Friday, February 23, 2007

Notes on Carnaval (II): Carnaval outside of Rio

As I mentioned, I did what any logical person does when Brazil’s biggest holiday struck this past week: I left Rio (the combo of hot weather, lots of crowds, music played very loudly outside my apartment, and litter everywhere, all while everything except the bars shut down, struck me as a little less than appealing). Instead, I went to Carandaí, in Minas Gerais (situated next to Rio de Janeiro, Minas Gerais is one of the biggest agricultural producers of Brazil, specializing in cheese and dairy products and horticulture, among other things). We stayed at a ranch house just outside of Carandaí, a city of about 22,000, about an hour and a half away from Belo Horizonte (the largest city in Minas Gerais, about 2,300,000). This trip was supposed to provide an opportunity to get out of Rio for a few days and enjoy things like stars, birds singing, and no car horns honking. However, it turned into far more I could imagine on Sunday night, when we went to the “city” to see the Carnaval festivities there.

It turns out, Carnaval isn’t just a big parade in Bahia (in the Northeast), Rio de Janeiro, and São Paulo. Even the smallest places celebrate it with huge festivals that shut the streets down and result in giant street parties. However, getting outside of Rio and seeing Carnaval elsewhere is one of the best things you can do during Carnaval weekend. Sure, you can stay in the city and see the samba schools parade through the sambódromo, but this is remarkably expensive (sometimes upwards of 200 dollars), and as amazing as Carnaval is in Rio, it has become amazingly commercialized since the 1960s, attracting tourists and celebrities in ungodly numbers. Carnaval is still an amazing cultural experience in Rio, but more than one person has lamented its “bastardization” and distancing from the original popular cultural expressions of the favelas that served as the origin of Carnaval in the early 1900s.

When you get outside of Rio, that commercialization isn’t present. Instead, as we learned in Carandaí, the parade, with all of the different costumes, the music, the floats, is a labor of love, done by people who want to celebrate the holiday and the unique cultural expressions it offers while not being concerned in winning prizes, getting more money, etc. The basic theme was the same – the celebration of the various cultural influences in Brazil (particularly African and indigenous), all wrapped up in a Catholic ceremony. Thus, there were floats with smiling African statues, zebras, tropical fruits, etc. There also were the stereotypical (but true) scantily clad women (and men dressed as women) dancing on the floats, and the “alas” (sections) dressed differently (including the Bahainas, older women dressed in traditional clothes from Bahia). The floats and costumes were not as grand as they are in Rio, but they were still amazingly ornate, intricate, and obviously created with a lot of love (and patience). It never stopped being amazing to me, seeing all this up close and in person (something that you can never do in Rio – even if you’re in person, you aren’t up close), and what is more, everybody in the parade was having fun. Like I said, it was truly a labor of love, a celebration of culture in which everybody had a good time, with none of the commercial overtones present elsewhere.

In an interesting aside, there was significant participation of two groups often excluded or segrated from public ceremonies and celebrations: Afro-descendents, and homosexuals. While his argument is far more nuanced than I can do justice here, it struck me that James Green’s suggestion that Carnaval provides a rare chance for homosexuals in Brazil to occupy public spaces as a group (even if their power is tenuous) seemed to apply not just to Rio, but to Carandaí, as well. Yes, many of the gay community were dressed in exaggerated clothing and/or makeup and masks that sometimes “hid” their true identity (i.e., “João Batista da Silva, the guy at the clothing store”). Nonetheless, they were present in an obvious way that it seems only comes around twice a year in Brazil: Carnaval, and the Gay Pride parade at the end of June (the gay pride parade in Rio in 2005 attracted over 1 million people). Likewise, Afro-descendants were at the center of the celebration as well, both in terms of participation and in terms of the themes of the parade. Sure, many white and “brown” people were in the parade as well, but it was one of the few places where you saw whites, “browns,” and blacks all together on equal levels. It hit upon the perfect irony of Carnaval, for there was the open presence of Afro-descendants and homosexuals in Minas, which, as my girlfriend pointed out, is the most Catholic, homophobic, and racist state, yet has the highest populations of homosexuals and Afro-descendants in Brazil.

At any rate, if you are ever in Brazil during Carnaval, there are plenty of options, but given the events of this past weekend, I highly recommend you leave Rio (after all – you can see the Carnaval there on TV), and get to a more out-of-the-way place to see popular culture as it operates at the grassroots levels still.