On Friday, Brazil kicked off its annual Carnival, the week-long festival of street parties and parades that unfold to the beats of samba, the most popular musical and dance style in the country. Marcelly Morena, 32, is one of the first transgender women to perform as a passista, a samba dancer who leads the way for the marching band for the entire length of the parade.
“I feel happy, accomplished, victorious,” Morena tells Broadly. She grew up dancing from a young age in Duque de Caxias, an impoverished town on the outskirts of Rio. “Poor people are born knowing how to dance and sing!” she jokes.
Fast-forward a couple decades and she is now dancing for her local samba school, which is one of the many groups that provide passista for the parade in Rio. She is one of two trailblazing trans women participating as Carnival dancers—the other is Kamilla Carvalho, a performer from a Rio samba school known as Salgueida. Morena danced in the carnival celebrations in her hometown on Friday, and will cap her inaugural year as a passista off by dancing in Rio throughout the week.
Carnival was originally brought by Portuguese colonizers in the 16th century, and has since become a blend of all the cultures that make up contemporary Brazil, including traditions from West Africa. Though it was briefly banned in the 19th century, it is now celebrated as a leading example of Brazil’s “racial democracy ”—a country where white, black, mixed race and indigenous people live together in harmony. The reality, of course, is far from the truth.
Though she declined to elaborate on her experiences, Morena says that she has experienced discrimination as a black trans woman. “Even if we’re a country made of people from around the world,” she explains, “there is prejudice based on gender and race in Brazilian society. It’s like that here.”
According to a report from Transgender Europe, Brazil has the highest rate of murders to trans and gender-diverse people. In 2017, 171 of 325 reported killings occurred in Brazil. “The worst thing is not being trans,” Morena adds. “It’s being trans and black.”
Although there is rising awareness of LGBTQ rights in Brazil, “it will depend on the next president,” she says. “There is a candidate, Jair Bolsonaro, who doesn’t seem to like gay people.” Bolsonaro, one of the presidential frontrunners seeking election in October, has said he'd “rather have a dead son over a gay son.”
In spite of the gloomy statistics, over three million people attended São Paulo’s Pride Parade in 2017, rivaling New York as the largest pride parade in the world. At its best, Carnival is a celebration that turns the ordinary social order of the country upside down, with favela culture and historically stigmatized music genres like samba at the front and center of the festivities.
Headlines in Brazil this week celebrated Morena as a trans woman who is “dancing samba in the face of prejudice”, and Morena prides herself on being a symbol of change. Her dream is to win a promotion to more senior dance roles in her school, becoming a musa (“muse” in Portuguese) and then graduating to the coveted position of samba queen (rainha de bateria).
“I know that becoming a musa is a luxury,” she says. “But one day I will also make that dream come true, I have faith!”