Paulo da Portela: “Linda Borboleta,” “Linda Guanabara,” “O meu nome já caiu no esquecimento” and “Cidade Mulher”

Lyrics from “Linda Borboleta” by Paulo da Portela and Monarco

Part 1- by Paulo da Portela
Beautiful butterfly, don’t be so mischievous
Leave my rose be, so lovely on the stem
It’s my delight, when dawn breaks, to pay her a visit
See her bathed in dew
When the sun comes it covers her with gold
A treasure in a poor man’s garden (2x)

Part 2 – by Monarco
Beautiful butterfly, please, leave my treasure of royal worth
This is the plea of a poor troubadour
Who finds inspiration in the rose to write songs of love

— Interpretation —


Paulo da Portela (June 18, 1901 – January 31, 1949) was one of the most important sambistas in the history of carioca samba. He was one of the founders of the Portela samba school in the 1920s. He is also remembered for having significantly reduced tensions between Rio’s largely Afro-Brazilian samba world and the authorities of Brazil’s young first republic (1889 – 1930), who tended to treat sambistas – inextricably associated with Afro-Brazilian religion, capoeira and, in their eyes, vagrancy – with disdain.

“Linda Borboleta” reveals the environment in which Paulo was composing in the 1920s and 1930s: He had moved with his family from Rio’s central port zone to the rural parish of Nossa Senhora da Apresentação de Irajá — the neighborhood that eventually came to be known as Oswaldo Cruz when the train station was renamed in honor of the renowned sanitarian. With almost no basic infrastructure and day-to-day activities revolving around agriculture and music, Portela samba school established a rich heritage of singing about nature — butterflies and roses, for instance —  more than centrally located samba schools like Mangueira and Estácio.

Below I’ve compiled a short history of Paulo da Portela and the Portela samba school, for those who want to know more.


Paulo da Portela was born Paulo Benjamin de Oliveira in the Santo Cristo neighborhood of Rio de Janeiro’s port region. His father abandoned the family when he was still a toddler, and Paulo began working odd jobs to help support his mother, older brother and younger sister. He sold boxed meals in neighboring Saúde, the heart of Rio de Janeiro’s earliest rodas de samba.

At the time, the area was booming with recently arrived migrants from all over Brazil, mainly Africans and Afro-Brazilians. The worst drought in northeastern Brazil’s history, the collapse of the coffee industry in Vale do Paraíba, the end of the Paraguayan War in 1870, and especially the abolition of slavery in 1888 contributed to this migration to Rio. Between 1890 and 1910, the capital of the recently proclaimed republic nearly doubled in size, reaching almost a million (pop. 989,479).  The port area and surrounding neighborhoods concentrated all of the heavy-lifting jobs at the port along with the city’s largest center of wholesale markets, on the nearby Rua da Alfândega, and therefore drew in a large concentration of these migrants.

This headline reads "Pereira Passos orders demolishing of colonial Rio"
This headline from 1903 reads “Pereira Passos orders demolishing of colonial Rio.”

Paulo da Portela grew up in this Afro-Brazilian stronghold until he was nearly 20,  at which point his family could no longer make ends meet in the center of the city.

Costs had risen exponentially in downtown Rio after Mayor Pereira Passos’s urban reforms of 1903 – 1906. Passos’s reforms were modeled after Paris’s urban reforms of 1853-1870, with the slogan, O Rio civiliza-se (Rio gets civilized); giant slum tenements and community housing in the port area were destroyed, forcing residents to begin moving up onto the hillsides — favelas ballooned — or out to the rural outskirts of the city. What little housing remained near the port became infinitely more expensive. Still, Paulo’s family held out for over a decade, albeit in ever more precarious living situations.  Then Prefeito Carlos Sampaio razed more port-area housing – most notoriously the historic Morro do Castelo, which he argued disrupted ventilation in the city, presented sanitary problems, and was on real estate too valuable to be taken up by tenement housing. These 1921 reforms pushed Paulo’s family out to the indigent rural outskirts of the federal capital.

This headline from March, 1921, about the destruction of Morro do Castelo, reads "Rio has its heart ripped out."  Morro do Castelo was a landmark in the city's history, the spot  Mem de Sá had established in 1567 to house the Portuguese who had helped to expel the French from the nascent city.
This headline from March, 1921, about the destruction of Morro do Castelo, reads “Rio has its heart ripped out.” Morro do Castelo was a landmark in the city’s history, the spot Mem de Sá had established in 1567 to house the Portuguese who had helped to expel the French from the nascent city.
Screen Shot 2014-09-05 at 11.17.34 AM
In orange, the Santo Cristo neighborhood near Rio de Janeiro’s port.
Screen Shot 2014-09-05 at 11.04.41 AM
In orange, the Oswaldo Cruz neighborhood of Rio de Janeiro.

Paulo da Portela took the train with his mother and sister (his older brother had       already died) from Central Station out to the agricultural outpost of  Nossa Senhora da Apresentação de Irajá, where he found a culture apart:  While by some accounts  African roots had been a source of pride among the community in the port region, Paulo found blacks in Oswaldo Cruz seemed to have grown resigned and accustomed to a role as second-class Brazilians.

Paulo set to work to do away with this attitude. He had a natural knack for winning friends and quickly became a public figure in his new neighborhood, taking it upon himself to instill some of the pride and posture of the port area into the community of Oswaldo Cruz. Hence, in Nei Lopes’s book  Guimbaustrilho, Lopes writes of Paulo: “One of the most important personalities in the samba world, he was, in his time, as a composer and director, and in his way, one of the greatest defenders and promoters of black culture.”

Dona Esther was one of Oswaldo Cruz'z biggest partiers.
Dona Esther was one of Oswaldo Cruz’s biggest partiers.

In the destitute conditions of Oswaldo Cruz at the time, there was little to do but get together with neighbors, make music and drink. A few figures in the community became respected social movers and shakers and played important roles in the earliest days of Portela:  One was Seu Napoleão, whose sister lived in the downtown Estácio neighborhood and brought sambistas like Ismael Silva, Brancura, Aurélio and Baiaco to her brother’s parties. Around this time these sambistas from Estácio had come up with a new rhythm for Carnival, and they spread their new sound in Oswaldo Cruz.

Another dedicated partier was the neighborhood Carnival queen Dona Esther, who organized pagodes at her home that lasted up to “fifteen days at a time” according to Jair do Cavaquinho in this documentary. (They were really probably more like two days at most).

Pagodes represented a form of resistance. Authorities saw such manifestations of black culture as gatherings of ne’er-do-wells, and pagodes were often rounded up on the grounds of vagrancy laws, by which anyone without a fixed job was treated as a vagabundo subject to arrest.

Paulo da Portela, Heitor dos Prazeres, Gilberto Alves, Bide and Marçal (of Estácio), in the garb Paulo famously insisted all sambistas wear.
Paulo da Portela, Heitor dos Prazeres, Gilberto Alves, Bide and Marçal (of Estácio), in the garb Paulo famously insisted all sambistas wear.

Paulo, in turn,  made a point to maintain good relations with the government and the media, and demanded that his fellow sambistas use nice clothes, shoes and a tie, famously remarking, “Sambistas, to be part of our group, must wear a tie and dress shoes. Everyone must have their feet and necks occupied!” [Sambista, para fazer parte do nosso grupo, tem que usar gravata e sapato. Todo mundo de pés e pescoços ocupados!] He recognized that samba ought to be packaged in a way that would defy the stigmas against the music and its Afro-Brazilian origins. He brought prominent figures from the city into the samba world and served as an ambassador of sorts between sambistas and government officials.


As Paulo became a bit of a minor celebrity in the area, things got complicated: There was another sambista named Paulo in nearby Bento Ribeiro. So Paulo Benjamin took on the nickname Paulo da Portela – after the road he lived on, Estrada da Portela – while the other Paulo became Paulo de Bento Ribeiro.


Dona Esther, center, played a central role in the founding of Portela samba school.
Dona Esther, center, played a central role in the founding of Portela samba school.

The history of the founding of Portela samba school is murky. One of the founders, Antônio Rufino, liked to say, “Portela was born of autogenesis!”

Paulo da Portela with the Baianinhas de Oswaldo Cruz.
Paulo da Portela with the Baianinhas de Oswaldo Cruz.

Historians and members of the school don’t even agree upon a founding date. But there’s certain consensus about a few points:  Right around the time Paulo da Portela arrived in Oswaldo Cruz, Dona Esther – the partier mentioned above – organized the carnival bloco Quem Fala de Nós Come Mosca (“Whoever talks about us eats flies”), and got a city license to parade.  Some versions say this bloco was a children’s group, and that the adults organized as Baianinhas de Oswaldo Cruz. Either way, Baianinhas de Oswaldo Cruz was an offshoot of Quem Fala de Nós…, and was established by Paulo da Portela, Antônio Caetano, Antônio Rufino and Galdino Marcelino dos Santos in April 1923 — the date Portela samba school gives as its official founding date. (Dona Esther would later “baptize” the Portela samba school, with Nossa Senhora da Conceição/Oxum as the patroness – inspiring the blue and white colors – and São Sebastião/Oxóssi as the patron saint.)

Baianinhas de Oswaldo Cruz didn’t last too long, probably because of tensions between Galdino and Rufino.  Then, as the story goes, Paulo da Portela, Antônio Caetano, and Antônio Rufino got together below a mango tree at Seu Napoleão’s house and decided to raise funds for a new bloco. Between parties at Napoleão’s and Paulo’s they came up with the money to rent a house on Estrada da Portela, and formed the Conjunto Carnavalesco de Oswaldo Cruz.  They practiced at the house and also on the train that left Central Station at 6:04 pm heading back after a day’s work to Oswaldo Cruz — a tradition that inspired the Trem do Samba (Samba Train) that Marquinhos de Oswaldo Cruz has organized in Rio since the beginning of the 1990s.


The first competition between Rio’s nascent samba schools happened on January 20, 1929 — the day of the feast of Saint Sebastian, Rio de Janeiro’s patron saint, syncretized as Oxóssi in carioca macumba. The competition was organized by the pai-de-santo Zé Espinguela — one of the founders of Mangueira samba school in 1928 — and sponsored by the newspaper A Vanguarda.

In this competition, the sambistas from Oswaldo Cruz performed and won with a samba by Paulo’s friend from downtown Rio, Heitor dos Prazeres, who was also part of the Mangueira circle. Heitor was becoming too close to the school for the comfort of the other founders, causing a certain rift between Paulo and the other founders of Portela; this rift would come to the fore again in 1941. Rufino detested Heitor dos Prazeres, claiming he had stolen his samba “Vai mesmo”; Heitor further stirred things up by proposing the school change its name to Quem Nos Faz É o Capricho on the eve of Carnival 1929 — a proposal Paulo accepted. Quem Nos Faz É o Capricho lasted just about two years. Heitor dos Prazeres affiliated himself less and less with the Oswaldo Cruz crew, mainly because of the fight with Rufino. In 1931, the school took the name Vai Como Pode, on the suggestion of Manuel Bam-Bam-Bam, the mestre-sala and tough head honcho at the school.

In 1935, Vai Como Pode won Rio de Janeiro’s first official, city-sponsored Carnival samba school competition. The school paraded to two sambas that year: “Alegria tu terás” by Antônio Caetano, and “Linda Guanabara,” by Paulo da Portela, about Rio’s Guanabara Bay:

“Linda Guanabara” by Paulo da Portela (1935)

Oh how our Guanabara is beautiful!
Rare jewel!
What beauty when our sky is all blue
Night falls and the sky sparkles
In its embroidery of stars we can see the Southern Cross
Pão de Açucar, powerful
Faithful companion to our bay
Vigilant, never sleeping even an instant
Protecting the riches that nature creates


1935 was a tense year in the streets of the Brazilian capital after a communist uprising against President Getúlio Vargas. The city determined that all of the samba schools should be properly registered in their local precincts.  The officer responsible for registering “Vai Como Pode” deemed the name inappropriate, and suggested the school take the name of the road where it was located – Portela. The sambistas agreed, and the name Portela stuck.

Paulo was named "Cidadão Samba" in 1937
Paulo was named “Cidadão Samba” in 1937

Paulo da Portela, meanwhile, was becoming a true samba celebrity. In 1936 he was elected “Cidadão-Momo” (Citizen Momo, inspired by the Carnival figure King Momo) in a contest sponsored by Diário da Noite, and in 1937 he was elected “Cidadão Samba” (Citizen Samba) in a contest by A Rua newspaper.


In 1941, Paulo da Portela took part in a series of shows in São Paulo together with Heitor dos Prazeres and Cartola as the Conjunto Carioca. On Saturday of Carnival that year they caught a train back to Rio de Janeiro and went straight to Praça Onze to parade. They were all wearing the black-and-white Conjunto Carioca outfits, and decided they’d parade together in their respective schools in the same outfits.

Praça XI destroyed to make way for Av. Presidente Vargas in 1941.
Praça XI destroyed to make way for Av. Presidente Vargas in 1941.

Carnival that year had already taken on a somber tone.  Much of the world was at war, and the media paid little attention to the festivities. What’s more, Praça Onze was already almost totally demolished for the extension of Av. Presidente Vargas.  When Paulo and his friends arrived and tried to parade with Portela,  Manuel Bam-Bam-Bam told Paulo that Cartola and Heitor couldn’t parade with Portela in their black-and-white outfits, especially considering Paulo’s insistence on certain outfits for the rest of the Portela sambistas. Paulo protested, and was kicked out of the parade as well. A few days later he went to Portela with Cartola to make peace, and Bam-Bam-Bam offended him again. Paulo left the school, reportedly calling portelenses “bears,” and shortly after wrote the mournful samba “Meu nome já caiu no esquecimento”:

“Meu nome já caiu no esquecimento” by Paulo da Portela (1941)

My name has already been forgotten
No one cares anymore about my name
And time went on passing, old age is arriving
I’m already regarded with disdain
Oh what saudade for the past that’s gone on to another place
Cry, cavaquinho, cry, cry guitar too
Paulo, forgotten, interests no one anymore
Cry Portela, my dear Portela
I who founded you, you’ll be mine for life

Walt Disney (middle) visiting Portela in 1941.
Walt Disney (middle) visiting Portela in 1941.

Later that year Paulo followed through with his final obligation to the school, receiving Walt Disney at Portela in August 1941. Disney was in Rio as a Good Neighbor ambassador enlisted to create Latin American characters for U.S. propaganda films during World War II. After Disney’s visit, Paulo left Portela for good, joining the small school Lira de Amor, in nearby Bento Ribeiro.

To make Paulo’s falling out with the school even more melancholy, between 1941 and 1947, Portela won seven consecutive Carnival titles — a record still unbroken. Portela also holds the all-time record of twenty-one titles.

Paulo da Portela died from a heart attack at his home in the early hours of January 31, 1949, at age 47. The directors of Portela samba school offered the school’s quadra (gym-like enclosure for samba schools) for the wake, but Paulo’s widow turned them down. Since then, he has been continually remembered and honored in Portela sambas.

Screen Shot 2014-09-04 at 7.26.24 PM
This headline reads: A reveler is gone on the eve of Carnival: Paulo da Portela’s closed business yesterday in Madureira.

“Cidade Mulher”

“Cidade Mulher”

Cidade, quem te fala é um sambista/ City, it’s a sambista speaking
Anteprojeto de artista/ A draft of an artist
Teu grande admirador/ Your great admirer
Me confesso boquiaberto/ I confess myself agape
De manhã, quando desperto/ In the morning when I wake
Com tamanho esplendor/ To such great splendor

Quando nosso infinito/ When our infinity
Se apresenta tão bonito/ Appears so exquisite
Trajando azul anil/ Wearing indigo blue
Baila o sol lá nas alturas/ The sun dances up there above
Dando maior formosura/ Giving even greater beauty
À mais linda dama do Brasil/ To the loveliest lady of Brazil

Como é linda suas matas/ Oh how lovely your forests
Seus riachos e cascatas/ Your streams and waterfalls
Deslumbrar-me é natural/ It’s natural that I’m dazzled
Diante de tal beleza/ In the face of such beauty
Que lhe deu a natureza/ Which nature gave you
Se há outra, não vi igual/ If there’s another, I’ve never seen it

Quando a tarde é cor de rosa/ When evening falls it’s rose-colored
Ainda é mais formosa/ Even more beautiful
Tem cenários sedutores/ You have seductive scenery
Te admiram os estrangeiros/ Foreigners admire you
Se orgulham os brasileiros/ And Brazilians are proud,
Seus poetas sonhadores/ Your dreaming poets

Lyrics in Portuguese

“Linda Borboleta”

Linda borboleta, não seja buliçosa
deixa a minha rosa, que tão linda está no galho
é o meu prazer ao amanhecer
fazer-lhe visita, vê-la banhada de orvalho
quando vem o sol, cobre ela de ouro
no jardim do pobre é um tesouro (2x)

Linda borboleta, por favor
deixa meu tesouro de real valor
quem faz esse apelo é um pobre trovador
que se inspira na rosa
pra fazer canção de amor

“Linda Guanabara”

Como é linda a nossa Guanabara!
Joia rara!
Que beleza, quando o nosso
Céu está todo azul
Anoitece e o céu se resplandece
Em seu bordado de estrelas
Vê-se o Cruzeiro do Sul
Pão de Açúcar, poderoso
Fiel companheiro da nossa baía
Vigilante, não dorme um só instante
Guardando as riquezas que a natureza cria

“Meu nome já caiu no esquecimento”

O meu nome já caiu no esquecimento
O meu nome não interessa a mais ninguém

E o tempo foi passando
A velhice vem chegando
Já me olham com desdém
Ai quanta saudade do passado
Que se vai lá no além

Chora cavaquinho chora
Chora violão também
O Paulo no esquecimento
Não interessa a mais ninguém

Chora Portela, minha Portela querida
Eu que te fundei, serás minha toda a vida

Main sources for this post: Tantas Páginas Belas: Histórias da Portela by Luiz Antônio Simas; Paulo da Portela: Traço de união entre duas culturas by Marília Barboza; Partido-alto: Samba de bamba by Nei Lopes

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