Inside the Complex Race and Gender Politics Behind Rio’s Biggest Street Party

It is February in Rio. The streets pulsate with bateria, samba and streams of color painted across the city. People are dressed in costumes bathed in glitter and jewels. On every corner there are different blocos you run into where people are parading the streets, young and old. The city literally shuts down for it to smile and dance. This is Carnaval in Rio. It is fun, it is light and it is summer.

Carnaval is celebrated annually all over the world in February. From New Orleans to Barranquilla, people decide to let go and get lit this time of the year. But what is distinctly different in Rio de Janeiro, besides being the most renowned Carnaval worldwide?

Although it seems like the whole city is united in joyous celebration, it’s important to remember that Carnaval in Rio very much reflects the racial and sexual politics of the city. A huge festivity that historically has mocked society’s mores, this is a time when gender and sexuality are fluid, and are expressed through costumes. But while the fantasy of Carnaval is an open and inclusive party, beneath lie classist, racial and gendered realities.

First, some background. After the 1930s “racial democracy” theory rose in Brazil – one that claimed that Brazilians do not harbor racial prejudice toward one another – the government began to subsidize samba schools, composed of mostly poor people of color from the morros (hillsides.) This practice continued until the 1980s, when the government closed off outside Carnaval activities and centralized the celebration at the Sambadome. Today, the Sambadome is the internationally known venue where the largest and most famous festivals are held during Carnaval – but these are celebrations that only elites and tourists can afford to attend. As a result, much of Rio has been marginalized out of their own celebration, pushing these communities to create blocos. The blocos are basically block parties organized by smaller samba schools outside of the “official” Carnival. There are dozens of them each day all throughout the city, for just about every scene – and they’ve spread into the middle/upper class as well.

But you wouldn’t necessarily know this from the way Carnaval is marketed – using images that bring up many issues for the black community.

Carnaval is inextricable from the exploitation of the female and male Black body in the Brazilian imaginary. With samba and the “mulata” trope plastered everywhere as the Brazilian image sold to tourists, Carnaval is presented as racially inclusive. Nowhere is this more clear than in the character of “Mulata Globaleza,” created in 1993 by Brazil’s largest TV network, Globo TV. This character is a naked, black samba dancer covered in paint, who appears on daily television programming. Now a popular icon created by Globo, the hypersexualized image is now the subject of much criticism. Not only is the word “mulata” extremely violent (deriving from the word mule), it also define’s a black women’s beauty as a product for the white male gaze to consume.

Although Rio’s Carnaval has a dark and complex history of racism, sexism and elitism, there are folks who reclaim this time through their celebrations at smaller samba schools and their own blocos. There are specific blocos that celebrate Afro-Brazilian culture, like Bloco Afroxe, Filhos de Gandhi, and others that celebrate the LGBT community, like Bloco Toca Xona, along with dozens of other blocos acknowledging non-white and non-heteronormative communities. Even in conscious understanding, these kind of blocos offer an alternative way to party and celebrate Carnaval in 2016.