From Slave to Samba School Star

As part of a search for its black roots, Brazil honors woman who began life in bondage

BRAZIL'S only living former slave has become one of the biggest attractions at this year's Rio carnival.

Maria do Carmo Jeronimo, the nation's oldest person, was a teenager in 1888 when Brazil became the last country in the Western Hemisphere to abolish slavery. As a reminder, she still bears scars on her back from her master's whip.

On Feb. 19, she paraded with the samba school Unidos da Tijuca, one of Rio's 18 major carnival groups. "I want to appreciate the beauty and all the colors," she said in an interview at her hotel room.

Unidos organizers opted to honor the former slave after they chose Zumbi, a 17th-century African-Brazilian hero, as their enredo, or carnival theme, for this year.

Brazil's samba schools choose a theme in decorating their giant floats and in choosing costumes for their dancers, who number some 4,000. Unidos artistic director Lucas Pinto did exhaustive research to tell the story of Zumbi, the military commander of a mountain fortress called Palmares that was a home to escaped slaves. For two decades, Zumbi fought the Portuguese, the Dutch, and the slave trade before being killed in an ambush in 1695.

Not surprisingly, Miss Do Carmo, the last direct link to the nation's slavery era, has become a symbol for Brazil's civil rights movement. For weeks, several prominent black organizations pressured her guardians to persuade her to participate in the homage to Zumbi, according to Bernadete Bernardo Guimaraes, who looks after Do Carmo's affairs.

Mr. Pinto, however, was elated when Do Carmo finally accepted the Unidos invitation last month. "She is a character right out of my research," he says. "When you see her, you can't help but feel emotional."

During the parade, Do Carmo sat passively on the bottom tier of a float entitled "Palmares Banquet," which depicted how the community's runaway slaves celebrated their life of freedom. She was dressed in a gold sateen dress as Aqualtune, Zumbi's grandmother and one of the founders of Palmares. She was surrounded by giant fruit baskets and papier-mache replicas of watermelons, pineapples, oranges, and bananas.

Do Carmo was born in the state of Minas Gerais in 1871, the same year that United States President Ulysses S. Grant enacted legislation to stop a new terrorist organization called the Klu Klux Klan.

Her mother, Sabina, worked in the sugar fields of Judge Jose Monteiro de Noronha. Her father, Jeronimo, was a plantation breeder, one of several slaves who were allowed to father children.

Do Carmo remembers that she helped her mother cut sugar cane and wash clothes. Her older brother and sister were sold to another plantation. She never saw them again.

After liberation, she worked as a maid for several families in the area. She never went to school and never married. Do Carmo eventually was hired by historian Jose Bernardo Guimaraes to take care of his 13 children in the small Minas Gerais city of Itajuba.

"At that time, her employer told my father that he was crazy to hire such an old woman," says Ms. Guimaraes, one of the children. "That was 54 years ago!"

Do Carmo says the secret to her long life is prayer. "You have to thank God," she says. "This gives you health."

Until last year, Do Carmo was living in obscurity with the Guimaraes family until she was discovered by a television reporter. Since then, she has become a national celebrity.

In the past several months, her home has become a tourist attraction. Each day, visitors knock on the door asking if they can take a picture with the nation's oldest person. Do Carmo pays little attention to her notoriety.

She refuses to watch herself on television, describing herself as "the same as anybody else."

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