- Associated Press - Sunday, March 6, 2011

RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) - A month after a fire destroyed many of the lavish costumes of the Portela samba group, its members rallied to put on a moving show Sunday night at Rio’s Carnival parade that more than made up for its material losses.

The group strutted into Rio’s Sambadrome, then its 300-strong percussion section stopped its drums and crouched down, holding the audience in thrall for a few seconds of silence to remember what was lost to the flames. Then they jumped up and roared back to a raucous beat, leading Portela’s thousands of marches past clapping and cheering fans.

“We’re ready and we’re strong _ no one is sitting here sad, thinking of what we lost,” one member, Maria Alice Alves, clad in a metallic silver and blue outfield said before Portela marched in.

The fire in early February ripped through warehouses where Portela and two other elite samba groups were preparing for Carnival, incinerating more than 8,000 feather and glitter costumes and many of the big, meticulously decorated floats.

Alves’s group had 3,255 outfits destroyed or severely damaged. Many wondered whether Portela, which has not missed a parade in its 84-year history, would be able to put on a show at all. The two nights of lavish parades that began Sunday are watched by millions in Brazil and abroad.

Once the shock passed, however, it became clear the 2011 Carnival would be marked more than ever by the festival’s quintessential ability to bring hope and happiness, even if fleeting, to those who have little. It also steeled samba group members’ fierce allegiances in a city where fans are as devoted to their groups as they are to their soccer teams.

“Our community looks beautiful tonight,” Portela president Nilo Figueredo said. “It is really a community of warriors.”

Some longtime members admitted to being a bit anxious about making an entrance that could be marred by what was lost in the fire.

“Our objective is always perfection,” said Alessandro Meireles, a 30-year-old who has been a member of Portela’s percussion section for a decade. “Even if we can’t win, we’re going to put on the show people expect of us.”

He was referring to the top-tier samba competition, in which groups vie fiercely to have their performance judged the best. There’s no cash prize for first place, only a trophy and the bragging rights that last a year until the next Carnival. Portela has won the samba competition 21 times, more than any group, most recently when it shared the title in 1984.

But this year the contest’s governing body decided there was no way Portela, Academicos do Grande Rio and Uniao da Ilha do Governador could recover from the fire in time, so they will not be judged. That means they don’t risk being relegated to the second-tier samba competition, the fate of each year’s last-place finisher.

It also meant Portela was competing only for pride Sunday night _ and celebrating its comeback from disaster.

Police have concluded their investigation and found the fire was accidental.

Nevertheless, it wiped out months of work by the residents of Madureira, Portela’s working-class home base, and dealt a devastating blow to the neighborhood’s seamstresses, construction workers and salesgirls who leave behind their workaday lives once a year when they take on their glamorous Carnival alter egos in the Sambadrome.

Bianca Monteiro, 22, recalled how she cried in February when she saw on TV the thick smoke rising from the warehouses.

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