What We Lost When We Lost Carnival

by Megan Rochlin

This year, for the first time in over a century, there was no Carnival in Brazil.  There was no Desfile de Campeones in Rio de Janeiro; the samba schools did not parade in reds and greens and pinks. There were no blocos de rua. No samba or axé. No dancing.

It feels strange to mourn Carnival in a year where we are mourning everything.  In Brazil alone, 330,000 people have died from coronavirus; hospitals are running out of oxygen for covid patients, and in Manaus, the capital of the Amazon region, trenches are being dug for covid victims.  Yet, despite this, I bristled at an article published in The Washington Post titled “The coronavirus canceled Carnival, but Brazilians won’t stop partying,” and at the callous dismissal of Carnival as a party.  

To dismiss Carnival as a party is to ignore the huge cultural significance that Carnival has in Brazil.  Carnival encompasses a broad range of celebrations. The most famous Carnival celebration takes place in Rio where over one hundred samba schools parade through the Sambadrome. Each school has hundreds of participants, so the parade takes place over two days. The Samba schools begin preparations for Carnival months in advance, making hundreds of costumes, creating elaborate floats, and choreographing dances. In Pernambuco, the northeastern part of Brazil, the traditional dance of Carnival is Frevo, a frenetic dance where people leap into the air holding multi-colored umbrellas while brass bands play. In 2012, Frevo was included on the UNESCO list of Intangible Cultural Heritage. In cities and towns all over the country, people celebrate in blocos or street parties.  

The beauty common to all these celebrations is that everyone participates.  Anyone, young or old, rich or poor, can step out of their door and join in the celebration, or even in one of the famous Samba school processions. It is a holiday that the whole country celebrates together. 

I feel a particular affection towards Carnival because I lived in Brazil during my last year of high school and celebrated Carnival at the beach in São Paulo. I had been living in Brazil for less than a year when I first attended Carnival. I still spoke Portuguese with a heavy accent and struggled to follow my friends’ conversations. I still felt that vague discomfort that comes from never quite fitting in.  So, when one of my friends invited me out that first night of Carnival, I was hesitant. But my friend insisted, covered me in glitter, and dragged me into the street.  

We did not know where the party was, but we followed a stream of people that became a crowd of thousands; thousands of strangers singing and dancing and rubbing against one another. I remember laughing—I think the hardest I have ever laughed—when my friend and I found the only tree for miles while looking for a suitable place to pee and realized that there was already a line of other girls waiting to use it. I remember sitting in the back of a stranger’s pick-up truck (a bad idea in retrospect), belting an old sertaneja song that I definitely did not know the words to. We danced in ankle deep water on the beach shore. We kissed and embraced each other; the summer air was lush with heat and the sweat of a thousand people.

 Carnival is both a celebration of Brazilian culture and a celebration of a certain kind of togetherness where anyone can step outside their door and become a part of something.  This year, it feels selfish to admit that you want anything more than health and safety, that you need anyone more than your allotted 10-person bubble. However, I think there is still space to mourn Carnival and grieve the loss of a kind of love and joy that you can only feel when dancing with strangers.

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