Brazil's Carnaval Exposes Socioeconomic Differences
Carnaval is justifiably known as one of the biggest holiday celebrations in the world. Similar to Mardi Gras, it is filled with huge parades, extravagant costumes, and copious imbibing. Rio de Janeiro takes the festivities to another level. In early March, I left the city limits of São Paulo with several friends to experience it for myself.
The apartment we stayed at was located in Ipanema, one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in Rio where a walk to the beach was just five minutes away. Next to the apartment was a favela, one of the Brazilian shanty towns made famous by the movie City of God. It was walled off from view, presumably so that tourists would not be able to see the deplorable living conditions. Such a sight put a damper on the overall atmosphere in Rio. Not even once during Carnaval was there any merriment to be seen in the favela.
The first day of Carnaval was exactly as billed, with daytime celebrations in the streets and people wearing diverse costumes, the most common being fantasia. In this case, the men would dress in all manner of drag and stay in character for the duration of the day. There were so many people in the city that it was nearly impossible to walk anywhere without having to squeeze through raucous crowds every couple of meters.
Ipanema and Copacabana reined in tourists as well as local Brazilians looking to experience a decidedly higher-class festival. Going to one of the famed parades in Rio would cost 150 US dollars, a sum that most Brazilians would not be able to afford. Instead of the parades, the neighborhood blocos, or block parties, was where poor Brazilians would be able to enjoy their festivities.
As Carnaval went on, the socioeconomic differences became clearer. In the center of the city, the crowd was homogenously Afro-Brazilian, a stark contrast from the beach neighborhood of Ipanema. It was evident that the elite never ventured into this area. Cachaça, liquor made from sugar cane, was being served out of hastily arranged bars for the incredibly low price of one real (about sixty cents) per shot. The celebration in the center was plainly catered to the local cariocas, or denizens of Rio. The fact that everyone in the crowd stopped and stared made it clear that we were outsiders.
The nightlife also displayed a distinct disparity between rich and poor. At Lapa, it was possible to go to any number of baladas, or nightclubs for less than five dollars cover charge. The clientele was mostly composed of Afro-Brazilians wearing t-shirts and shorts or their costumes, similar to the center of the city. The music being played ranged from electro to funk, a rap-like genre favored among working-class Brazilians.
In contrast, there were other nightclubs that clearly catered to the elite, with one charging fifty dollars for cover and another where the customers wore semi-formal attire, a big step up from the casual wear typical of Carnaval. The music varied between remixed American Top 40 and European electro. There was not a single Afro- or working-class Brazilian in any of these venues.
Even though Carnaval was a terrific experience, the disparity between socioeconomic classes was astounding. Brazil’s rapid economic development as of yet has not effectively narrowed the gap between rich and poor.
It is surprising that this degree of virtual segregation exists in such a diverse country. Although Brazil has made great strides in improving socioeconomic standards, it is clear that it still has a long way to go.