RioTur/Raphael Davi



March 15, 2019
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Usually, when Rio de Janeiro’s Carnaval rolls around every year, Western media only transmits images of semi-nude, bikini-clad white women. But this year was different. People across the world saw images of Candomblé Orishas, Black “baiana” women, and Brazilians protesting the murder of a Black councilwoman Marielle Franco.

Yes, this year’s Carnaval parades were Black as fuck and relentless in their criticism of Brazilian society. But this isn’t unusual. This just means that some Samba Schools are returning to their roots. It is also simply a reflection of these Brazilian times in which Blackness is being celebrated.

Here’s the short history of Rio de Janeiro’s samba school parade that Western (read: white) media fails to acknowledge: It was started in the 1920s by Black folks who were likely grandchildren of enslaved Blacks. While white Brazilians were sequestering themselves in fancy balls and playing dirty games in the street during Carnaval, Black Brazilians began to organize themselves in dedication to the music they had recently created — samba. Blacks in the favelas created community carnaval groups, called them samba schools and even dedicated them to certain Orishas. Each school adopted its own colors. Mangueira chose green and pink. Portela chose blue and white. Salgueiro chose white and red. By the 1940s, their parade was the must-see parade during Carnaval.

When white Brazilians understood the social influence of the samba schools, they began to exert monetary influence over the schools. Today whites almost always hold the most powerful leadership positions in samba schools. But that story is for another day.

Despite their white leadership, samba schools have always embraced Black themes. For decades, Carnaval was the only way that Afro-Brazilians learned about their own history — Black history wasn’t taught in schools. Carnaval was an extension of Black oral history tradition. So when Salguiero paid homage to Zumbi das Palmares (leader of Brazil’s first maroon society) in 1960, Zumbi became a name known to everyone.

Given that the Carnaval parade is the most watched event on Brazilian TV, the parade is an opportunity for schools to make strategic cultural and political criticisms — including the right wing ideology of President Jair Bolsonaro. This year, samba schools of all levels featured “Blackness” in their parades. Some chose to build their parades around living Black legends like actor Antonio Pitanga, actress Ruth Souza or writer Conceição Evaristo. Others chose to retell history.  The winning school, Mangueira created a Carnaval parade that told the history of Brazil through its oppressed — Blacks, indigenous and poor — and paid homage slain Councilwoman Franco.

Check out some powerful photos from the carnival parade in Rio de Janeiro.


Salgueiro paid homage to the Candomble warrior of justice, Xangô, in their Carnaval parade. Justice is a foreign word in Brazil, since very few people achieve it in the unequal society. So this choice in theme was a sly jab at the state of Brazilian society.

RioTur/Gabriel Nascimento

Unidos da Tijuca: The representation of slavery in Rio de Janeiro’s samba parade is a normal sight.

RioTur/Gabriel Nasciment

Imperio Serrano, long considered the “Blackest” samba school in Rio de Janeiro, paid homage to Dona Ivone Lara, a samba legend. These women wore dresses with Dona Ivone Lara’s image imprinted on the fabric.


Every samba school pays homage to the Baiana, the candomble practicing Black women who migrated from Salvador to Rio de Janeiro at the end of the 19th century. In this photo, Mangueira’s baianas wear African-inspired prints to show the influence of Africa in Brazil.

RioTur/ Gabriel Nascimento

The Estacio de Sa samba school chose Black Jesus as its theme this year. Churches and homes across Brazil always feature a white, blue-eyed Jesus so to see a Black Jesus in a samba school parade was in itself a protest.

RioTuR/Gabriel Nascimento

Antonio Pitanga is a legendary Brazilian actor. Unidos do Porto da Pedra paid homage to him in their parade.

RioTur/Raphael Davi

Portela samba school paid homage to Clara Nunes, a white samba singer who practiced Candomble. These Black women represent the Candomble Orisha Yansa. Yansa represents fire.

RioTur/ Fernando Grilli

Elza Soares, the famed samba singer who always supports Blacks, LGBTQ and indigenous communities made an appearance in the Mocidade de Padre Miguel samba school.