Rio de Janeiro’s vast Sambadrome Carnival cheer masks dark world

February 8, 2015 8:24 pm

In the flurry of blue and white that lit up Rio de Janeiro’s vast
Sambadrome last week, black bands could be spotted on the wrists of some
who marched to the driving beats.
It was a sombre touch for the
prestigious Beija-Flor samba school, 12 times winner of the city’s
carnival parade. The black bands worn at a rehearsal for the carnival,
which begins next weekend, were a tribute to a murdered dancer.

 Rio revellers dance in street parties as the carnival approaches. Photo / AP
The tortured corpse of Claudio da Silva, 25, a transvestite who lived as a woman, was discovered on January 24.

A Brazilian man welds a sculpture for the carnival parade at the Mangueira Samba school in Rio de Janeiro.
A Brazilian man welds a sculpture for the carnival parade at the Mangueira Samba school in Rio de Janeiro.

It was a murder that highlighted Brazil’s homophobia and
transphobia problem, and the criminal underworld that lurks behind the
happy-go-lucky carnival facade.
The alarm had first been raised
the week before, when Da Silva failed to turn up for a rehearsal at the
samba school’s quadra, or main hall – she never missed a practice, so
her relatives and friends became concerned.

The next day a shocking video surfaced on social media, purporting to show her being tortured to death in a nearby favela.
The
footage showed Da Silva pleading with unseen aggressors while they
grilled her about what she was doing there. Her face and body were
already covered in blood.
Frantic relatives searched the area
after the video was released and found her body, disfigured and riddled
with bullets. There has since been wild speculation about what caused
her tragic death.
The most obvious motive appeared to be
transphobia. The world of carnival is defined by its high camp, and in
recent years a gay soap actor had appeared on a strawberry-scented float
to rapturous applause. Men dressed as women fill the streets of Rio as
part of the celebrations.
Homophobia is also entrenched in
Brazil, with one gay person killed on average every 28 hours. Some of
the online comments condemned the wristband homage and used derogatory
homophobic slang such as bicho (animal) to describe Da Silva.
On
January 30, six days after Da Silva’s body was found, a National Trans
Visibility day was held in Brazil, with transvestites and transsexuals
descending on Rio’s City Hall to raise awareness of violence and
prejudice against trans people. Beatriz Cordeiro, 28, from Projeto
Damas, which works to get trans people into employment, said:
“Foreigners come to carnival expecting free sex and love, but the image
Brazil exports of freedom and liberty is false. There is a lot of
prejudice in society still.”
Murders of transsexuals and
transvestites are common, with 312 trans, gay or bisexual people
murdered in 2013, according to a report by Grupo Gay da Bahia, Brazil’s
most established gay rights groups.
There were clues that other
motives could also have contributed to Da Silva’s murder – ones related
to the organised crime pervasive in places like Morro de Mina where she
died. One indication was the wall of silence that greeted her death from
many quarters.
“People are afraid to talk. You never know who is
listening or watching, and they don’t want to get involved,” one
anonymous member of Beija-Flor said, in reference to the climate of fear
surrounding the dancer’s murder.
The samba school would not
respond to media requests, and many members refused to even confirm that
they knew Da Silva, despite her attendance record and reputation as one
of the most lively members of the Beija-Flor school.
The area of
Nilopolis in Rio’s northern suburbs, far from its beaches and tourist
attractions, is not only home to the Beija-Flor school with its
illustrious place in samba history, founded in 1948; it is also covered
by a patchwork of favelas dominated by frequently warring drug gangs,
including the notorious Comando Vermelho (Red Command), the gang that
has control of Morro da Mina. On the Facebook community page for
Nilopolis, some residents describe the favela as a “hell” where violence
rules.
More than 900,000 tourists are expected in Rio this year
for the official parade. The Beija-Flor school has planned a sumptuous
parade, with the theme of Equatorial Guinea, in a nod to the African
roots of the samba sound and the people living in the poorer communities
where it thrives.

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