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Women are breaking Brazil's 'bate-bola' Carnival mold

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RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil — Far from Rio de Janeiro's boisterous beach block parties and its world renowned Samba competitions, Carnival is celebrated decidedly differently.

Out in the landlocked working-class neighborhoods, more than an hour from Rio's downtown, residents celebrate the tradition of bate-bola. Translated literally as ball-beaters, groups of participants, or crews, don colorful clown-inspired costumes. They race through local streets, bashing large balls on the ground, to a frenetic mix of funk, fireworks and fun.

Men have long dominated bate-bola culture and, in the past, fights broke out among competing crews, drawing adverse media attention and stigma. But in recent years, more women have joined bate-bola crews, helping shed the stigmas that have been associated with the long-celebrated cultural tradition in Rio de Janeiro's outskirts.

Bate-bola crew Bem Feito goes out during carnival celebrations in Pedra de Guaratiba, Rio de Janeiro, on Feb. 11.
/ María Magdalena Arréllaga for NPR
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María Magdalena Arréllaga for NPR
Bate-bola crew Bem Feito goes out during Carnival celebrations in Pedra de Guaratiba, a neighborhood in Rio de Janeiro, on Feb. 11.
Andra Maturana, 26, with her son in Bem Feito's warehouse in Campo Grande, Rio de Janeiro, where the bate-bola crew prepares its carnival costumes.
/ María Magdalena Arréllaga for NPR
/
María Magdalena Arréllaga for NPR
Andra Maturana, 26, with her son in Bem Feito's warehouse in Campo Grande, a neighborhood in Rio de Janeiro, where the bate-bola crew prepares its Carnival costumes.
Members of the Bem Feito bate-bola crew work on finishing touches on the costumes for this year's carnival, at the group's warehouse in Campo Grande, Rio de Janeiro.
/ María Magdalena Arréllaga for NPR
/
María Magdalena Arréllaga for NPR
Members of the Bem Feito bate-bola crew work on the finishing touches for their costumes for this year's Carnival at the group's warehouse in Campo Grande, a neighborhood in Rio de Janeiro.

Bem Feito — Well Done Crew

On the top floor of an impromptu workshop in Campo Grande, 39-year-old Monique Vieira sews two pieces of neon pink strips together, which will make up the mask covering Bem Feito — or the Well Done crew's faces.

Carnival is done very differently in Rio's outskirts, not at all how it's celebrated by the beach, says Vieira. "They like those block parties where everyone parties practically naked," she says.

Here, it's all about the costumes. For the past several months, Vieira, a mechanical engineer, and several other members assembled this year's outfits. Along with the mask, the rest of the costume consists of a whimsical, full-ruffled skirt, incandescent colored tights, feather-embellished vests and headdresses.

And then, of course, there's the props. As well as the eponymous ball on a stick, each Bem Feito crew member carries a doll-like replica in this year's theme, dedicated to popular Brazilian singer Marília Mendonça. The artist died in a plane crash in 2021.

Lohanie Christine, left, 23, prepares to go out with the Bem Feito bate-bola crew during carnival celebrations in Campo Grande, Rio de Janeiro. A bate-bola mask, right, belonging to the Bem Feito crew hangs on a pole before the crew's third day of carnival outings in Rio de Janeiro's west side neighborhoods.
/ María Magdalena Arréllaga for NPR
/
María Magdalena Arréllaga for NPR
Lohanie Christine (left), 23, prepares to go out with the Bem Feito bate-bola crew during Carnival celebrations in Campo Grande, a neighborhood in Rio de Janeiro. A bate-bola mask (right) belonging to the Bem Feito crew hangs on a pole before the crew's third day of Carnival outings in Rio de Janeiro's west-side neighborhoods.
Members of the Bem Feito bate-bola crew travel by bus to several of Rio de Janeiro's west side neighborhoods for the group's third day of carnival outings.
/ María Magdalena Arréllaga for NPR
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María Magdalena Arréllaga for NPR
Members of the Bem Feito bate-bola crew travel by bus to several of Rio de Janeiro's west-side neighborhoods for the group's third day of Carnival outings.
Members of the Bem Feito bate-bola crew go onto buses for the group's third day of carnival outings in several of Rio de Janeiro's west side neighborhoods. With over 400 members, Bem Feito is one of Rio de Janeiro's largest bate-bola crews and has attracted an increasing number of women bate-bola members in recent years.
/ María Magdalena Arréllaga for NPR
/
María Magdalena Arréllaga for NPR
Members of the Bem Feito bate-bola crew travel by bus for the group's third day of Carnival outings in several of Rio de Janeiro's west-side neighborhoods. With over 400 members, Bem Feito is one of Rio de Janeiro's largest bate-bola crews and has attracted an increasing number of women members in recent years.

Bate-bola has many origin stories

There is no shortage of theories about where bate-bola's (pronounced bah-che bowl-lah) mix of extravagant costumes and revelry came from. Some say you can see similarities in the clown-like costumes worn by Portuguese colonizers during their King's Day festivals.

Andra Maturana, who runs Bem Feito with her husband, believes the celebration was born out of her neighborhood's working-class strikes at industries long relegated to Rio's outskirts. "They (workers) would wear costumes and bash balls on the ground as a form of protest," she said.

The ball used to come from a local slaughterhouse in Santa Cruz in the form of discarded cow bladders that workers dried into hard balls to bash during strikes. Today, bate-bolas use plastic balls.

Maturana wasn't allowed to join a crew as a kid. Her mother said it was too dangerous, with fights breaking out among rival crews. But now, times are changing, according to the 26-year-old new mom, and bate-bola is overcoming its violent stigma.

"It has long been an extremely masculine culture, but we are seeing more and more women participating," she said. It took a while for men to accept women into their ranks, she added. When she first joined the Bem Feito crew in 2018 there were only six women members. This year, there are 40 out of the nearly 400 who will parade.

Joyce Cecília, 27, member of the Brilhetes all-women bate-bola crew after the group's first carnival outing in Anchieta, Rio de Janeiro.
/ María Magdalena Arréllaga for NPR
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María Magdalena Arréllaga for NPR
Joyce Cecília, 27, a member of the Brilhetes all-women bate-bola crew, after the group's first Carnival outing in Anchieta, a neighborhood in Rio de Janeiro.
Members of the all-women bate-bola crew Brilhetes gather before their crew's first carnival presentation in the neighborhood of Anchieta, Rio de Janeiro.
/ María Magdalena Arréllaga for NPR
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María Magdalena Arréllaga for NPR
Members of the all-women bate-bola crew Brilhetes gather before their crew's first Carnival presentation in Rio de Janeiro's Anchieta neighborhood.
The Bem Feito bate-bola crew goes out during carnival celebrations in Itaguaí, near Rio de Janeiro.
/ María Magdalena Arréllaga for NPR
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María Magdalena Arréllaga for NPR
The Bem Feito bate-bola crew goes out during Carnival celebrations in Itaguaí, a city west of Rio de Janeiro.

Hoping for more help — and tourists' dollars

She'd like to see more help from the city, though. Costumes are expensive and bate-bolas don't get city donations or major sponsors like Rio's famous Samba schools receive.

"The big benefactors don't look to bate-bola when they think of sponsoring cultural events," said Sabrina Veloso, a researcher who has written about bate-bola culture. She's also a member of the all-female Brilhetes — or Shining — crew based out of the north zone of Rio, in Anchieta.

She says the working-class outskirts of Rio have long been marginalized, with underinvestment. It's not surprising its celebrations don't get much tourist promotion or dollars, she adds. Veloso is sure many of the crews wouldn't mind a few sponsors to help defray costs.

Maria Clara, 10, plays in the street before the Brilhetes bate-bola group's first official carnival outing. Members of the bate-bola crew Bem Feito walk back to the bus after going out during carnival celebrations in Pedra de Guaratiba.
/ María Magdalena Arréllaga for NPR
/
María Magdalena Arréllaga for NPR
Left: Maria Clara, 10, plays in the street before the Brilhetes bate-bola group's first official Carnival outing. Right: Members of the bate-bola crew Bem Feito walk back to the bus after going out during Carnival celebrations in Pedra de Guaratiba.
The all-women bate-bola crew Brilhetes makes their first carnival outing this year in the neighborhood of Anchieta, Rio de Janeiro, on February 09, 2024.
/ María Magdalena Arréllaga for NPR
/
María Magdalena Arréllaga for NPR
The all-women bate-bola crew Brilhetes makes their first Carnival outing this year in Rio de Janeiro's Anchieta neighborhood on Feb. 9.
With over 400 members, Bem Feito is one of Rio de Janeiro's largest bate-bola crews and has attracted an increasing number of women bate-bola members in recent years.
/ María Magdalena Arréllaga for NPR
/
María Magdalena Arréllaga for NPR
With over 400 members, Bem Feito is one of Rio de Janeiro's largest bate-bola crews and has attracted an increasing number of women to its crew in recent years.

Brilhetes aglow after midnight

Undeterred, the all-women's Brilhetes crew assembled amazing costumes for this year's celebration. Their bright neon yellow and green skirts and vests were emblazoned with Zelda, a figure in a popular Nintendo video game. On the back is Zelda's warrior protector, Urbosa.

Crew leader Vanessa Amorim says she is saddened when she is in other parts of Rio and residents say they've never heard of bate-bola. Or if they have, they disparage it. She and other crew members have taken to holding bate-bola workshops at schools near Rio's beaches.

The city now holds an annual costume competition for the bate-bolas in downtown.

Amorim says she'll keep sharing bate-bola culture. "We keep fighting and persisting," she said while getting ready to don her feathered costume and head out onto the streets amid deafening funk music and fireworks.

With their balls bashing on the concrete, the Bilhetes take off. Their companion men's crew, the Turma Do Brilho — or Shine, walk alongside them.

"These days, even the men are accepting us as equals," Amorim said. "We no longer parade behind them, nor in front. We are doing it side by side."

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Sabrina Dias Veloso,left, 35, researcher and member of the Brilhetes bate-bola crew and Vanessa de Souza Amorim, 31, leader of the Brilhetes bate-bola crew, after the group's first carnival outing in Anchieta, Rio de Janeiro.
/ María Magdalena Arréllaga for NPR
/
María Magdalena Arréllaga for NPR
Sabrina Dias Veloso, 35, (left) a researcher and member of the Brilhetes bate-bola crew, and Vanessa de Souza Amorim, 31, (right) the leader of the Brilhetes bate-bola crew, after the group's first Carnival outing in Anchieta, a neighborhood of Rio de Janeiro.
Older members of the bate-bola crew Brilho help the children of the crew make their first carnival outing in the neighborhood of Anchieta, Rio de Janeiro, on February 09, 2024.
/ María Magdalena Arréllaga for NPR
/
María Magdalena Arréllaga for NPR
Older members of the bate-bola crew Brilho help the children of the crew make their first Carnival outing in Rio de Janeiro's Anchieta neighborhood on Feb. 9.
Bate-bola crew Bem Feito goes out during carnival celebrations in Pedra de Guaratiba, Rio de Janeiro on February 11, 2024.
/ María Magdalena Arréllaga for NPR
/
María Magdalena Arréllaga for NPR
Bate-bola crew Bem Feito goes out during Carnival celebrations in Rio de Janeiro's Pedra de Guaratiba neighborhood on Feb. 11.

Carrie Kahn is NPR's International Correspondent based in Mexico City, Mexico. She covers Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America. Kahn's reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning news programs including All Things Considered, Morning Edition and Weekend Edition, and on NPR.org.
María Magdalena Arréllaga
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