RIO DE JANEIRO – A message of religious tolerance has taken center stage at this year’s Carnival celebrations in Rio de Janeiro.
The top 13 samba schools competed for the top title of best performers in Carnival 2020. Samba schools participate in the formal parades during Carnival to showcase their dancing and drumming skills, as well as their elaborate floats and costumes. The system of samba schools is unique to Rio. They don’t offer dance instruction, but rather affirm the reality of daily life in impoverished neighborhoods.
Samba schools often showcase the Afro-Brazilian heritage of the community. They are composed of volunteers and are typically part of neighborhood associations to provide social, education, and medical services to the community.
As part of Carnival celebrations, samba schools often honor the cultural arts focus on the music, imagery, folk stories, and heroes of a particular region. Their performance takes place in segments, called alas or “wings,” and involves an enredo, a plot point that usually confronts a socio-cultural issue. The plot is manifested by the dancers, the singers, and the samba band, which often has the drummers as their centerpiece. Performances can easily involve 3,000 participants in a single carnival display.
This year some of the samba schools used Carnival to take on religious intolerance.
Brazil has over 600,000 adherents to Afro-Brazilian religions that emerged from the traditional religions of West Africa when slaves were forced to Brazil. Dominant among these religious traditions are Candomblé and Umbanda, religious traditions rising from the religious practices of the Bantu, Fon, and Yoruba people of West Africa. The religion shares many elements with Lukumí and Ifá, which are more prevalent in the United States.
Estimates suggest that about a quarter of Rio’s population practices Candomblé or similar Afro-Brazilian religious practices.
This year, while doing their performance, the Grande Rio Samba School unfolded a fan-shaped banner addressing its enredo: “RESPECT MY AXÉ.”
Axé (pronounced Ashé) refers to the binding force that pervades the universe in the religious system involving Orixas (Orishas), the emissaries of the supreme being, who are central in the faiths of West Africa.
Jaciel Henrique told the Associated Press that the samba school was using Rio’s carnival as a platform to address religious discrimination and intolerance. “Condomblé has no problem with anything,” Henrique said. “We want to be respected, and Carnival is about that. Respect where everybody unites and gets together in favor of one power: happiness.”
This year’s plot in the parade shared the story of Joãozinho da Goméia, who was an altar boy in a Catholic family who had severe headaches. He was initiated as a priest of Candomblé as a child for the headaches to resolve themselves, as demanded by the Orixa who claimed him. Goméia left his family, practiced Candomblé, and performed healing. He was jailed for the practice.
Goméia also participated in Carnival dressed as a woman and confronted the transphobia and homophobia of Candomblé leaders. Goméia died in 1971.
This year’s re-telling of Goméia’s story served to raise awareness of the rising discrimination and even violence against practitioners of faiths like Condomblé. While Brazil remains predominantly Catholic, a rising tide of evangelical Christians (often called “charismatic Christians”) has consistently demonized the Afro-Brazilian faiths.
One pastor identified by police only as “Big Fish” has called evangelicals to attack Afro-Brazilian religious communities and destroy their temples.
While persecution of Afro-Brazilian faith practitioners has been around since the 19th century, the increase in incidents of religious attacks have become a national emergency. In Rio, indents increased by 30% earlier this decade, with a more recent spike in such assaults. According to Brazil’s Commission to Combat Religious Intolerances, over 200 such attacks occurred in 2019 from January to September alone.
Reports suggest that the current wave of assaults are significantly more personal and empowered by the increased evangelical presence in positions of power. For example, evangelical lawmakers now hold 195 of the 513 seats in Brazil’s lower house of Congress.
Evangelicals have been specifically courted and empowered by ultra-conservative Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro. He says that Brazil “is changing because it has a government that respects family, owes loyalty to its people, and believes in God.” He routines makes offensive remarks about women, gays, black individuals, and indigenous people.
Rio has been fighting back. Last September, about 100,000 individuals joined Brazil’s annual walk for religious freedom. Catholics, Buddhists, Baha’i, Jews, Hindus and, even some evangelical Christians dressed in white in solidarity with practitioners of Candomblé and Umbanda. They packed the famous Copacabana beach, demanding unity and an end to religious violence.
The reigning samba school champions, Mangueria, are no stranger to controversy. Last year, they challenged Bolsonaro by addressing the slippery slope that forms against military dictatorships. This year, the samba school also took up religious tolerance as their message and drew backlash from evangelicals.
Mangueira portrayed Jesus visiting a favela, a poor neighborhood of Rio, and preaching religious tolerance. They also presented various manifestations of Jesus in their main song, “The Truth Will Set You Free,” portraying him as black, as a woman, and as man with women’s makeup, all the while singing he would stand up against “prophets of intolerance,” adding that there is “no Messiah with a gun in hand.” (Bolsonaro’s middle name is Messias, which means “messiah.”)
Manuela Oiticica is quoted as saying, “This is the Christ of Mangueira. He died for those values, he was murdered because of those values. And these are the values that we need to recover today.”
The show was met with protests against their blasphemy outside the Sambadrome.
An evangelical Baptist pastor came to Mangueira’s side. He advised the samba school on the parade and wrote, “At a time when a warlike, intolerant and controlling Jesus is being preached, Mangueira takes the Jesus of the Gospels to the streets as loving, as a friend, and a partner to the oppressed.”
As for the Grande Rio samba school, as they closed their performance, they invited the crowd to sing one verse over and over: “I respect your amen; you respect my axé.”
The crowd did just that.