Brazilian Cultural Center of Chicago to host annual family Carnaval at International House

By Rena Slavin
Global Voices Fellow

On Saturday, Feb. 25, International House will host the Brazilian Cultural Center of Chicago’s Annual Brazilian Carnaval: Uma Festa Brasileira. Carnaval is one of the world’s most extravagant celebrations, and the Brazilian Cultural Center is looking forward to bringing its excitement to the Hyde Park community.

Carnaval is a Brazilian festival held annually to mark the beginning of Lent, the pre-Easter period of fasting and repentance observed by several Christian denominations. According to Maria Drell, the co-founder and president of the Brazilian Cultural Center of Chicago, Brazilian Carnaval can trace its roots back to Greek harvest festivals. From Greece, the tradition spread to Portugal, and it was the Portuguese who introduced it to Brazilian culture. While pre-Lent celebrations are a global tradition, Brazilian Carnaval is certainly one of the more spectacular ones.

Carnaval initially resonated with the lower classes of Brazil. Drell specifically mentioned the African population, whose members were brought to Brazil as slaves. They could not participate in court entertainment, “so they held their own carnival, their own street celebration.” Particularly during the colonial period, the festival was a chance for Brazilians to mock the elite members of the social hierarchy through various media, including dress and mannerisms. Today, it remains an opportunity for self-expression and cultural celebration. While it is seen by the world as a gigantic, multi-day party, Carnaval is also an arena for telling stories and expressing opinions. Discussions on various topics – the political climate, social justice, education issues, history, and culture – are woven into the spectacle that is Carnaval.

Each city has its own unique take on Carnaval. In Rio de Janeiro, Carnaval revolves around Brazil’s most important dance – the samba. The city’s many escolas de samba (samba schools) each get a chance to perform, and prizes are awarded to the most exceptional groups. At the International House event, members of the community can watch live samba dancing and learn some steps themselves. In Salvador, the festival is a conglomerate of blocos, individual groups participating in a massive parade. Many of the blocos represent specific identities, often ones that are underrepresented in society. The blocos-afro, for instance, are made up of Afro-Brazilians. Drell mentioned the Ilê Aiyê, which is not only a bloco de Carnaval, but one of the most influential Afro-Brazilian cultural groups in the region of Salvador. The members of Ilê Aiyê “created their own group at Carnaval because they couldn’t relate with the mostly-white Brazilian Carnaval groups.” The opportunity for all Brazilians to come together in a celebration of individual differences is one of the most important aspects of Carnaval.

The Brazilian Cultural Center of Chicago has worked to promote cultural understanding through cross-cultural exchange in the 15 years since its founding. It is a mobile, volunteer-based cultural and educational organization that holds events in the city of Chicago and its suburbs. Its events, like the upcoming Carnaval celebration, are designed to showcase aspects of Brazilian culture to the Chicago community and to “build bridges through cultural understanding.” The Brazilian Cultural Center places a strong emphasis on diversity and inclusion: “Brazil is a multicultural society, so any type of event that we do, we try to make sure that we include everybody,” said Drell.

The Annual Family Carnaval will bring “a little piece of Brazilian culture in Chicago” to International House. Local Brazilian artists, musicians, and performers join the Brazilian Cultural Center of Chicago to showcase traditional Brazilian music, dancing, and food. Children can look forward to face-painting and arts-and-crafts projects, such as mask-making. Members of the community can get involved in workshops for samba dancing and capoeira, a traditional Brazilian form of martial arts. Attendees will also have the chance to try Brazilian cuisine; feijoada, a traditional stew, and guaraná, a popular soft drink, will be available for purchase along with other delicious Brazilian delicacies. Find the Brazilian Cultural Center of Chicago and the Carnaval event page on Facebook for more information.

The Annual Family Carnaval will take place on Saturday, Feb. 25, from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. in the International House Assembly Hall, 1414 E. 59th St. This event is free and open to the public with registration at The Annual Family Carnaval is co-sponsored by the Brazilian Cultural Center of Chicago and International House. For more information about other Global Voices Events and co-sponsorship opportunities, or for persons with disabilities who may require assistance, please contact Mary Beth DeStefano at 773-753-2274 or