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Carnival And Forgetting


new internationalist
issue 254 - April 1994

The 'Dames' have it all - macho at home and strutting at carnaval.
All photos on this page: Nancy Scheper-Hughes

Carnival and forgetting
Bom Jesus should provide an ideal setting for the role reversals
of the annual carnival. In practice the festivities do the
dirty work of class, gender and race divisions.

I left Biu’s house after our talk and caught up with the street dancers. The wealthy families of the big houses played carnaval in the privacy of their vacation homes on the coast or in élite social clubs in Recife. They never showed their faces for the duration of the festivities. The middle classes emerged briefly on the street on Friday night, the eve of the official start of the festival. Then they, too, left town.

By the next day, Saturday, the real start of the festival, virtually every wealthy and middle-class family had left Bom Jesus da Mata, taking their bands, their elaborate fantasias and (as Little Irene wryly put it) ‘their prestige’ with them. The only concession to the poor who were left behind was an old, teetering, wooden sugarcane transporting truck that was left on the main praça of the town with a single loudspeaker.

‘Where is everyone?’ the people asked. Carnaval is meant to put the poor in the ‘center’ of the street and the rich on the sidelines, admiring and clapping wildly for their favorite dancers and costume performers. But the rich had disappeared.

The poor of the Alto do Cruzeiro descended from the hill to dance in the streets without a samba band. Men dressed in ragged, makeshift costumes as street beggars and as abandoned women holding sick and hungry infants. Abandoned street children ‘organized’ themselves into blocos de sujos (groups of dirty ones), their ripped clothing and faces smeared with ashes and motor oil.

I finally went to the home of Seu Biu de Caboclos, the leader of the only organized bloco on the Alto, named the Caboclos Tupinambá. They were preparing to descend the Alto and parade through the town. Biu’s bloco was ‘well turned out’, in matching satin shirts, sashes and Indian skirts, with elaborate headdresses sporting red peacock feathers.

Seu Biu took a few moments away from his elaborate ritual of face painting to explain: ‘I am responsible for the costumes, the feathers, the paint, the bows and arrows, the bells, the drums and the flags. Without me, nothing happens. I will play only if beautifully adorned and well practiced. To play in an ugly or disorganized way isn’t worth the bother. I won’t do it. If people won’t come to practice, or if they arrive later and already drunk, they are out of my game. No exceptions.’

Seu Biu’s wife, Gabriela, pregnant with her ninth child, listened to her husband’s explanation with a pained smile on her face. ‘Do you play carnaval?’ I asked her in jest. The shy young woman found this an impossibly funny question and she laughed, shaking her head.

Carnaval is said not only to liberate the body but the female body in particular. In Bom Jesus I saw, on the contrary, a carnaval largely designed for the pleasure of men and boys. The ‘female’ was liberated but only in male bodies or for the purpose of titillating male fantasies of sexual abundance and erotic abandon.

The role of those women who do participate
in carnaval is to undress not to cross-dress.

On Saturday afternoon two large blocos finally made their appearance in downtown Bom Jesus, and both were organized around sexual and gender themes. The first was formed by the prostitutes of the zona. Town women kept a respectful distance. They waited and watched for the group to appear along the elevated railroad tracks several streets away from the zona. The group emerged dressed as sexually alluring ‘Gypsies’, and they lined up behind their rhinestone-studded and embroidered felt banner with its legend ‘The Disgusting Gypsies’. Whistles and catcalls accomp- anied their appearance. They offered no reversal and certainly no threat to the everyday violence of sexual and racial politics in Bom Jesus da Mata. Nonetheless, once the seductive music and dancing began, the ‘Gypsies’ led a charismatic bloco de arrastão (dragnet) that attracted a large and enthusiastic crowd.

Kids on the block get ready to play their way through carnaval. The second bloco, made up of working-class men, some single, some married, some heterosexual, others gay or bisexual, paraded as transvestites calling themselves the Vedetes (‘Dames’). Male cross-dressing vedetes are a central component of carnaval play. But the fantasy is one-sided. Women rarely, if ever, cross-dress in carnaval. The role of those women who do participate in carnaval play is to undress, not to cross-dress.

In Bom Jesus the transvestite ‘Dames’ offered a counterpoint to the public sexuality of the ‘Disgusting Gypsies’. The Dames presented themselves as female coquettes; coy, demure, modest and shy. Dressed in wide-brimmed hats, veils and long-hooped skirts with wide petticoats, the Vedetes bobbed, curtseyed and tiptoed before their spectators. Carnaval custom prevented the ‘Dames’ from defending themselves against unwanted sexual advances. They were expected to behave as perfectly docile and receptive sexual objects.

Carnaval dissolves order and
rationality into chaos and nonsense.

In a way these working-class men can have it all: macho and dominant at home and demure and strutting at carnaval. No wives or girlfriends accompanied these dancers. In one case a young school teacher prevailed upon her fiancé to drop out of the bloco out of respect for their engagement. ‘It may be about women, but it has nothing to do with me,’ she said. ‘All my fiancé has to show for it at the end of the festival is a bad hangover and a ridiculous, sweat-stained dress.’

Carnaval players spin on an axis of inversions and reversals of high and low, order and disorder, male and female, inside and outside, public and private, freedom and repression, life and death. Carnaval dissolves order and rationality into chaos and nonsense; it tumbles the lofty as it celebrates the humble, absurd and grotesque. Both the erotic and the maudlin, sexuality and death, are present at carnaval, so that destruction and regeneration are merged in the absurd carnaval cry ‘Viva a morte! Long live death!’.

If the everyday world is structured by the metaphor of the struggle in which suffering, pain and sickness mark one’s passage through time and space along the path that leads inevitably to death, then once a year carnaval ruptures this linear and tragic trajectory. The relentless, punishing straight line of the everyday is symbolically and actually breached by the dizzying, dancing circle of samba revelers, who spin round and round in their wide skirts, and by frevo dancers, who leap up and down going nowhere at all. The everyday struggle evaporates in the wide open, enfolding embrace of the carnaval ball dancers who, arms outstretched, call all things to the center and to themselves.

The ideology of carnaval hints at a brave new world, a world of pleasures and many different freedoms. The ‘vale of tears’ gives way to a world of laughter and forgetting, a world of happiness and joy. The workaday, adult world gives way to the child’s world of fantasy and play. And so one ‘plays’ and ‘jumps’ carnaval. One ‘plays’ and ‘toys’ with the body and its many eroticized parts.

Above all, carnaval is ‘dirty’, mixing above and below, front and behind, inside and outside, water and mud, motor oil and honey, semen and excreta. And it is full of surprises. Even while throwing themselves into the spontaneous joy and abandon of the festival, their carnaval ‘play’ can also do the dirty work of class, gender and sexual divisions. By means of grotesque exaggeration these divisions are etched even more deeply into the individual and collective bodies.

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