It Wouldn't Be Carnival In Brazil Without Giant Puppets

The northeastern town of Olinda throws as good a Carnival party as anywhere else in Brazil, but its celebrations are marked by giant puppets. It's been a tradition there for 100 years.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

Carnival is going strong in Brazil, but its not all about music, dancing and elaborate costumes. Every year in the historic city of Olinda, giant puppets are paraded through the streets during Carnival. It's been a tradition in the small town on the northeastern coast of Brazil since the early part of the last century.

NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro has the story.

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LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, BYLINE: Fireworks burst over the cobblestone streets of Olinda, paper streamers float in the air and music fills the streets.

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GARCIA-NAVARRO: It's Saturday night and almost time for the Midnight Man to appear. He is Olinda's oldest puppet and has been making an appearance since the 1930's. He's suave with a mustache and golden tooth and a way with the ladies. Even so, over the years he's gotten a wife - the Noonday Woman and a kid - the Afternoon Child.

Now the moniker puppet might be misleading if you are imagining traditional hand held puppets. These are gigantic puppets, measuring some 10 feet tall and they're hoisted around on the shoulders of participants who hide underneath the puppet costumes. And the Midnight Man has some interesting puppet company.

LEONARDO CASTRO: (Foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: We have Pope Francis, soccer players linked to the World Cup, President Dilma Rousseff , Pele, Barak and Michele Obama too.

Leandro Castro is the kind of puppet master of the Olinda Carnival. Every year he conceives and oversees which puppets will be made for the big puppet parade that takes place through Olinda.

CASTRO: (Foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You have Madame Tussauds in other countries but what is different here is that our puppets take life, he says.

And they are also lighter - once made of paper mache and wood, these days they are made of painted fiber glass. Each one costs a few thousand dollars to put together but can take up to 40 days to create. Still, as one young boy who was wearing told me, it gets really hot inside them when you are marching down the streets in 100 degree weather.

CASTRO: (Foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Castro says the giant puppets are a European tradition imported from Portugal, Spain and Belgium where large models would be made of patron saints, he says. According to Castro, there was a Belgian priest in a small town in the interior of this state in Brazil who promoted the practice.

In the 1930s, that tradition came to Olinda with the creation of the midnight man. But not all of the puppets are aimed at carnival fun - some have a more serious message.

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GARCIA-NAVARRO: Last minute touches are being made to some of the giant dolls at the studio of Gustavo Alex who also makes puppets for carnival. This year he made one for a special little boy.

GUSTAVO ALEX: (Foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I was walking down the street and I saw a child with Down syndrome and he hugged me, he says. And I thought I would make a puppet for that child and all the others who have Down syndrome. They always want to make puppets of famous people he says, but the puppets can become icons of social causes.

JACQUELINE MONTEIRO: (Foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Just before the parade the puppet is presented to 12-year-old Gabriel who was born with Down syndrome. He begins to cry with emotion when he sees it. His mother, Jacqueline Monteiro, says her son has always loved carnival since he was a small child.

MONTEIRO: (Foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I think its so important to show the people here, the whole world, that despite the limitations people with Downs aren't different from anyone. It is so great to show equality, respect and not the prejudice.

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GARCIA-NAVARRO: Its finally time for the puppets to parade. They are lifted up and they begin to twirl and bow as they follow the musicians through Olinda's winding streets. Everyone who sees them smiles.

Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News, Olinda.

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WERTHEIMER: This is NPR News.

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