Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

From Slave to Samba School Star as Part of a Search for Its Black Roots, Brazil Honors Woman Who Began Life in Bondage

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

From Slave to Samba School Star as Part of a Search for Its Black Roots, Brazil Honors Woman Who Began Life in Bondage

Article excerpt

BRAZIL'S only living former slave has become one of the biggest attractions at this year's Rio carnival.

Maria do Carmo Jeronimo, the nation's oldest person, was a teenager in 1888 when Brazil became the last country in the Western Hemisphere to abolish slavery. As a reminder, she still bears scars on her back from her master's whip.

On Feb. 19, she paraded with the samba school Unidos da Tijuca, one of Rio's 18 major carnival groups. "I want to appreciate the beauty and all the colors," she said in an interview at her hotel room.

Unidos organizers opted to honor the former slave after they chose Zumbi, a 17th-century African-Brazilian hero, as their enredo, or carnival theme, for this year.

Brazil's samba schools choose a theme in decorating their giant floats and in choosing costumes for their dancers, who number some 4,000. Unidos artistic director Lucas Pinto did exhaustive research to tell the story of Zumbi, the military commander of a mountain fortress called Palmares that was a home to escaped slaves. For two decades, Zumbi fought the Portuguese, the Dutch, and the slave trade before being killed in an ambush in 1695.

Not surprisingly, Miss Do Carmo, the last direct link to the nation's slavery era, has become a symbol for Brazil's civil rights movement. For weeks, several prominent black organizations pressured her guardians to persuade her to participate in the homage to Zumbi, according to Bernadete Bernardo Guimaraes, who looks after Do Carmo's affairs.

Mr. Pinto, however, was elated when Do Carmo finally accepted the Unidos invitation last month. "She is a character right out of my research," he says. "When you see her, you can't help but feel emotional."

During the parade, Do Carmo sat passively on the bottom tier of a float entitled "Palmares Banquet," which depicted how the community's runaway slaves celebrated their life of freedom. …

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