polis: a collective blog about cities worldwide

Carnival: Bridging Social Divides in Rio

by Jordi Sánchez-Cuenca

It's Carnival time. Cities all over the western world are transformed into open air parties, parades and all sorts of cultural events. Of all cities, Rio de Janeiro is the most notorious one for holding the most spectacular and crowded carnival. The main carnival parade, which takes place in the Sambódromo (samba-drome), is a 4-night competition of escolas de samba (samba schools) interpreting each one a different enredo (plot-theme) every year. During the competition each samba school has up to 4000 members parading, of which some 400 are drummers.

The sambódromos are urban spaces created for the purpose and in many cities they are emblematic sites. The one in Rio was designed by Oscar Niemeyer in 1984, and is about to be reformed again by the 103-year-old famous architect, designer of central Brasilia together with the urban planner Lucio Costa.

Like in many other Brazilian cities, carnival in Rio has an intimate relationship with communities from the favelas, the city slums. Each samba school is usually associated with one particular neighbourhood, in many cases a favela, where thousands of people spend several months every year constructing massive mobile structures, making the dresses and rehearsing the samba-enredo (the theme's song) that play during the parade. Samba schools spend up to 2 million USD in the preparation of each year's parade. This industry not only provides thousands of regular jobs in different cities, but also represent a cultural and social expression of the residents of the favelas.

Samba schools were originated from merging the entrudos, large groups of residents of a particular neighbourhood celebrating in a spontaneous manner, and the elitist organized carnival parties. During carnival, citizens from different social classes and cultural backgrounds gathered to parade on the main city streets. Still today, carnival is the most important occasion for bridging the social gaps in one of the world's most unequal countries.

Credits: Image of Rio's Sambódromo from www.rio-carnival.net. Video of Mocidade samba school in 2010 Rio Carnival from www.desfilecomleto.com