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  • Writer's picture@ Cynthia Adina Kirkwood

Museum of Carmen Miranda, the Most Famous Portuguese Woman, Reopens in Brazil

Updated: Jun 16

Carmen Miranda sings Tico-Tico no Fubá in the 1947 film, Copacabana, in which she co-starred with comedian and actor Groucho Marx. She immortalized the Brazilian choro, which was performed at the closing ceremony of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, by Roberta Sá playing the icon.


After a decade, Carmen Miranda’s adopted homeland sought to restore its relationship with the icon, whose later life was strained by the tension between her United States’ success and Brazil’s shame of her. Rio de Janeiro reopened a museum displaying her costumes, photographs and signature tropical headdresses, the director told El País (July 31).

Her dresses , jewelry, shoes and headdresses are again on show. The collection features nearly 4,000 objects, but only 121 will be on exhibit. The family of the Portuguese native donated the collection to the museum, which has had its doors shut due to a mixture of institutional neglect and budget cuts. The center was scheduled to throw open its doors on August 4, the eve of the anniversary of the artist's death caused by a heart attack in 1955. She was 46.

"The relationship of Brazilians with Carmen Miranda is one of pure ignorance but, in recent years, they've started to take more interest in her, to realize that she was, above all, a singer, not an actress who went to the U.S. and became a caricature," said César Balbi, the museum's director since its inauguration in 1976.

Carmen Miranda was much more than a singer.

Her stage mannerisms of a graceful twisting of arms and hands, rolling eyes, agility of diction and sense of humor played in the rhythm made her a master performer, said the Brazilian composer and singer, Caetano Veloso, in a famous opinion piece in The New York Times (October 20, 1991). Her dancing was indefatigable. She possessed the "immense talent needed to create this character called Carmen Miranda -- part singing, part costume, partly the strength of her energetic personality", according to Brazilian Bombshell: The Biography of Carmen Miranda (1989).

Because she was the first Brazilian to enter the world stage, she carried both the honor and the burden of representation. Therefore, Brazil has a complicated relationship with this performer who was loved by Americans, Europeans and others.

In 1940, on a return from the United States, a Rio de Janeiro audience jeered at her at the Casino da Urca. Two months later, she was applauded on that same stage. Brazilian intellectuals accused her of "Americanization" in a government-controlled press. Throughout the United States' part of her career, many thought of her as an insult, an embarrassment, and not what they wanted the world to view as Brazilian.


Accused of coming back Americanized: rich and without "sauce, rhythm or anything," she asks,"Why so much poison? How can I become Americanized there? I was born with samba." Luíz Peixoto and Vicente Paiva wrote the samba, especially for her, to address the criticism that Miranda had sold out her Brazilian roots for money and fame.


In the second half of the 1960s, Carmen Miranda became an emblem of Tropicalismo, the Brazilian cultural movement that unified the popular and traditional with the new, foreign and avant-garde. Caetano Veloso, 81, one of the leading figures of the movement, referenced her in songs such as the musical manifesto, Tropicália. In his stage performances, more than once, he imitated her hand movements and eye rolling, which "entertained/provoked the audience", according to Carmen Miranda, Tropicália. Was she a caricature, or was she authentic? The cultural revolutionary wrote in The Times about the woman who insisted on singing in Portuguese:

"For the generation of Brazilians who reached adolescence in the second half of the Brazilian military dictatorship and the international wave of counterculture, Carmen Miranda was, first, a source of a mixture of pride and shame and, later, a symbol of the intellectual violence with which we wanted to face our reality, of the implacable gaze to face our reality, of the implacable gaze we wanted to cast on ourselves."

Ten years ago, Brazilians' attitude toward Carmen Miranda was one of indifference, museum director, César Balbi, told El País.

Brazilian Bombshell

Carmen Miranda became a music phenomenon in Brazil in the 1930s, and she triumphed on Broadway and Hollywood in the 1940s and 1950s. She made 14 films in the United States, including That Night in Rio and Week-end in Havana, and six films in Brazil, including Alô, Alô, Carnaval, reported El País.

The Brazilian Bombshell was what popular newspaper gossip columnist, Walter Winchell, dubbed her when she began working in the United States. A Pequena Notável (The Small Remarkable) was what the 5-foot-tall (1.53 meters) singer had been called by César Ladeira, one of Brazil's most famous radio hosts in Rio de Janeiro, where she began her career at 19 in 1928.

In 1933, Carmen Miranda became the first contract singer in Brazilian radio. In 1937, she was the highest paid radio singer in the country. By 1945, she was the highest paid woman in the United States, earning more than such Hollywood luminaries as Bob Hope, Joan Crawford, Errol Flynn, Humphrey Bogart or Cary Grant, according to Diário de Notícias (February 7, 2009).

The dovetailing of the Brazilian government's desire to create a national identity and the United States' Good Neighbor policy played a great role in Carmen Miranda's career.


Miranda sings O Que É Que a Baiana Tem? (What Does the Bahian Woman Have?) in Banana da Terra (1939), her last film before going to the States and her first film as a stylized Bahian.


Brazilian Nationalism

Miranda's rise to stardom in Brazil was linked to the spread of samba, which originated in the Afro-Brazilian communities of the country's northeast Bahia in the late 19th century but, in the 20th century, continued its development in the communities of Rio de Janeiro. Miranda's career and the samba enhanced Brazilian nationalism, which was central to President Getúlio Vargas' policy. Vargas, who established the dictatorship, Estado Novo (1937-1946) and was president (1930-1945, 1951-1954), supported the Rio Carnival and samba schools leading to a greater national identity and an increase in tourism.

In 1939, Miranda recorded O Que É Que a Baiana Tem (What Does the Bahian woman have?) The Bahian samba, by Dorival Caymmi, answers that she has a silk torso, gold earrings, a gold necklace, cloth from the coast, a gold bracelet, starched skirt, decorated sandals, she's funny like no one else and she shakes well.

Caymmi also helped Miranda put together her stylized Bahian costume and participated in recording the music for the film, Banana da Terra (1939), her last film in Brazil before going to the States and the first in which she appeared as a Bahian, according to Carmen Miranda: Between Representations of National Identity and Regional Identities (February 2006), Revista Espaço Acadêmico.

"Something extraordinary happened the following Carnival, after the premier of Banana da Terra. Almost all the men who participated in the parades on the streets of Rio wore a Bahian costume -- not quite the classic Bahian costume -- but the new Miranda version. Even more extraordinary was that the women, who generally stayed away from the streets but participated in dances and competitions, also had discovered Bahia."


"After the premiere of Banana da Terra (1939), almost all the men in the parades on the streets of Rio wore a Bahian costume -- not quite the classic Bahian costume -- but the new Miranda version." Today, Carmen Miranda holds a special place in the gay community. She is also a fixture as a drag persona.


U.S. Good Neighbor Policy

Carmen Miranda's films in the United States promoted the Good Neighbor policy, associated with U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

The policy's main principle was non-intervention in the Americas. It supported reciprocal exchanges with its neighbors. The United States hoped for new economic opportunities and a reassertion of its influence.

The Good Neighbor policy also sought to redefine the way Americans perceived those living south of the border. Roosevelt created the Office of the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs in August 1940 and appointed Nelson Rockefeller to head the office. Rockefeller's initial interests in the Americas of art collecting and business investments had grown into a conviction that U.S. policy should foster collaboration.

John Hay Whitney was appointed head of the office's Motion Picture Division, whose purpose was to abolish stereotypes. Historically, neighbors of the U.S. had been portrayed as lazy, backwards and suspect. Whitney had invested in Broadway shows and motion picture companies. He urged film studios to hire Latin Americans and make movies that refrained from perpetuating negative stereotypes.

Brazil had the most important branch of the Office of Inter-American Affairs. Given its strategic importance during World War II, there was an immense U.S. propaganda effort, mainly through films, cartoons and documentaries.

Many U.S. artistic and intellectual personalities worked there, including filmmaker Orson Welles, film director John Ford, and animator and film producer Walt Disney. The latter featured Carmen's sister, Aurora Miranda, in The Three Caballeros (1944), one of the first feature-length films to incorporate animation with live-action actors. In the film, Aurora dances with Disney's animated Donald Duck and the cartoon character, José Carioca, described by Time as "a dapper Brazilian parrot" who speaks Brazilian Portuguese. José is from Rio de Janeiro, thus the name, Carioca, meaning an inhabitant of Rio, and was created by Brazilian cartoonist, J. Carlos.

President Getúlio Vargas sent Carmen Miranda to the 1939 New York World's Fair, which was a suitable forum to promote good relations between the United States and its neighbors. The performer insisted on the accompaniment of her band of musicians, Bando do Lua, from whom she would be inseparable. Placed against the backdrop of a growing Nazi threat, 60 countries, including Portugal, entered the World of Tomorrow at Flushing Meadows in Queens.

In the same year, U.S. show business impresario, Lee Shubert, actor Tyrone Powell and actress Sonja Heine caught Carmen Miranda's show at the Casino da Urca in Rio. Shubert signed a contract with her for the musical revue, The Streets of Paris, which debuted in Boston and went on to Broadway. The show's success transformed her into a star in the U.S. and took her to Hollywood with a million-dollar contract with Fox, reported Diário de Notícias.

She sang for President Roosevelt at the White House.


"Why Don't You Sing a Fado"?

Critics say that Carmen Miranda portrayed a Caribbean, Central American and South American stereotype. Yet, it was clear to anyone from that part of the world that she was from Brazil because she spoke and sang in Portuguese.

"She always resisted Hollywood's desire for her to sing in Spanish, insisting on always doing it in her native language," according to Diário de Notícias.

"In a 1951 interview with Revista do Rio, the artist recalled that the most unforgettable moment of all the tours she made was when she sang on the island of Maui, in Hawaii, where there is a huge community of Portuguese descendants. 'I was welcomed by the colony's Portuguese group of fishermen, who wanted me to sing something in the language common to Brazilians and Portuguese. I obliged them. I sang an old-time samba. Result: they thanked me very much, applauded a lot. They said that I sang very well, but that they didn't understand . . ."

Although promoter Lee Shubert prohibited his stars from receiving fans in the theater, if Carmen Miranda knew that the visitor was Brazilian or Portuguese, or she received a calling card in Portuguese, she rushed to receive them.

"That's what she did with (Portugal's) Gago Cotinho, whom she received in her dressing room," Diário de Notícias quoted Ruy Castro's Carmen: Uma Biografia (2005). The naval aviator would be promoted later to Admiral. He and Sacadura Cabral had made the first aerial crossing of the South Atlantic in 1922.

Gago Coutinho, who was 40 years her senior, asked her: "So, my daughter, why don't you sing a fado (musical styles in Lisbon and Coimbra) or a vira (from the Minho) instead of sambas? And, instead of, what does the Bahian girl have?, why don't you sing, 'what does the girl from the Minho have?" (The Minho is a former Portuguese province in the north.)

Portugal's Prime Minister Invokes Miranda's Name

On September 12, Portugal's Prime Minister Antonio Costa invoked the name of the great singer during a presentation of the Medal of Cultural Merit to Caetano Veloso for his work, which "was, is and always will be a powerful vehicle for promoting and affirming the Portuguese language."

"Caetano Veloso wrote a famous song called Língua, while is a whole treatise about his vision of the Portuguese language as a mosaic of speeches from the most diverse places, Luís de Camões, Fernando Pessoa, Carmen Miranda, the Sambadromo, Mangueira or Luanda."

Let's go with Carmen Miranda's choo-choo diction.

Caetano Veloso had been touring in Portugal.


Carmen Miranda at 21


Carmen Miranda's Beginnings

The most famous Portuguese woman was born on February 9, 1909, in Obra Nova, parish of Aliviada (later Ovelha and Aliviada) in the municipality of Marco de Canaveses, in Porto District. Days later, the second of six children of the barber, José Maria Pinto da Cunha (1887-1938), and his wife, Maria Emília Miranda (1886-1971), was baptized with the name Maria do Carmo Miranda da Cunha. She later gained the nickname, Carmen, from the opera by Bizet, according to Carmen Miranda: Dicionário Carvo Abin de Música Popular Brasileira.

Her family already had planned to emigrate to Brazil. Upon finding herself pregnant, her mother chose to give birth in Portugal. Shortly afterwards, her father emigrated to Rio de Janeiro. Her mother followed him with 10-month-old Carmen and her sister, Olinda (1907-1931). Carmen Miranda would never return to Portugal. Marco de Canveses Municipality named its museum in her honor.

In Brazil, the couple's four other children were born: Amaro (1912-1988), a Brazilian rower who competed at the 1932 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles; Cecilia (1913-2011), a singer: Aurora (1915-2005), who also had a stage and film career, traveling with Carmen until 1952, when she left Los Angeles for Rio, and Óscar (1916).

In Rio de Janeiro, her father opened a barber shop with a fellow countryman. Then, her mother opened and managed a guesthouse that also provided meals. The establishment began to be frequented by popular musicians, who became regulars. For example, one regular was Pixinguinha, a composer and musician, who popularized choro as a Brazilian genre.

Tragedy of Her Older Sister

Olinda played a key role in the creation of Carmen Miranda.

"Fate would prevent her from trying to become what was reserved for her sister," wrote Ruy Castro in Carmen: Uma Biografia (2005). The family recognized Olinda as the most beautiful and having the best voice. Her "exultant, independent, happy" temperament mirrored Carmen's.

It was Olinda who taught Carmen "the sambas, tangos and modinhas (popular songs) that she learned on the street. She also taught her how to sew and how to make a skirt or blouse from any piece of cloth, how to combine clothes and dress, and how to put on makeup to enhance her strengths and hide her weaknesses," according to Carmen.

Sadly, Olinda contracted tuberculosis (TB). The family sent her back home to Marco de Canveses

in Porto District, but she had to be admitted to the Caramulo sanatorium in Tondela, Viseu District. The establishment in the Caramulo Mountains had opened in 1922 as the Grande Hotel but became a sanatorium for TB patients and expanded into other buildings

Olinda would never return to Rio. She died in the sanatorium at age 23 in 1931.

Selling and Making Hats

Carmen attended a convent school for girls of humble backgrounds. She left school at 15, in 1924, to start working as a clerk in a woman's clothing store, selling hats. At Maison Marigny, she learned how to decorate hats. Soon after, she was employed at La Femme Chic, a hat company in the center of Rio de Janeiro, where she learned how to make hats under the tutelage of a mentor. According to Biografia de Carmen Miranda-eBiografia (June 13), it was here that she acquired a taste for turbans, which became her signature. She made her own hats. Yet, she only began wearing tall and colorful ones in New York in 1939.

"Bananas, pineapples and other tropical fruits, but also fabrics, flowers, feathers, crowns, sun hats and even a lighthouse, were part of the decorations of Carmen Miranda's extravagant turbans, which also helped her to appear taller than she was (1.53 meters or 5 feet). Each turban weighed an average of two and a half kilos," reported Diário de Notícias.

Miranda's hats remind one of the Festa dos Tabuleiros, one of the oldest festivals in Portugal. Women parade with baskets as tall as their height, filled with ears of wheat and long bread loaves decorated with colorful paper flowers, once every four. years in Tomar, Santarem District.

A Singing Career at 19

Since she was a little girl, Miranda would sing to her friends at parties, listen to the radio and imitate the singers she heard on it, according to Carmen Miranda; Dicionário Cravo Abin de Música Popular Brasileira.

Carmen began her career at 19 in 1928. when she met the composer and guitarist, Josue de Barros, through a guest at her mother's boardinghouse. Barros opened the doors for her. His encouragement was fundamental for the singer, still known as Maria do Carmo, who began performing in recitals and on the radio.

In 1930, she had her first recording success with Ta-hi, which sold 35,000 records, introduced her to the public and led the press to call her "the greatest Brazilian singer", reported Diário de Notícias. In 1933, she made her first tour abroad, to Argentina, of which there would be 12.


Carmen (right) and Aurora (left) performed solo and sometimes as a duo. One of their joint appearances was in Alô, Alô Carnaval, the 1936 Brazilian revue film. The sisters became enormously popular in Brazil and Argentina.


Miranda Wannabes

Once in the United States, the speed with which rival film studios jumped on the Fox-Miranda bandwagon reflects the actress' popularity and profitability, according to "The Lady in the Tutti-Frutti Hat": Carmen Miranda, a Spectacle of Ethnicity (1983).

Miranda wannabes included Lina Romay, Cugie's Latin Doll, of M-G-M, who was born in Brooklyn, the daughter of a Mexican consulate, who had performed with the Spanish bandleader, Xavier Cugat, whose family had emigrated from Catalonia to Cuba; Margo, of RKO, who was born into a musically talented family in Mexico City; Maria Montez of Universal, who was born in the Dominican Republic, the daughter of a Dominican mother and Spanish father; Acquanetta, the Venezuelan Volcano, whose origins are uncertain, though she claimed to be orphaned by Arapahoe parents, and Olga San Juan, the Puerto Rican Pepper Pot, who was born in Brooklyn to Puerto Rican parents.

Carmen Miranda was one of kind.

Although not billed as the star in most of her musicals, Carmen Miranda was, according to the popular press, the "oomph" that stops the show. In her Broadway debut, The Streets of Paris, for example, her songs were not listed in the program and she appeared for only six minutes. Yet, she was seen as "the outstanding hit of the show".

Depression and Pills

Miranda decided to produce her own film. One of the 10 investors asked his relative, David Sebastian, to keep an eye on her and his financial interests on the set. Sebastian, an American, and Miranda began dating, and they married in 1947. He became her manager. The next year, Miranda miscarried after a show. Her sister, Aurora, said in the 1995 documentary, Bananas Is My Business:

"He married her for selfish reasons. She got very sick after she married and lived with a lot of depression."

Miranda became dependent on barbiturates due to her exhausting schedule, reported Diário de Notícias.

"Carmen took any kind of drug (prescribed to her): uppers and downers and sleeping pills. She wanted to lose weight and self-medicated herself. Her maid and musicians told me that she was addicted to pills, but not to any hard drugs like coke or heroin," according to the Brazilian Bombshell.

In 1954, on doctors' orders, she traveled back home to Rio de Janeiro for detoxification and rest. After engagements elsewhere, she eventually returned to Los Angeles to appear on The Jimmy Durante Show. The Carmen Miranda Show was next in the offing.

While filming a take, dancing with Jimmy Durante, she fell to her knees, upon which he told the band to "stop the music" and adlibbed quips, as he helped her to her feet. She said, in slurred speech: "I'm all out of breath". Today, some say that she had suffered a mild heart attack. The trouper finished the show.


Hours before her death, she sings Delicado: It gives me a pain next door, here in my heart. And it's because Delicado reminds me of my past. It reminds me of my corner. That's why I'm going to my land. Land that I miss a lot.


In fact, after the last take, Miranda and Durante staged an impromptu performance for the cast and technicians, reported the Los Angeles Times (August 6, 1955). Then, Miranda took several members of the cast and some friends home for a small party.

The next morning, Carmen Miranda was found dead in a hall of her Beverly Hills home.

"Always the entertainer, she danced and sang for her guests, skirts whirling, eyes rolling, hips and hands in constant motion. Perpetual motion was a Miranda trademark.

"It was about 3 a.m. when the actress and het husband, film producer David Sebastian, climbed the stairs to bed. They occupied separate bedrooms.

"Miss Miranda removed her clothing, placed her platform shoes in a corner, lit a cigarette and placed it in an ash tray and went into her bathroom to fix her face for the night.

"She apparently came from the bathroom with a small, circular mirror in her hand and in the small hall that leads to her bathroom, she toppled to the floor and died.

"She made no outcry. No one heard her fall. Her body was found at about 10:30 a.m. lying in the hallway."


There was a well-attended funeral Mass in Los Angeles. However, her body was returned to Rio de Janeiro in accordance with her last wishes. Upon her arrival, the Brazilian government declared a period of national mourning. More than 60,000 people attended a ceremony at the Rio town hall and more than half a million escorted her casket to her final resting place.

El País wrote: "If there is a place where Miranda lives and resists, despite everything, it is Carnival in February. The homemade costumes with their tropical headdresses once again will color the streets. The cariocas, lost among the troupes of musicians, will sing, once again, under the same scorching sun as every year, the verses of her 1930 hit, Ta-hi:

I did everything for you to like me. Oh my sweet, don't do that to me. You have to, you have to give me your heart.


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