Carnival in Modern-Day Rio de Janeiro

Author: Jesse van der Meulen

Brazilian Carnaval cannot be imagined without vibrant images of Rio de Janeiro. During Carnaval and in the weeks leading up to it, Rio's already lively atmosphere amplifies and turns the city into what some call “the biggest party in the world.” Although this festivity of gigantic proportions takes place throughout the city, it is centered around one thing only: samba. This style of music, with strong ties to the African continent, provides a high-spirited soundtrack to the Carnaval celebrations. Whether blasted through massive speakers on streets, or simply played on the radio, during Carnaval samba is everywhere. Samba music invites you to dance and most people who are under its spell show off their moves (apart from those visiting from Sāo Paulo, whose residents are jokingly known to lack samba moves). All of these samba-filled Carnaval celebrations culminate in the Independent League of the Samba Schools of Rio de Janeiro competition, where local Samba groups compete for the title of samba school of the year. Through dancing, singing, and the most extraordinary floats, the samba schools show off their pride while telling stories that reflect deeper messages. By exploring some of the most well-known samba schools and visiting a few key carnival locations, this story map will explore modern-day Carnaval in Rio de Janeiro. 

Top 12 samba schools in 2022 (Source: LIESA).

The Liga Independente das Escolas de Samba do Rio de Janeiro (Independent League of the Samba Schools of Rio de Janeiro), or simply LIESA, is the organization that manages the Carnaval league of Rio de Janeiro. While many samba schools partake in this league, only the twelve best schools are featured in the most prestigious parade and are thereby nominated for the title of best samba school. Above are all the names of the samba schools competing in 2022.


Crazy costumes, dancing, and smiling faces (Source:
Let's take a look at some of the best samba schools!
A reveller of the Imperatriz Leopoldinense samba school performs during the first night of Rio's Carnaval at the Sambadrome in Rio, Brazil, on February 12, 2018 (Photo by Gilson Borba/NurPhoto via Getty Images).
Imperatriz Leopoldinense

Nestled in Ramos, a neighborhood in the North Zone of Rio de Janeiro, we find Imperatriz Leopoldinense. Colloquially known as Imperatriz, the school was named after Archduchess Maria Leopoldina of Austria, the first Empress of Brazil. Just two years after being founded in 1959, Imperatriz won its first title in the “Grupo Especial,” the most important group within the Samba League. Ever since, Imperatriz has won seven more titles, most notably three wins in a row from 1999 to 2001.

A gigantic Bitcoin was featured on their 2019 float (Source: Júlio César Guimarães/UOL).
Imperatriz Leopoldinense in 2019

Imperatriz is renowned for incorporating historical themes into its parades. In 2019, they portrayed the relationship between humans and money from the first appearance of currency all the way to present-day capitalism. Imperatriz’s Carnaval Designer Mário Monteiro explained, “It’s a current issue, we will talk about the relationship between humans and money from the beginning up until the present time, but with good humor, ‘carnivalized’ even.” Their 2019 parade touched on a very relevant topic as samba schools were facing budget cuts and the Brazilian economy was struggling. 

Inside the quadra of Imperatriz Leopoldinense (Source:, Imperatriz Leopoldinense).
Imperatriz Headquarters

Typically, every samba school has two main locations or headquarters. One of these two is called a quadra which literally translates to “block.” The quadra is the primary hub of the samba school. Usually located in the neighborhood where the samba school was founded, these quadras fulfill the role of practice space. Furthermore, quadras host a variety of social events and function as a community center for the surrounding area. Visitors are welcome to come and enjoy a Carnaval parade run-through! 

Members of Samba School Mangueira perform during the parade at 2019 Brazilian Carnival on March 04, 2019 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (Photo by Gilson Borba/NurPhoto via Getty Images).
Estação Primeira de Mangueira

Just a short walk away from the Maracanã Stadium is the Mangueira neighborhood. Samba school Mangueira, named after its home turf, is a force to be reckoned with. Having won the Carnaval competition an astonishing twenty times, Mangueira has been greatly successful ever since 1928, when it was founded. Mangueira’s style of Carnaval is not just one full of color and music, but also one of bold political statements. 

Monica Benicio, ex-partner of council woman Marielle Franco, murdered on March of 2018 in Rio de Janeiro attends Mangueira's performance during the samba school's champions parade on March 10, 2019 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (Photo by Buda Mendes/Getty Images).
Mangueira in 2019

In 2019 Mangueira took on a subject with strong political tones, shining a light on the dark side of Brazilian history that not everybody wants to see: slavery. One of the lines in their 2019 samba theme song goes, “From 1500, there have been more invasions than discoveries,” signifying Mangueira’s attempt to put such an important yet sensitive topic under a magnifying glass, but in a carnivalesque way. Their efforts paid off, and in 2019 Mangueira received their twentieth win. Their victory was one they attributed not only to themselves but also to Marielle Franco, a groundbreaking Carioca politician who was murdered the year prior and whom Mangueira honored in their parade. 

Mangueira 2019 "Samba Enredo"

Every year, each samba school composes a samba enredo (samba theme). The musical anthem serves as a love letter to the samba school and includes references to the theme that the school has chosen for that year. Let's take a look at Mangueira's winning samba theme song in 2019. 

English Translation by Deborah Fontenelle & Alida Metcalf

Title: A [His]Story for Adults 


Mangueira, get the dirt out of the shipholds/basements

Oh, spread your wings for your heroes of the warehouse

From the Brazils is created a country of Lecis1 and Jamelões2

The people are green and pink


Brazil, my dear black buddy

Let me tell you

The story that history has not told

The other side of this same place

And the struggle in which the people found each other


Brazil, my dear one

Mangueira has arrived

With lines that books have erased

From 1500, there have been more invasions than discoveries

There is black blood stuck

Behind the portrait of the hero on the wall 

Women, Tamoios, Mulattoes

I want a country that is not this picture 


Brasil, your name is Dandara3

And your face is from Cariri4

Freedom did not come from heaven

Nor from Isabel’s [the Empress] hand

It came from a dragon of the sea5 from Aracati [a place in Ceará]


Hail the Caboclos of July6

[Hail] those who were steel during the time of lead [i.e., bulletproof during the dictatorship]


Brazil, your time has come

To hear the Marias,7 the Mahins,8 Marielles,9 Malês10



1Leci is a famous musician and songwriter from the Mangueira Samba School.

2Jamelão is a famous musician and songwriter from the Mangueira Samba School, known all over Brazil.

3Dandara was the wife of Zumbi, the leader of Palmares, Brazil’s most famous quilombo (runaway slave community).

4Cariri is a region in northeastern Brazil. It has two meanings here: Cariri is in Ceará, the first place to abolish slavery, and it refers to a broader region known as a place of indigenous resistance to Portuguese colonization.

5Dragão do Mar was the nickname of Francisco José do Nascimento, the leader of the movement of raftsmen who refused to carry slaves on their rafts to the ships taking slaves from the Northeast to southern Brazil. This movement led to the early abolition of slavery in Ceará (1884).

6The Caboclos of July were a group of mixed-race defenders of independence, who expelled many Portuguese from Bahia in 1823.

7Maria here refers to the ordinary woman because Maria is a very common name in Brazil.

8Luisa Mahins was a slave who took part in the Malê Revolt (see note 10). Her son Luis Gama became a very important person in the abolitionist cause.

9Marielle Franco was a Black city councilwoman from Maré, one of the biggest favelas in Rio. Elected for the first time in 2016, she received a huge number of votes (45,000, the fifth highest of all who ran that year). She was assassinated on March 14, 2018 in an ambush in the Estácio neighborhood in downtown Rio. It was a political crime and while the assassin has been arrested, it is not known who ordered the hit or why.

10The Malê Revolt occurred in Bahia in 1835; it was an uprising of African Muslim slaves.


An aerial view of Cidade do Samba (Source: Bromelia Brazil Travel, Cidade do Samba).
Cidade do Samba

As was mentioned before, every samba school has its headquarters, which is typically split into two parts. Most visible to the community is the quadra, but the other location, the so-called barracão (barrack), is just as important. Generally closed to the public, the barracão is where the real Carnaval magic happens. In these barracãos, all the costumes are made, floats are built from scratch, and other preparations are undertaken at a massive scale, yet kept secret until the last moment. All the Samba schools in the top Grupo Especial, like Manguiera, are allocated an equal-sized barracão in the same district. This district is called Cidade do Samba (Samba City). 

Members of Samba School Portela perform during the parade at 2019 Brazilian Carnival on March 04, 2019 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (Photo by Gilson Borba/NurPhoto via Getty Images).

There are many ways to describe Portela: the only school to have paraded in all Carnaval parades since the opening of the Sambódromo, the school with the most wins, or simply Majestade do Samba (“The Majesty of Samba”), its affectionate nickname. Named after the street where it was founded in the neighborhood of Madureira, Portela is arguably the most influential samba school. Proudly representing itself in white and blue, Portela has been reigning in the samba league since 1923. Although many samba schools are key players in their surrounding areas, Portela has made an exceedingly striking commitment to uplift their community. Part of its mission is “to invest and transform the Portela Samba School into a radiating center of social projects.” With its enticing samba and Carioca support, Portela has gained international recognition, attracting people like Naomi Campbell and Ricky Martin to join its parade.


Brazilian actress and singer Emanuelle Araújo played the role of Clara Nunes in 2019 (Source: globeleza).
Portela in 2019

Portela’s 2019 parade was a tribute to Brazilian singer Clara Nunes. The title of their samba theme, “In the most modern Madureira, I will always hear a sage singing,” further referred to Nunes, who was an avid Portela fan. Nunes was the first female Brazilian singer to sell over 100,000 copies of a record. Her success in samba music earned her the title “Queen of Samba.”

Members of Paraiso do Tuiuti samba school perform during Carnaval (Photo by Wagner Meier/Getty Images).
Paraíso do Tuiuti

Located in the traditional neighborhood of São Cristóvão we find Paraíso do Tuiuti, the not-so-easy to pronounce samba school. Both its name and signature colors were established in 1952, when Unidos do Tuiuti and Paraíso das Baianas decided to join forces. Although not many people had heard of Paraíso do Tuiuti until 1980, from that year onwards the samba school slowly started to gain popularity, finally earning rights to appear in the top-ranked Grupo Especial for the first time in 2001. As they subsequently experienced many problems with their carnival floats, it took Paraíso do Tuiuti another sixteen years to make it back to the Grupo Especial. For the past five years, however, Paraíso do Tuiuti has managed to remain in this top group, proving itself a worthy contender. 

Goats as featured in Paraíso do Tuiuti's 2019 parade (Source: Rodrigo Gorosito/G1, Paraíso do Tuiuti traz como enredo o bode Ioiô).
Paraíso do Tuiuti in 2019

After becoming vice-champion in 2018 with a highly controversial topic, Paraíso do Tuiuti once again chose a politically-provocative topic. They presented the story of the goat Ioiô, a protest figure from the Ceará state in northeastern Brazil. As the school’s carnival designer, Jack Vasconcelos, puts it, “The popular tale is that he [the goat Ioiô] was elected councilman in 1922 as a protest by the population to show their dissatisfaction with the local political elite and the wider political scene. Ioiô is a scream, a shout of popular dissatisfaction.”

Não é Não temporary tattoo placed someone's hand (Source: EFE/EPA, Não é Não).
Não é Não

Before we move on to the grand finale, let's take a moment to look at the flip side of Carnaval. 

One issue, whose resistance movement has recently gained momentum, is sexual harassment. Throughout the whole year, but especially during Carnaval, women in Brazil face sexual intimidation and harrasment. Social and political efforts have sprung in response to these problems. Não é Não (No means No) was founded by local women who want their voices to be heard. By increasing awareness and handing out temporary tattoos with their slogan, they have managed to make a big impact. Local political campaigns, such as Rio's “costumes are not invitations” campaign, have added further strength to this movement. So far, it seems like these campaigns have helped women feel more empowered to report sexual harassment; over the span of just two years between 2016 and 2018, the amount of reported sexual assault cases increased by 90%. Although there is still a very long way to go in preventing these occurrences, the rise of campaigns like Não é Não has made a positive impact. 

An aerial view of Sambodromo amidst the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic on March 29, 2020 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Sambodromo hosted a provisory emergency shelter for homeless people (Photo by Buda Mendes/Getty Images).

Finally, we have arrived at the place where all the top schools parade: the Sambódromo. Officially known as the Passarela Professor Darcy Ribeiro, the Sambódromo is a venue specially designed for carnaval parades by Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer. This “samba runway,” completed in 1984, is a 700 meter (2,300 ft) long avenue with seating areas all along the middle. After Carnaval, the spaces underneath the bleachers are transformed into classrooms, making the Sambódromo a multifunctional space. At the height of the COVID-19 crisis, when classes were suspended, the Sambódromo even functioned as a shelter to the homeless population.

Portela in the Sambódromo (Source: Fotos Públicas).

Over two nights the top-twelve samba schools in the Grupo Especial parade in the Sambódromo. This event is of incredible proportion and leads to some stunning imagery, such as that viewed above. Samba schools are judged on many aspects, such as costumes, allegorical references, storytelling, and drumline. This judgment leads to a ranking, which finally leads to one winner, who, alongside the five runner-ups, appears one more time in the “winner's parade” a week after Carnival. This parade is considered the happiest of all the parades, and it gives the samba schools a final chance to show off what they have prepared for during the entire year.

Sambódromo Highlights

Before you go, take a look at some of the highlights from parades in previous years!


Alves, Lisa. “Mangueira Crowned 2019 Rio Carnival Samba School Champions,” The Rio Times, March 7, 2019, 

Associated Press. “Rio Carnival Is Marred by Violence as City’s Security Troubles Worsen.” The New York Times, February 15, 2018, sec. World.


Benfeitoria. “Não é Não” Accessed December 5, 2021.


Branch, John. “In Rio, the Work Goes in Before the Party Goes On.” The New York Times, January 27, 2016, sec. Travel.


Cidade Do Samba Rio de Janeiro. “Cidade Do Samba - Esquentando Os Tamborins, Voltamos Em Breve!” Accessed November 17, 2021.


Die Welt der Habsburger. “The Empress of Brazil.” Accessed November 18, 2021.


Gardiner, C. H. “At Rio Carnival, Crime and Corruption Overshadow Brazil’s Biggest Party.” InSight Crime, February 16, 2018.


Granderio. “HISTÓRIA.” Accessed November 26, 2021.


G.R.E.S. Portela. “Grêmio Recreativo Escola de Samba Portela.” Accessed November 17, 2021.


Langlois, Jill. “Women in Brazil Launch ‘No Means No’ Anti-Harassment Campaign during Carnival.” Los Angeles Times, February 9, 2018.


Letras. “Vila Isabel - Samba-Enredo 2017” Accessed November 27, 2021.


LIESA. “LIESA - Liga Independente Das Escolas de Samba Do Rio de Janeiro.” Accessed November 17, 2021.


Paraíso Do Tuiuti. “G.R.E.S. Paraíso Do Tuiuti – Vice-Campeã Do Carnaval 2018.” Accessed December 6, 2021.


Paraíso do Tuiuti. “Nossa História.” Accessed November 23, 2021.


Rio Capital Mundial da Arquitetura. “Sambódromo: The Samba Arena That Is Also a School Has Another Noble Function: Saving Lives,” Accessed April 18, 2020.


Rio Carnaval. “Carnival History” Accessed November 15, 2021.


Rio Carnaval. “Portela Samba School” Accessed November 28, 2021.


Sambadrome. “Sambadrome Marquês de Sapucaí.” Accessed December 6, 2021.


Williams, Lachlan. “Imperatriz Leopoldinense Samba School Ready for Rio 2019 Carnival.” The Rio Times, February 14, 2019.


Williams, Lachlan. “Paraíso Do Tuiuti Ready for Rio 2019 Carnival” The Rio Times, February 28, 2019,


Williams, Lachlan. “Portela Samba School Ready for Rio 2019 Carnival” The Rio Times, February 25, 2019,


Williams, Lachlan. “Rio Samba School’s ‘Rainhas Des Baterias’ Prepare for Carnival 2019,” The Rio Times, January 31, 2019,


*A special thanks to Dr. Alida Metcalf, Dr. Farès el-Dahdah, Bruno Sousa, Bruno Buccalon Caruso, Nicole Lhuillier, and Deborah Fontenelle for inspiring me and helping me create this storymap.

December 6, 2021