The Carnival Seamstress

Behind the seams of Rio de Janeiro’s spectacular festival

by Soledad Dominguez | translated by Ricky Toledano

Monica has not slept at home since January 28. And it is most likely that she will not return to her husband and her youngest son until March 4, the day when the Paraiso do Tuiuti samba school will parade in the Sambadrome of Rio de Janeiro. Monica is one of the seamstresses in charge of producing the 450 costumes that the participants of that giant troupe of 3,200 people will wear. “At home they are depressed without me. But what can I do? It is more practical to sleep in the workshops of the school – at least from Monday to Saturday. I take advantage of the nights to get ahead of the work, if not, we won’t make it,” she explains.

With the short nails of a seamstress, it was at the age of 14 that the 45-years old Monica was first taken by her mother to an underwear factory. “Sewing came into my life out of necessity. My parents wanted me to learn how to survive,” she says. When not sewing for Carnival throughout the rest of the year, Monica takes care of her clothing shop in the same neighborhood where she has lived since she was born: Vila Rosario, in a suburb of Rio de Janeiro, near Gramacho, where the largest landfill garbage dump in Latin America had been located until 2012.

Mónica, in the workshop above the Cidade do Samba. Photo: María Eduarda Lessa

Last night, Monica went to bed at 4am after finishing 54 yellow bikinis. “Nobody pressures me, but if you don’t deliver on time, you get burned as a professional,” she explains. Now it’s 8am, and she’s just bathed to start the day. Pulling her hair back, she smiles as she asks the photographer not to take a close-up, because she doesn’t look pretty. Skipping breakfast, she sits with endless meters of golden tulle that she will turn into tutus within a few hours. She passes them through the finest pinking shears. “I bought this machine for 4,000 Brazilian reais. It was worth it. It does everything: cutting, sewing and overcasting.” The machine has some little disks that seem suspended in the air, holding small balls of white thread balls that rise and fall as she presses the pedal.

Everything moves around her. As the day falls, the heat remains unrelenting. Dudu, one of the seamsters, goes around the tables raising money to go to the market and cook dinner. From the window, you hear a group of people who are aligned in four rows, rehearsing the samba of Paraíso do Tuiuti. They are on the asphalt of the Cidade do Samba, where the workshops of the main samba schools are located in the old port district. “This is magical – I always say that I will not return – and then, the following year, here I am,” says Monica looking at the floats where giant heads of flies and frogs hang.

Paraíso do Tuiuti is one of the 14 samba schools of the special group. Last year, it was vice champion, making a biting political satire and social critique: Leonardo Moraes, the current sewing chief, paraded dressed as a vampire with the ‘presidential band’, symbolizing the former president of Brazil, Michel Temer. “Carnival is for questioning. If not, it wouldn’t be carnival,” says Leonardo, who will return to his profession as a history teacher just after Carnival.

One costume can pass through the hands of up to 15 professionals.
Photo: María Eduarda Lessa

Monica’s colleagues frown when I ask them what they think of Crivella, the mayor of Rio de Janeiro, who has reduced the budget for samba schools since 2017. “Instead of cutting back, he should invest the proceeds from Carnival in kindergartens, which is what he [says he] wants to finance,” says Leonardo. It would be naïve not to associate the cutback with the religion of the mayor, who is a bishop of the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God. “One thing is to be a pastor; another, mayor,” Monica concludes.

The cement floor of the 900m2 of the sewing shop is filled with stacked feathers, wine-colored fabrics, light blue prints with mirrors cut in circles, tulles, kid’s heads in orange rubber foam and straw hats. The cooling fans are not much use: they merely throw warm air at the six groups of men and women standing around tables, cutting, sewing and finalizing details. They work almost silently, concentrated on precision techniques of pure inspiration. The drawings of the suits are glued to the walls. According to its complexity, a costume can pass through the hands of 15 professionals.

The atmosphere smells like glue that exudes from cans on 5-meter long work tables.

Monica got so used to sewing that if she has nothing to do, she hems something. Since she got married at age 20, she has worked for clothing brands in factories and then from home. They commission her for items she returns to them ironed and ready. She did everything to support the family of 3 children. Gessy, her 60-year old husband, is a glassmaker. “I pay 80% of all expenses.” Over time, however, she says she has grown tired of all the small business taxes that come without any benefits.   

It is estimated the Carnival means jobs for some 250,000 people.
Photo: Fernando Grilli | Riotur

She had always played around with the idea of making Carnival costumes since she first saw the Carnival celebrations as a child. It was in the late 1980s. “But my father, who came from the countryside, did not let me dress up. He said it was a crazy people thing.” She never disobeyed him, but her cousin did. One Carnival, she disappeared and returned on Ash Wednesday, smiling from ear-to-ear and inciting a family scandal. At 18, Monica left the house, because she wanted to be able to go to the beach and dress up for Carnival.

Two years ago, she started at the shop of the Cidade do Samba. “I saw a long-haired boy carrying a sewing machine and I went up to him to ask if they needed any help.” They did a test and I was selected. “Working on this is being what you want: a dancer, a colombina,” she says.

Between November and March, Monica’s sews worlds of costumes. She doesn’t bother to take a mobile phone: if there is an emergency at home, “call Dudu’s phone” – the seamster working beside her. “Sometimes I would like to be less provider and receive more from others,” she says, when talking about her family. One night in February last year, Pedro, her middle child, did not come home at night. Monica was already in the last stretch of Carnival preparations, spending days in the workshop. Her husband called her and she answered amid Baiana dress adjustments. “I ran off. I expected the worst: an accident, a stray bullet from the police, or from the gangs”. But Pedro had stayed at his girlfriend’s without notifying them. When Monica returned to the workshop, her work had already been completed: the uncertainty over what might have happened to Monica’s son made her colleagues finish her pieces.

In the workshop of the Paraiso do Tuiuti samba school. Photo: Maria Eduarda Lessa

Monica had been hired through an outsourced agent. She doesn’t say how much she makes, but it is enough to justify putting off life for some months. In 2020, she wants to make her own solo agreement with the school. She also hopes to create a clothing brand in the future and sell it at community fairs – and, someday, to be a Portuguese teacher. At one point she had actually begun a college program. “Sewing is similar to combining words in a sentence,” she compares.

Two exuberant dancers pass in tiny miniskirts, looking comfortable while talking with a big man in glasses wearing floral pants below the navel.

Monica gives some fabrics to her colleague, Renata, who is a transvestite. “I don’t bother to tell my husband, because he would say it’s shameful. But Carnival is like that: it includes what society rejects: gays, transvestites and the marginalized.”

Carnival receives about 850,000 tourists. Photo: Fernando Grilli | Riotur

After the Carnival, in March, Monica will resume her normal life, after the feeling that she has returned from a trip where she missed everything. “When I go home, I will sit and listen to Andrea Bocelli, my favorite – and talk to my husband about the car we want to buy.” During the quarantine, she will make robes for the choir of ladies of the evangelical church in the neighborhood. Afterwards, she’ll make clothes for Umbanda groups. Between religious celebrations, Monica reads the bible and will spend the year to the feathers of the next carnival.

Soledad Domínguez is an Argentine journalist who lives in Rio de Janeiro. She writes chronicles about the stories of city natives and Brazilians across Latin American media.

Soledad Domínguez is an Argentine journalist who lives in Rio de Janeiro. She writes chronicles about city and Brazilians for media across Latin American .

Acknowledgments: Feature image design by Pablo Domrose | Photos by Maria Eduarda Lessa and Fernando Grilli of RioTur

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A native of Chicago, Ricky Toledano has lived in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil for over twenty years as a writer, translator and teacher. [a]multipicity is multi-lingual collection of reflections through the humanities.

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