The Story of Samba’s Praça XI


Note: The following is almost entirely translated (by myself) from Wikipedia, partly due to Brazil’s National Library online archives being temporarily unavailable.


Praça Onze (Plaza Eleven) is a sub-region of downtown Rio, whose name was inherited from the old plaza that once existed there. The original Praça 11 de Junho (the date of the Battle of Riachuelo) existed for more than 150 years prior to its destruction in the 1940s. Initially called Largo do Rocio Pequeno (Little Rocio Square), it became in the first decades of the 19th century one of the most cosmopolitan places of the then Federal Capital, upon housing families of recently arrived immigrants. The most popular ethnicities around Praça Onze were blacks (mostly from Bahia), followed by Jews from several origins. Portuguese, Spanish and Italians were also numerous.

Preceding Events

The region where Praça 11 de Junho would later exist was uninhabited by the end of the 18th century, being that the land was inadequate for farming and building due to marshes. It was only after the arrival of the Portuguese Royal Family in Rio and their installation at the São Cristóvão Palace that the first access roads towards that area were built. In 1810, by order of King Dom João VI, Cidade Nova was created, which went from Campo de Santana to São Cristóvão. With rectilinear streets and extensive lots, it looked very different from downtown, overflowing with houses and narrow lots. At the same moment, the king created a plaza where the Mangue de São Diogo started: Largo do Rocio Pequeno.

Why Pequeno? Largo do Rocio Grande was already taken. Today, it’s Praça Tiradentes

Despite being the only commercial plaza in Cidade Nova, Rocio Pequeno continued almost deserted. It was only in 1842, during the second reign that the location began to receive attention from the city authorities. A cobblestone fountain, in neoclassical style, designed by Grandjean de Montigny, was installed in the middle of the square, serving as water supply for the surrounding homes and establishments .

In 1854, with the construction and inauguration of the Fábrica de Gás (Gas Factory), the Viscount of Mauá saw the need for canalizing the mangrove, sanitizing the road towards the Guanabara Bay, as well as allowing for a waterway connecting the suburb to downtown. In 1858, Mauá inaugurated the Estrada de Ferro Dom Pedro II (Railway), which cut through Cidade Nova, connecting it to several suburbs and to the provincial inland area.

With the emergence of the Paraguayan War, a wave of nationalism took hold of the empire. With the Brazilian victory at the Riachuelo Battle, the Largo do Rocio Pequeno was rebaptized with the date of the confrontation. It was also at this time, with the decline of the slave system, that Praça 11 de Junho started to be a good destination for immigrants, due to the proximity with the port and the varied types of commerce.

African Culture


With Abolition, large masses of ex-slaves settled in the precarious “casas de cômodos” (single-room shacks) that abounded on streets adjecent to the Praça 11 de Junho. Soon, with space running out, these same blacks began to inhabit improvised huts on the sides of hills. One of these headlands near Praça 11 de Junho was baptized as Morro da Favela by soldiers returning from the Canudos War and resulted in contemporary international denomination of miserable urban clusters.

At the start of the 20th century, Praça 11 de Junho was the quintissential meeting point of Rio’s black residents. From batucadas brought by black Bahians, mixed with Rio’s lundu, samba was born. Scholars and contemporaries of those times are unanimous in pointing out the importance of the mythic “Casa da Tia Ciata” (119 Rua Visconde de Itaúna, pictured above before being demolished) for this cultural synthesis. Tia Ciata was a Bahian woman that moved to Rio and who undertook the profession of confectioner. Thus her house was famous in the plaza, and was transformed into a meeting place for musicians and residents. There, the rhythm of samba began to take shape.

Tia Ciata’s home was the main place where the community played music and african rhythms, from which historical sambas and talented composers came. In 1926, due to police persecution, some local composers founded a “samba school”, a euphemistic name for a recreational association that, in truth, was not educational in nature. The first was “Deixa Falar“, whose divisions, years later, would result in several other schools, such as Estácio de Sá, Mangueira and Portela. In 1933, mayor Pedro Ernesto organized the first offical samba school parade in Praça 11 de Junho, which Mangueira would win. The parades became an annual occurrence, with a huge public influx.

Jewish Neighborhood

Praça 11 de Junho also brang together the largest Jewish concentration in the city’s history. Jewish immigrants choose Praça 11 since the configuration of houses in the region, with space for stores and residences above them, was perfect for commerce. Hundreds of Jewish establishments, as well as clubs, political societies and sinagogues settled in the area, giving Praça 11 the appearance of a European village. [book]

The Shrinking of Praça 11


In the 1930s, the government of the Federal District planned modernization works in the region, which included the construction of a new public transportation artery to improve access to the North Zone from downtown (and plans were drawn up, but thankfully never acted upon, to further modernize the area). With it, Praça 11 was notably reduced. Through the project, the blocks between Senador Eusébio and Visconde de Itaúna streets would be demolished to make way for the new Presidente Vargas Avenue (see before & after above). In 1941, the demolitions began, which dislodged hundreds of families and destroyed 525 buildings, among them some historic ones, such as the São Pedro dos Clérgios and São Joaquim churches.

Below is an image from late 1945 of an almost unrecognizable Praça Onze at the bottom and a view of the Canal do Mangue.


Cultural References

Herivelton Martins & Grande Otelo – Praça 11

Chico Anysio & João Roberto Kelly – Rancho da Praça XI

Quatro Ases e Um Curinga – O Samba não morre (can’t find a link)

I also recommend reading through Daniella Thompson’s archives on Praça XI, focusing on music related to the location, which I sadly only discovered after completion of this post.

Present Day

Swallowed up by President Vargas Avenue, Praça 11 shrank in size, becoming a place for regular presentations for circus shows. In the 1970s, the Praça Onze metro station was inaugurated. Between 1983 and 1986, the State government of Leonel Brizola tried to transform the location into a legal spot for street vendors, but the project didn’t happen due to the distance in relation to downtown. The Zumbi dos Palmares monument currently there is located on a piece of land that was part of the old Praça 11. Nowadays, the plaza houses a space for popular music shows, called Terreirão do Samba. The Jewish presence remains near the plaza, in the traditional commercial region called SAARA.


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