Monday, February 07, 2011

Fire in Rio - Carnaval Threatened?

This morning, a massive fire tore through the public building in the heart of Rio de Janeiro where Rio's samba schools keep their costumes, floats, and displays in the month leading up to Carnaval. As the photos here indicate, this was no small fire. The damage has been catastrophic for at least four of the samba schools; Portela, one of the oldest and best samba schools, lost over 2,800 costumes, floats, and props, while Grande Rio lost over 4,000 (at a cost of $10 million reais, or roughly 6 million U.S. dollars).

The cost should indicate just how ornate, elaborate, and important Carnaval is to Rio and to the communities that compete in the event. Worse, just as in football (the global version, not the American one), the poorest-ranked schools drop to the "second division," while the second divisions winners rise up to the main event. With four schools already eliminated by the sheer lack of materials to compete, Carnaval in Rio is suddenly facing major questions. Liesa, the organization that runs Rio's Carnaval, is meeting tonight; the mayor has already proposed not having the "eliminations" this year, since the four schools that would naturally dropped cannot be blamed for the building catching on fire. Initial suggestions that Carnaval be cancelled seem to have died down, and cancelling is a terrible idea; Carnaval is one of Rio's biggest events, and it brings in millions of dollars not only from corporate sponsors, but from tourism and more quotidian sources of income (like beers purchased). And the schools are keeping a strong and unified front in the face of this tragedy; the other samba schools that were not affected by the fire have offered to help those that were, and Grande Rio, which lost 90% of its props and costumes, said it will still march in Carnaval, even without the costumes or floats; after all, at the end of the day, the samba school is its members and community, not its flashy appearance.
Interestingly (and potentially even more tragically), somebody else may be responsible. When I spoke to a Brazilian this morning who had not heard the news, she immediately responded, "this was a criminal act," implying that a supporter (or member?) of another competing school had set the fire to remove the competition. While I certainly hope that was not the case, it makes sense - after soccer teams, the samba school you support is one of your most important identities in Rio.
Some (including myself) have been critical of how "commercial" Carnaval in Rio has become, but at the end of the day, it is still one of the most impressive and organic cultural expressions in Brazil, and it is egalitarian (and even reversing of traditional class- and race-based hierarchies) in ways that few other events in Brazil are. Hopefully, the schools that suffered losses can regroup, and nobody is punished for this fire (unless it was arson; in that case, may the arsonist be punished). As it is, this will be one of the more somber Carnavals in some years, as Brazil and the world are denied the cultural expressions and beauty of four different schools' participation.