The Dark Face of Brazil’s Carnaval

     The Dark Face of Brazil's 

    Airplanes full of hopeful
    revellers descend on Salvador, Bahia, Brazil,
    in the days before Carnaval anticipating the best time of their lives.
    While posh and exclusive hotels are claustrophobically booked up,
    many of the poor sleep tucked away in the "safety" of alleyways,
    next to dumpsters, on top makeshift garbage bag mattresses.
    by: Rayme

    Americans and Europeans flock to Rio de Janeiro every spring to celebrate
    Carnaval. Brazilians know better and go to Salvador. The capital of the northeastern
    Brazilian state of Bahia, Salvador is hailed as Brazil’s real party capital
    during the days before/after Lent.

    Days spent sleeping off
    hangovers at one of the cities countless exquisite beaches, followed by nights
    of dancing, drinking, and kissing other beautiful Brazilians until dawn.

    These activities comprise
    the "rigorous" routine of Carnaval. A whole year of planning, pre-parties,
    and hype result in blissful seven days of happiness. It’s a party that goes
    unmatched in intensity and size anywhere else in the world.

    But how exactly does Carnaval
    in Salvador work? At least a month before the fiesta, construction crews get
    to work. The always sunny main streets of Salvador are lined with camarotes—exclusive
    VIP boxes where Carnaval goers can watch the festivities with a sense of safety
    and comfort above the madness below. One pays a set fee before Carnaval to
    ensure nights of safe dancing, eating, and drinking with some of the most
    important people in Brazil.

    But for the more adventurous
    at heart, there lies an even better option to revelling in the festivities
    of this annual bash. Every year, the best singers and bands in Brazil sing
    to the masses atop of large floats, while those who can afford it pay to wear
    the bands signature T-shirt and follow the group along on foot for all the
    days of Carnaval.

    The official music of
    Carnaval in Bahia is called pagode, a slower reggae influenced variation
    of samba with sexually charged lyrics. Ivete Sangalo, a spicy Baiana
    with a nationally recognized voice, and Chiclete com Banana, the Brazilian
    version of Rolling Stones, demanded the highest numbers of eager and fit followers
    this past year. Trails of up to 3,000 people per band bounced along after
    flashy and speaker laden floats, during every day of Carnaval.

    Popular media images of
    Carnaval in Salvador da Bahia show Brazil’s gente bonita, the international
    definition of the exotic: the most beautiful and perfectly tanned racially
    unidentifiable long haired women that the country has to offer alongside of
    their equally attractive male counterparts.

    Needless to say, the thought
    of mixing with these specimens piques the interest of many international tourists.
    The easily marketable and sexy image of Carnaval helps the celebration grow
    bigger and bigger every year. Yet in a city of two million people, 80 percent
    of them of African descent, there are little to no black faces included in
    Carnaval broadcasts.

    Is it possible that a
    whopping 80 percent of the Salvador’s residents leave Carnaval for the hectic
    seven days of revelry? Yes, many blacks leave the city to make way for tourists
    from other parts of Brazil and few international tourists that are in the
    know about Brazilian affairs.

    Carnaval’s Ugly Side

    Unfortunately, the dark
    side of Carnaval in Salvador is exactly that, dark. Dark faces sleeping in
    dark alleys, serving dark drinks, dark clothing and dark skin caked with dirt.
    It is not an understatement by any means to say that black equals poor in
    Bahia. It is the reality of a country shaped by slavery, a struggling economy,
    and centuries of racism.

    Airplanes full of hopeful
    revellers descend on Salvador in the days before Carnaval anticipating the
    best time of their lives. Poor people from the periphery cannot afford the
    extravagance of taking the bus miles into the city center to set up for the
    quasi lucrative benefits of working during Carnaval.

    Families walk for hours
    with the hopes of making a marginal profit for six days of working, providing
    drinks, local food, and security for people who don’t even think twice about
    the luxury of being able to afford a one dollar can of soda.

    While posh and exclusive
    hotels are claustrophobically booked up, many of the poor sleep tucked away
    in the "safety" of alleyways, next to dumpsters, on top makeshift
    garbage bag mattresses.

    While the tourists and
    upper-class Bahians spend their days relaxing on the beach and their nights
    flirting and dancing, there are families of dark faces resting on the street,
    lying on top of cardboard boxes and garbage bags to get comfortable.

    Lost little children roam
    the streets during the height of the Lent celebrations begging everyone they
    see for money to buy food, bottle cans to trade in for pennies, and that last
    sip from a water bottle. Kilos and kilos of cans are collected by children
    and the elderly every day.

    In the early morning hours
    as the party has died down for the day, these same families can be seen rummaging
    through garbage cans for scraps of food to feed their beautiful yet hungry

    Hundreds and hundreds
    of cans of beer are sold by young fit street touts that sometimes don’t even
    break even in their earnings. The reality of the failing capitalism in Brazil
    can be too much to bear when malnourished children can be found on every street

    Hard Times

    With an illiteracy rate
    of more than 40 percent in the city of Salvador and unemployment at equally
    astonishing highs, it is amazing to witness the remarkably strong will of
    Bahia’s black population to overcome their living situations and provide decent
    homes for their families.

    Sadly, there are many
    factors including lack of money and access to healthcare that constantly impede
    the success of these ostracized communities. Not to mention the police.

    During Carnaval, throngs
    of military police walk in groups of 5 to 10 men wearing helmets and camouflage
    and carrying rifles, batons, and pistols. The experience of a festival that
    celebrates inhibitions and merriment juxtaposed with menacing troops throws
    off the mood of those revellers sober enough to notice.

    Police trucks are full
    of young poor black men that are locked behind bars as they watch the city
    party through the evening. It is a not so urban legend in Salvador that four
    black boys are ruthlessly murdered by the police every night of every year.
    There is an undeniably eerie undertone of poverty and oppression that undermines
    the joyful and carefree pretensions of one of the worlds most sought out parties.

    Carnaval is a visual manifestation
    of the problems of Salvador and Brazil. The city is unjust and unfair and
    Carnaval throws these inequalities into the light for the world (or maybe
    just Brazilians) to see. The astonishingly obvious injustices of the world’s
    largest afro-Brazilian city go unnoticed year after year by millions of tourists
    and locals.

    Race and class issues,
    like in most countries, play a huge role in the social problems of Brazil.
    Salvador da Bahia, a city with a majority black population, has a ridiculously
    low number of ethnic minorities in political or economic power.

    Access to public universities
    is extremely biased, leading the nations of black youth to dream of careers
    in the entertainment and sports disciplines: the only fields where blacks
    are praised and welcomed in the country. This city with a famed international
    reputation for being a racial paradise, does not even come close to fulfilling
    this title.

    Luckily the creation of
    afro-Brazilian community groups, theatre, and political groups are raising
    awareness on the heightened injustices that take place every year during Carnaval
    in Bahia. The paradox of Carnaval experiences for rich and poor, white and
    black, will soon come to an end. In the beautiful city of Salvador, there
    lies a glimmer of hope for the future.

    Rayme Samuels is a journalism student at the University of Westminster in
    London, England. Last spring, she spent the semester abroad in São
    Paulo and Salvador, Brazil and independently travelled throughout the states
    of São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Bahia and Ceará. As a native
    New Yorker, she enjoys travel, language, and writing about her experiences,
    however complex they may have been. Please feel free to contact Rayme with
    any questions or comments at

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