One sunny Saturday in downtown São Paulo, Brazil, Freddy Mercury was dancing samba to “Don’t Stop Me Now”. Rather, several Freddy Mercuries were dancing samba as they wove their way through skyscrapers in the city’s scruffy downtown core. On their heels were a gaggle of scantily-clad men, some in drag, bopping in front of a float with a banner announcing “Madonna, THE Madonna, is Right Here”.
Carnaval hadn’t even officially started in São Paulo yet. But the pre-Carnaval season, beginning a full two weeks before Ash Wednesday, had already closed major thoroughfares throughout the preceding weekend to the expected millions of revelers. In less than five years, São Paulo has evolved from a ghost town during Carnaval to the host of one of Brazil’s most innovative and inclusive celebrations.
While Rio de Janeiro and Salvador continue to attract foreign visitors looking for flashy parades of expensive costumes and elaborate floats, Brazilians are returning to the popular roots of Carnaval by flooding the streets with themed public parties. And Brazil’s largest city is leading the way.
Carnaval entrepreneurs are reaping million-dollar benefits
São Paulo, the economic heart of Brazil and home to one of the most diverse urban populations in the world, was long-derided by Brazilians as an industrious city of worker bees that didn’t know how to have a good time. Focused on “blocos”, or spontaneously organized and themed street parties, São Paulo’s Carnaval has redirected the creative power during Carnaval from official cultural organizations to a more entrepreneurial class of revelers.
And this entrepreneurship seems to be paying dividends. Registering 60% growth from last year alone, São Paulo’s city hall estimates that Carnaval will draw nearly 12 million people to celebrations spanning the Carnaval period, officially defined as February 23rdto March 10th. The Confederação Nacional de Comêrcio, a business promotion group, estimates that 2019’s Carnaval will generate R$1.9 billion (~US$510 million) in economic activity in São Paulo alone.
Central to these celebrations are street parties like those paying homage to Freddy Mercury and Madonna. 2019 will be host to 645 such street parties, or “blocos”, including ones titled “I want to die a friend of Metallica” “Bollywood”, and “Get out of here, hetero”. Showing up and showing off is the only price of entry to the blocos, unlike more organized parades which require expensive, elaborate costumes or entrance fees to participate. Even still, São Paulo has 737 organized parades to give the blocos a run for their money, with more than 100,000 people marching, dancing, and strutting the streets.
In the blocos, partygoers can access a number of subcultures ranging from heavy metal to Brazilian country music, all for the cost of the beer they drink on the street. For families, blocos in the morning hours starting at 10 or 11am include activities for kids, shunning boozy dancing for colorful costumes and face painting. Unlike in cities like Recife, Salvador, or Rio, where the military police flank parades with semiautomatic weapons, police presence is scant in São Paulo and focused more on public order than crime prevention. Even adult-oriented block parties start early and wind down at an hour palatable to the communities that host them.
Visitors to Rio are seeing red: Crime and bureaucracy
Over the last five years, a number of social and economic factors have helped São Paulo siphon revelers from Rio de Janeiro. In Rio, a crippling crime epidemic, worse than in more than a decade, has steered some Brazilian and foreign visitors away from Carnaval celebrations. Adding to the obstacles is the spiraling cost of attending official Carnival celebrations, exacerbated by scalping, and the willingness of attendees to spend significant money to access safer cordoned-off spaces during the revelry.
Another pesky obstacle is City Hall, which in Rio de Janeiro has imposed an increasing number of obstacles and costs to street celebrations in the traditional Carnaval capital. One of Brazil’s most famous Carnaval queens, Camila Silva, recently lamented in Brazilian press that “everyone knows that Carnaval in Rio is withering away”, and São Paulo is taking up the torch.
Perhaps staying true to their industrious reputation, Paulistanos have built a community-oriented, weeks-long economic and social phenomenon out of nothing, and its growth shows no signs of slowing.
Back downtown, a cluster of men laying on stoops in old t-shirts and fraying shoes stumbled to their feet to join the Freddy Mercury Bloco. Soon after, a petite young woman with a life-sized banner calling revelers to submit to Jesus blocked the street, somewhere in the middle of a tropical rendition of “We Are The Champions”. Politely asked to clear the street which had been officially granted to the bloco, she slunk off into a nearby square, and the forces of Freddy and Madonna (combined with good public permits) prevailed. The only thing that stopped this crowd was a competing bloco further down the street blaring Lady Gaga, alongside thousands of people dancing in the sunshine.