RIO DE JANEIRO — For more than a century, Rio de Janeiro’s carnival has been an irrepressible force, unstoppable by wars, disease, labor strikes or political repression.
Raucous celebrations took over city streets despite the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, during both World Wars and through Brazil’s military dictatorship. Glitter flew, hips swayed and drummers pounded in 2008, despite a dengue outbreak that sickened more than 200,000 in the state.
Even in 2014, when trash collectors struck, the revelry continued amid the filth.
“Carnival is effectively uncontrollable,” said Felipe Ferreira, a researcher at Rio de Janeiro State University who has studied the evolution of the city’s world renowned festival. “It’s a time when people seize the streets.”
But now, amid the pandemic, the official carnival parade has been suspended, indefinitely. Rio is reeling.
“I want this moment to come, this moment when we will celebrate life that defeats death, when we will reunite, gather,” said Vieira, artistic director of Estação Primeira de Mangueira, one of Rio’s most traditional samba groups. “But this moment is not possible yet.”
Faced with a pandemic that has killed more than 142,000 people — a toll second only to the United States — a deep economic crisis, and a president whose inner circle is engulfed in a growing number of criminal and legislative investigations, Rio residents are being deprived of the moment of catharsis many look forward to year-round.
The organizers of the parade decided, for the first time since 1932, when Rio’s samba parade became official, to suspend it, depriving the city of an important source of revenue and its citizens of performances that often deliver skewering political commentary.
The heads of the city’s leading samba organizations found that without a vaccine, conditions would not be safe.
For the mighty army of dancers, choreographers, costume makers and set designers who band together to produce the dazzling costumes and floats, the loss is personal and financial.
“I feel like crying, seeing they haven’t started the work of building the floats,” said Nicilda da Silva, 80, who was elected queen of the Porto da Pedra samba group this year and helps plan their parade. “But our hands are tied.”
With the official parade postponed indefinitely, it is unclear if — and how — Rio residents will celebrate come February, when the festivities are scheduled. Carnival also draws out hundreds of mobile and often spontaneous street parties, or blocos, that roam the city, playing their own songs or traditional carnival tunes and drawing thousands of revelers in their wake.
Rio’s 2021 carnival is expected to be radically different, and likely smaller, than any in recent memory — an incalculable loss, said Lauane Martorelli, a seamstress who has made carnival costumes for performances in the Sambódromo, the official venue for parades, for 13 years.
The months leading up to the party are the time when people from all walks of life gather in large warehouses to build elaborate floats mounted on trucks, try on costumes and rehearse choreographies.
“These are spaces in which everyone becomes equal,” she said. “Blacks, gays, evangelical, everyone works under the same roof.”
This year, Martorelli has kept her sewing machine buzzing, but instead of the lavish dresses and outfits that have become a family specialty, she and her relatives have stitched together more than 10,000 face masks.
The pandemic has been devastating for the family. The virus killed her stepfather, who was the household’s main breadwinner. And selling masks instead of costumes has meant earning about 30% of what they do in a regular year, she said.
Part of the tragedy, said Martorelli, 29, is sparing politicians of the especially searing accountability delivered by the samba performances, which in recent years have called out corruption, police brutality, structural inequality and racism using allegory and satire.
“This upcoming year carnival needs to take stock of everything that is happening and to synthesize it for the people,” she said. “In Brazil, people have very short memories and if we don’t hit on these themes now, this era will pass and no one will remember.”
The coronavirus has upended lives and livelihoods across the globe, but few places have been hit as hard as Rio de Janeiro, a state of 16 million people where the virus has killed more than 18,000.
Wagner Gonçalves, artistic director of Estácio de Sá, one of the oldest samba schools, or groups, has turned its workshop into a distribution center for food baskets. On Monday, people lined up near the school’s floats, which have not been disassembled, to collect the assistance packages.
“The financial impact is something that we haven’t been able to grapple with,” Gonçalves said, noting that many Brazilians have been getting by on temporary government assistance payments. The food baskets, he said, “are a way to give people a breath of hope.”
Luiz Carlos Silva, a steel sculptor who has worked on carnival displays since the 1990s, was in line waiting for a basket wearing necklaces of blue beads, a symbol of his faith in the Afro-Brazilian deities that are frequently honored in the parades.
He listed the friends he has lost to the virus and said he never expected to go through such hardship when he gave up his job as a bus driver in 2002 to devote his time to a labor of love: the city’s carnival.
“We’re losing the art of carnival,” he said, referring to the scaled-back plans this year. “It’s a bit sad because carnival is the land of joy.”
Ferreira, the researcher, said samba schools leaders are keeping their options open and their plans vague. They may put on performances outside the Sambódromo, or participate in the street parties that have become an increasingly central part of carnival.
“Carnival doesn’t happen in Rio de Janeiro based on a government decision,” he said. “Carnival imposes itself.”
Recent carnivals have featured mockery of and challenges to the city’s mayor, Marcelo Crivella, and the country’s president, Jair Bolsonaro.
Crivella, an evangelical pastor, said his office supports carnival but he has done little to hide his personal disdain for a hedonistic tradition that features abundant drinking, scant clothing and lots of very public displays of affection. (To put it mildly.)
Bolsonaro last year created a ruckus when he tweeted a video of a carnival reveler urinating on another, which he billed as a sign of how depraved the whole thing has become.
Vieira, the carnival art director, said that in suspending this year’s parade, the leaders of Rio’s carnival associations had shown they were more responsible than the federal government, which is led by a president who has disdained the virus’s threat.
“Carnival is an artistic and cultural activity that is also a mirror of Brazil’s social makeup,” he said. “The least important thing about carnival is its festive aspect.”
Still, asking many revelers to indefinitely delay the one time of the year when they have license to escape their humdrum lives, bend rules and lose themselves in a glittering, if ephemeral, fantasy is tough, said da Silva.
She’s put aside her costume — but hasn’t retired it entirely, she said, hoping to celebrate somewhere, somehow.
“Carnival is a cleansing of the soul,” she said.