By Stephen Buckley
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday , March 5, 2000 ; A24
RIO DE JANEIRO –– Two weeks ago, Luis Roberto dos Santos moved out of
his house to live among fiber glass alligators,
12-foot-high African drums and costumes with golden wings and glistening white-feather halos.
Dos Santos, 39, temporarily abandoned his family for a covered concrete
lot to begin final preparations of music, dance steps,
costumes and floats as his Villa Rica samba school, one of the dozens of community associations whose samba performances
are at the heart of Carnival, scrambled to prepare for the most anticipated event on the Brazilian calendar.
For the slight, unassuming dos Santos, Carnival, which began this weekend,
is not simply a festival of samba, sex and saturation
drinking, as it is for many residents of Rio. Nor is it about spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on costumes and
equipment or embracing movie stars or seeing himself on television.
Carnival is nearly as dear to him as life itself. And it is the same
for millions of Brazil's poor and working-class people, most of
them black, who are virtually invisible in this country of 167 million for most of the year. Across the country, but most
spectacularly in Rio, Carnival is their one chance a year to be news makers, not as criminals or victims, but as the country's
kings and queens for the four days leading up to Ash Wednesday.
"For me--how can I explain--it's the most authentic manifestation of
Brazilian culture," dos Santos said, surrounded by giant
floats and busy samba school workers. "It's the moment that we are on display. We put off all the oppression, put away all our
worries. It's the only day when we are happy. It's the day when our dreams come true."
Carnival "represents an inversion of the social pyramid," said Hiram
Araujo, a historian of Carnival and director of the
Independent League of Samba Schools in Rio. "For the poor, it's an opportunity to show their culture, their talent, their spirit to
the dominant elite."
Yet the purity of dos Santos's passion for Carnival is seen less and
less often these days. In recent years, the event has become
increasingly dominated by money, as television companies, entertainers and other powerful interests in Brazil have wedged their
way into a place of influence over the celebration.
Today it is typical for the most prestigious samba schools, often 5,000
members strong and well financed, to lay out several
hundred thousand dollars to prepare for the event. One year in the early 1990s, a top school spent $800,000.
These schools--many of which sprang from humble roots--wear costumes
that sell for as much as $600 each, lure Brazil's
brightest stars to take prominent positions with them during the Carnival parade, and conjure up floats that are as intricate as
anything seen on Broadway on Thanksgiving Day.
The Carnival parades are actually competitions among samba schools.
There are five divisions, with the top two being the most
prestigious, and the smaller, poorer schools are all scrapping to make it into the elite category.
Dos Santos and members of the Villa Rica school, in the third division,
are clear: They want to do well, but not if it means
sacrificing what Carnival means to them.
Dos Santos, for example, said he would never allow a famous singer or
television star to overshadow the school's presentation
because, "we give privilege to the community. The famous people only want to promote themselves."
His school of roughly 1,800 members will spend about $30,000 this year,
from a government subsidy, selling T-shirts and the
sale of tickets and food at rehearsals.
This is dos Santos's first year as president of the Villa Rica school,
which his grandmother founded in 1954. He marched with
Villa Rica in his first Carnival parade when he was 9. At 16, he was leading the drum section. It was his dream come true.
"When I'm leading the drums," he said, "I feel like Beethoven."
He has missed two Carnivals since then--once because he broke an arm
and leg in a bicycle accident just before the event, and
once because he was in military service. That year, when Carnival started, he said, "I tried to run away from the [air force]
Dos Santos lives in a close-knit, working-class slice of Rio's Copacabana
neighborhood. Three years ago he bought a casinha,
or "little house," with two small bedrooms, a kitchen, one bathroom and a living room. To purchase it, he saved $50 every
month for nearly 20 years.
"That's the only way a poor man can get to a place of dignity in Brazil,"
dos Santos said. "Today, if I can put away $50 a
month, I'm lucky."
Life has grown tougher for many Brazilians in the past year, since the
devaluation of the currency, the real. Dos Santos's wages
as a stevedore at Rio's main port stretch only about half as far as they did before. He laments that his son, Roberto, 11, and
daughter, Erica, 14, must attend poor local schools.
He dreads the day that his wife, Valeria, or one of the children becomes
seriously ill, because he has no health insurance. "God
is my health insurance," he said. And he fumes at a Brazilian justice system that allows "the criminals to get rich, buy nice cars
and big houses, drink champagne and go on vacations to the Caribbean."
Those views, common among Brazil's poor and working-class people, rarely
receive public airing. The country's news and
entertainment media only occasionally delve into the lives of the poor beyond reports on crime and other problems.
Dos Santos said his saving grace is Carnival. Organizing people, raising
money and cobbling together materials and equipment
have practically been a second job for him, he said.
Villa Rica's lack of finances meant it had to borrow much of its materials
from bigger, more prestigious samba schools. And the
school had to buy cheap iron from demolished buses and cars to build the complex frames upon which the school's floats rest.
About a dozen members of the school made Villa Rica's costumes this year.
Henrique Celibi, who designed the outfits, said that they will cost
$40 to $75. "We have to make our own. We can't buy them
like the Special Group," said Celibi, a 36-year-old teacher, referring to the most prestigious of the samba school divisions.
"That makes our costumes a lot cheaper. It's much more accessible to the community--the people who make Carnival."
Dos Santos already was beginning to grow melancholy over the prospect of Carnival's end.
"It's a lot of work and worry, but it's also a liberation from stress,"
he said. "It's something enjoyable. When the parade is gone,
you have to go back home."