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Rio de Janeiro's top samba schools danced and sang hard Monday as millions of other Brazilians did the same during nationwide Carnival celebrations that ridiculed local and world leaders, called for tolerance and pushed the boundaries of just about everything.

Instead of the normal start of the workweek, Brazilians loaded up on spirits and hit the beaches, public squares and streets for huge "blocos," or street parties, in many locales under a penetrating tropical sun common during the sweaty summer month of February.

By late Monday night, with the sun set but the heat still in force, Rio's leading samba schools gave it their all at the Sambadrome, where they paraded 700 meters (half a mile) while thousands looked on.

"All these schools are amazing," said Celso Pinheiro, an accountant watching the parades. "They are different, just like there are so many different Carnival celebrations."

Last year's champions, Portela, on Monday portrayed the story of Jews who fled persecution in Europe for Brazil, only to then face discrimination from Portuguese colonists.

Beija-Flor de Nilopolis, set to perform later, was expected to have a drag queen as its headliner. Pabllo Vittar has several videos with millions of hits on YouTube, including one, "Todo Dia," that alone attracted 216 million viewers.

Vittar is a sensation in the Brazilian pop scene, and Carnival has long been a place to celebrate sexuality and diversity. But Brazil also has some of Latin America's highest rates of violence against gay and transgender people, and Beija-Flor was tackling intolerance against the LGBT community and others.

"It will be a parade that highlights such an important theme ... because we see a lot of scenes of homophobia and transphobia in the streets," Vittar told Epoca magazine in a recent interview. "It's very important to address this theme at Carnival so we can disseminate this message (of tolerance) every day."

Also Monday, the gay rights organization Gay Group of Bahia hosted its annual LGBT Costume Contest in Salvador, including performances that highlighted Brazil's high rates of violence against women and gay and transgender people.

In the northeastern city of Olinda, revelers paraded with giant blow-up dolls that depicted political figures like U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un as well as celebrities from around the globe, including Michael Jacksonthe Beatles and Brazilian sports and pop stars.

At Carnival, everything is fair game, and many Brazilians have seized the moment to criticize their leaders at a time of intense dissatisfaction with the political class and angst over continuing fallout from a severe recession.

On Sunday, a float in Rio's samba parade featured a plastic butt with Mayor Marcelo Crivella's name on it. At parties across the country, revelers have denounced President Michel Temer, former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and other politicians caught up in a sprawling corruption probe.

Women's groups have also been using Carnival as a time to highlight and push back against sexual harassment. Several block parties have feminist themes, many women are wearing temporary tattoos and stickers with messages like "'No' means 'no'" and authorities have launched campaigns to encourage women to report harassment to police.

That is not to say that the famously skimpy wear got any more conservative. The internet news portal G1 posted a photo gallery highlighting female celebrities simply covering their nipples with stickers or other barely there adhesives.

In Rio, the celebrations come during a time of unease, as the city that hosted the 2016 Summer Olympics is experiencing a surge in violence.

Authorities promised 17,000 security officers would patrol every day during Carnival celebrations, but Brazilian media reported several muggings over the weekend in the upscale neighborhoods of Copacabana, Ipanema and Leblon that are popular with tourists.

Footage posted by G1 showed groups of young men chasing their victims and even beating them, sometimes in front of crowds of people.

Military police spokesman Ivan Blaz said security would be further beefed up in those beachside neighborhoods Monday night, but he also appeared to play down the violence in an interview with Brazilian TV, contending that revelers were not following basic security advice that is applicable in any city in the world. He said, for instance, that people shouldn't wear jewelry or take selfies with their cellphones while in a crowd, saying that phone robberies are also a problem at the Eiffel Tower.

Despite the problems, most revelers were enjoying the party, which officially goes through Tuesday but for many stretches deeper into the week.

"Carnival is my release," said Rian Rodrigues. "I only sleep a few hours. I party all day, come to the Sambadrone at night and then keep partying."

The original article can be found here: http://abcnews.go.com/Entertainment/wireStory/drag-queen-star-rio-samba-parade-brazil-carnival-53019845

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