In Brazil, samba is more than a musical genre: It’s a story. At each year’s Rio Carnival, samba schools compete with plot-driven parades often rooted in the country’s history. This year, Mangueira, a samba school in Rio de Janeiro, won Carnival with the most political and progressive parade in years. How did they win? They told a new story about Brazil’s history, one that rejected white nationalism.
A parade to fight the far right might sound far-fetched, but as an act of public history, Mangueira’s Carnival parade showed that there are many ways to take on white nationalism in the public square.
The parade comes at a time when the Brazilian far right, fueled by the newly elected Bolsonaro government, has weaponized one version of history to write a white, Christian and patriarchal past for Brazil. President Jair Messias Bolsonaro’s movement wants to say that Brazil is, and always has been, the legitimate heir to Western Civilization, erasing the history of indigenous and black peoples and denying the country’s diversity. Given the growing threats posed by the government’s intervention in education and its public policies, opponents need to be creative to counter this narrative. As a samba school, Mangueira chose the country’s most popular medium: a Carnival parade.
The Carnival parades carried out by samba schools in Rio emerged in the 1930s as a mix of several earlier popular traditions, but also through the state’s drive to control them. From the start, as authors Luiz Simas and Fabio Fabato have argued, samba schools and Brazilian society have engaged in an ongoing dialogue with the nation’s history. The prominence of nationalist and historical themes was the result of a major state influence on the parades in the 1940s; the Afro-Brazilian history and culture found in the samba plots since the 1960s have been influenced by African decolonization and a progressive political context in Brazil. Both of these trends continue to shape contemporary parades.
This year, Mangueira’s parade relied on this rich and diverse tradition to specifically challenge the country’s right-wing triumphalism. Mangueira highlighted the history of indigenous peoples before Portuguese colonization, presenting colonization and slavery as genocide and praising the resistance of both indigenous and black peoples over the past 500 years. This was not the first Carnival parade to tell a story where indigenous and black peoples were the protagonists, but this one had the most all-encompassing and clear historiographical narrative.
During the parade, the samba school employed two narrative moves that directly challenged traditional and conservative versions of Brazilian history. First, it displaced Portugal as the origin of the nation in favor of indigenous and black peoples. Second, it presented the Portuguese and Brazilian upper class as the main agents of colonial rule and its inherent violence. In this way, Mangueira developed a new popular narrative of Brazilian history: wider, more diverse and more cognizant of recent historical work.
Both the samba (the music continually sung by the samba’s performers during the parade) and the parade shared the same title: “Bedtime Stories for Grown-up People.” Framed by the composers as an emotional conversation with Brazil itself about “the history that history does not tell,” it challenged the traditional characterization of colonization (“there is more invasion / than discovery”) and the nation’s heroes (“there is crushed black blood / behind the hero’s portrait”).
Most important, in one verse — “Brazil, the time has arrived / to hear the Marias, Mahins, Marielles, Mâles” — it named those who were the victims of this process and who were left out of the traditional narratives, highlighting women of color among them. It evoked a Brazilian past that is not the triumph of European colonialism but that shows the struggles against slavery, genocide and colonialism. It also brought past and present together, showing that this history still shapes the country — and remembering Marielle Franco, a black woman and council member in Rio de Janeiro who was brutally slain in March 2018. Her murder still is unsolved a year later.
Through this delicate poetry, the samba was not denouncing traditional history as merely false, but as partial, a narrative that was carefully built to legitimize some aspects of the Brazilian past while erasing others, most notably the struggles and resistance of women of color. Thus erased, not only have Brazilians overlooked the contribution of these women but also the historic roots of resistance in the country.
The parade itself was carried out by more than 3,500 people — musicians, dancers, actors and support personnel — organized in “alas” (wings) and used costumes, performances and allegorical cars to present its plot. The parade made its history lesson clear at one moment when it eloquently swapped the nation’s traditional heroes presented as framed portraits in a museum wall for indigenous and black figures.
The importance of Mangueira’s parade cannot be overstated. Even though Brazilian historians showed a long time ago that these traditional and conservative narratives about Brazil’s history are false, it is only recently that these developments started being discussed outside of universities — mostly thanks to a 2003 federal law that mandated the teaching of Afro-Brazilian history and culture in Brazilian schools. Therefore, Mangueira is tackling not only a conservative narrative but one that the Brazilian state had promoted for several decades in both formal educational settings and popular culture.
While this content matters enormously, the form was not secondary: By presenting both the critique to the traditional narrative as well as a competing narrative as a Carnival parade, Mangueira used a mix of music, dance, plastic arts and performances — a language that it has mastered over nine decades — to show “the reverse of the same place.” Through this paramount feat in public history, Mangueira employed Carnival’s immense media platform (Rio’s parades are televised to the whole country) to present another narrative about Brazilian history in visually astonishing and very popular language. By winning Rio’s Carnival this year, Mangueira’s parade drew a spotlight to the public debate it sparked in traditional and social media.
Mangueira’s parade was exuberant, showing resistance as joyful. It explicitly challenged a conservative and outdated version of Brazilian history that still is widespread in the country. By proposing another version of Brazilian history (though not a final one), Mangueira echoed two of the most important elements of the historian’s craft: the critique of competing interpretations of the past and its openly provisional character. Through the critique of the traditional version of Brazilian history, Mangueira started a fundamental popular debate about Brazil’s past, present and future. Mangueira won 2019′s Rio Carnival parade, but its greatest victory was against the weaponization of Brazilian history by the far right.