopsis of Paraíso do Tuiutí. Available on: Full Parade of Paraíso do Tuiutí. Available on: Storyline Synopsis of Mangueira. Available on: Full Parade of Mangueira. Available on:

[3] The phenomenon of Lulismo was theorized by political scientist André Singer. For further information, see: Singer, A. Os Sentidos do Lulismo. Reforma gradual e pacto conservador. São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 2012 and O Lulismo em crise, um quebra-cabeça do período Dilma (2011-2016). São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 2018. In English, a good overview of Lulismo and the changes of the last Brazilian national election is provided by Perry Anderson. See: “Lula’s Brazil”. London Review of Books, v. 33, n. 7, March 2011. Available on: and “Bolsonaro’s Brazil”. London Review of Books, v. 33, n. 7, February 2019. Available on:

[4] Even 4 months after his arrest, Lula maintained his leadership in the voting intentions, as shown in the DataFolha survey of August 2018: “Lula reaches 39%, points Datafolha; without him, Bolsonaro leads.” Folha de S. Paulo, August 22, 2018. Available at: -lidera.shtml. Accessed May 10, 2019.

[5] The parade of the samba schools is directed by the storyline (“enredo”) described in the synopsis (“sinopse”) that each school presents, in general, in the month of August of the previous year. The storyline guides the fabrication of costumes, allegories, and the samba storyline (“samba-enredo”). The elements of the parade of each school, integrated by the storyline, are composed by the Front Commission (“comissão de frente”), percussion and thematic wings with allegory cars that integrate the storyline, and whose rhythm and evolution on the catwalk are given by the samba-entanglement. An analytical point is the “Front Commission”. The commission opens the parade and conveys a sort of synthetic storyline thesis. The set of the parade is evaluated by a committee that announces the score of each school, the champion and runner-up of the carnival that year, the day after the parade closes.

[6] The incitement to “struggle” as a meeting place is suggested by the samba plot of Mangueira, in the following passage: “Brasil, meu nego; Deixa eu te contar; A história que a história não conta; O avesso do mesmo lugar; Na luta é que a gente se encontra” (Brazil, ‘meu nego’; Let me tell you; a story that history does not tell; The reverse of the same place; In the struggle it is that we meet.”

[7] The actually flag of Brazil consists of a green rectangle, a yellow diamond in the center, a blue sphere inside the diamond, and a white band with the official and national motto “Order and Progress”.

[8] In the last wing of the Mangueira parade, figures associated with social and political struggles, such as the federal deputy Marcelo Freixo (PSOL-RJ), passed holding a restyled Brazilian flag with the official colors of Mangueira formed by a pink rectangle, a white diamond in the center, a green sphere inside the diamond, and a white band with the phrase “Indians, blacks and the poor.”

[9] In 2018, the candidate Fernando Haddad (PT) reached 49% of the preference among the poor in the second elections round, against 35% of the ultra-rightist candidate Jair Bolsonaro (PSL), and in the Northeast region achieved 59% against 29%, respectively. The results showed a resilience of Lulismo on the day of the electoral defeat (Singer and Venturi, 2019).

[10] Fernando Haddad won in most of the Northeast cities with the exception of some capitals. In Ceará (CE), the PT candidate obtained a wide margin of votes in relation to its opponent (71.11% of votes against 28.89% of Jair Bolsonaro). Among the cities with more than 150 thousand inhabitants of the country, Juazeiro do Norte – CE stands out as the first city in which PT obtained the best rating vote (76.11% of the valid votes). Available on:

[11] Cordel literature (from the Portuguese term, literatura de cordel, literally “string literature”) are popular and inexpensively printed booklets or pamphlets containing folk novels, poems and songs. They are produced and sold in street markets and by street vendors in Brazil, mainly in the Northeast. They are so named because they are hung from strings to display them to potential customer. Worth noting that the president of the Cordel Brazilian Academy of Literature, Gonçalo Ferreira da Silva, wrote the synopsis of União da Ilha plot in the form of a cordel.

[12] The Northeast region is known for the politics of the “coronéis” [“colonels”], which products the “halter vote”. That is, the poor electors are under the tutelage of the colonels, their landlord and political bosses who exchange benefits or money for their vote. According to Singer (2012), this political relation is broken only with the lulist realignment in 2006. On the subject matter, see: Leal, Vítor Nunes. Coronelismo, enxada e voto (1949); Queiroz, Maria Isaura Pereira. O mandonismo local na vida política brasileira e outros ensaios (1969).


Leal, Vítor Nunes. Coronelismo, enxada e voto: o município e o regime representativo no Brasil. São Paulo: Companhia das letras, 2012.

Queiroz, Maria Isaura Pereira de. Carnaval Brasileiro: o vivido e o mito. São Paulo: Brasiliense, [1992] 1999.

Queiroz, Maria Isaura Pereira. O mandonismo local na vida política brasileira. São Paulo: Instituto de Estudos Brasileiros/USP, 1969.

Singer, André. Os Sentidos do Lulismo. São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 2012.

Singer, André. O Lulismo em crise, um quebra-cabeça do período Dilma (2011-2016). São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 2018.

Venturi, Gustavo. “Sismografia de um terremoto eleitoral”. In:Democracia em risco?: 22 ensaios sobre o Brasil hoje. São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 2019.

About Jennifer Curtis

Jennifer Curtis is an Honorary Fellow in Social Anthropology at the University of Edinburgh:

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