Triunfo is a quaint city located in the heart of Brazil’s ‘cowboy land,’ the sertão. Amid the Savanna landscapes of this semi-arid region, it is an oasis with its cooler temperatures and lush greenery. Aside from its refreshing climate, Triunfo is known for its ‘caretas’ — a tradition that has been kept alive for over one hundred years.

Every year during carnival, dozens of the town’s residents equip handmade masks and a whip to come out and parade anonymously through the cobbled streets. Cracking their whips with skilled mastery, they produce thunderous slaps as they make their way to the central plaza.

man astride horse in rural town

The Birth of the Caretas

 There are a couple of differing narratives of how this tradition came about. One of them recounts that during the early 20th Century, a certain Mateus was kicked out of an exclusive society due to his drinking habits. He was no longer permitted to take part in the reisado (a religious dance to celebrate the birth of Baby Jesus), as only those in the society were allowed to do so. 

He decided to take to the streets anyway, disguised in a mask and equipped with a whip and bells to make as much noise as possible. A few weeks later, during carnival, some of the town’s citizens decided to dress up as Mateus and that’s how the tradition started.

masked carnival performer known as caretas

“People treat you without any prejudices or anything. No one knows who you are, who it is underneath. You’re simply a careta. That’s why we like this tradition a lot.” – Antonio Geraldo, capoeira teacher, musician, artisan.

waterfront of small city
The waterfront of Triunfo.
portrait of man in green shirt
Antonio Geraldo.

The Art of Anonymity

The opportunity to be anonymous in such a small city is what attracts a lot of people to embody the mysterious careta. It must be very liberating to suddenly be ‘invisible’ in a city where everyone knows everyone. 

“The fun is in [being anonymous]. I like to see “the gaze” — the gaze of a person as they try to discover who you are,” says Abraão Alves de Almeida, a 48 year-old resident who makes and deconstructs artwork around the city.

He adds, “any detail… an uncovered hand, or the way you walk [can give yourself away]… so you have to disguise yourself well, even your voice.”

person wearing black and gold mask with flowery headgearThe blanket of security that anonymity provides can also be empowering, as a woman named Joaneide discloses, “Everyone has something to reveal, but in general no one wants to expose themselves. Everyone has some sort of secret and the careta gives an opportunity to reveal themselves without revealing themselves.” Joaneide Alencar de Araújo, a 35-year-old who works at the city’s Caretas’ Museum, honours this anonymity wholeheartedly — not even her daughters know who she is when she goes out to parade.

portrait of woman wearing glasses

The Battle for the Whip

Years ago, various careta groups called trecas used to battle each other when they crossed paths during carnival. The aim was to de-mask your opponent using your skill with the whip. However, since this would sometimes result in injuries, the police banned all caretas from parading with whips. “We went out with wooden sticks instead and it wasn’t fun at all,” says Abraão. The city’s residents put up a fight and promised not to use the whip to battle each other, managing to rescue the essential element of this unique tradition. 

red and white whip in someone's hands

Not only does the whip endow the parade of the caretas with a theatrical beauty, but it also has a profound role for some.

“It’s a great way for you to build up your self-esteem. You only attempt to play around with them (the whips) if you have the courage to be bigger than your fear, because either you strike it or it strikes you,” says Joaneide, “The moment you take the whip and manage to make the first pipoco (piercing sound the whip makes when it strikes the ground) is liberating.”

Breaking Down Social Barriers

“Carnival is a festival of all peoples – where the elite and the plebeians mix together,” says Abraão.

“You can wear anything you like. You have freedom of expression, of joy, this is the careta that I know,” says Teco de Agamenon, a 63-year-old actor, artist, poet and teacher, who is one of the city’s leading figures in passing on this tradition to the younger generation.

However, he goes on to explain, “The number of caretas has diminished a lot since the emergence of the ‘pretty’ careta.”

man holding whip in street
Jerailton demonstrating the whip cracking.
portrait of man wearing green shirt
Jerailton Barbosa de Céu.

“It’s become more commercial, people want to have their photo taken and be admired,” remarks Jerailton Barbosa do Céu who used to take part in the caretas tradition since he was two-years-old. However, today he and many other residents of the city are priced out of the fun – they don’t have money to spend on fancy outfits, and are embarrassed to parade with masks made out of cardboard. The traditional, rustic and inclusive careta has given way to a modern, pretty and exclusive one.

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Sonum Sumaria
Sonum is a documentary filmmaker and photographer from London. She is particularly drawn to the themes of identity and belonging, and has crafted visual stories about subaltern communities in Cuba, India, Russia and Brazil.