Carolina Maria de Jesus was a bestselling author in Brazil in 1960. She was a black woman, living in a favela in the biggest Brazilian city, with two years of formal education, and a single mother raising three children.
In 1914, it had been 25 years since the republic was declared in Brazil and 26 years since the abolition of slavery. Despite the end of slavery, in theory, Brazil continued to be full of racial and social inequalities.
Let’s go to the state of Minas Gerais, to a little town called Sacramento, located in an important coffee production center. There were about 16,000 inhabitants in this whole area, but the urban region of Sacramento had only 4,000 people.
On March 14th, 1914 Carolina Maria de Jesus was born. Her father was not there, since he was a married man and never recognized his daughter. Carolina was the granddaughter of enslaved people, not an uncommon thing in that place and time.
Carolina grew up with her mother and seven siblings. And as Carolina’s daughter will tell years and years later, she was a curious child, who asked and wanted to know everything. Carolina soon started working. In Sacramento, as in many other places, children of the most wealthy families left to study in urban centers. The rest of the population worked on the colonels’ farms or in domestic work in the families’ homes with money. And this applied to Carolina: from an early age, she began working in wealthy homes and families.
The schooling of the population, mainly black, was almost zero, since the republic did not offer public education for most people until, at least, the 20s and 30s. But Carolina did go to school, for a short period of time (1 1/2 years to 2 years, at most). Her mother’s employer, Dona Maria Leite, a wealthy woman in the region, paid for Carolina to attend school Alan Kardec, of the Spiritist group Esperança e Caridade. This was the only formal education she would receive, but it was enough for her to learn to read, write and count.
In the years that followed, that is, from 1923 to 1929, Carolina and her family moved from Sacramento to Lajeado, also in the state of Minas Gerais, Franca, in the state of São Paulo, and Conquista (Minas Gerais), always returning to Sacramento between these changes. During this period, Carolina, aged 9 to 15, worked as a farmer and as a maid.
And then, in 1933, Carolina and her mother, back in Sacramento, were arrested. Reports vary on the reasons: some said they were accused of witchcraft, for her reading a spiritist book; some say it was for stealing money from a priest. Most historians agree the accusations, whatever they were, were unfounded. About three years later, Carolina’s mother died, asking her daughter not to return to Sacramento.
In addition to this experience of being accused of something she didn’t commit, the situation in the town was very complicated. For example, black people were not allowed to go downtown during the week, because they were supposed to be working on the farms and they could only attend mass at six in the morning.
So, from an early age, Carolina had to deal with racism and discrimination. Unfortunately, this happened even within her family. In the biography “Muito Bem, Carolina”, by the authors Eliana de Moura Castro and Marília Novais de Mata Machado, there is an excerpt that reads as follows:
“Her aunt and grandmother, Ana Marcelina, a pale mulatto, did not like black people, although Otaviano, her son, was dark-skinned. She wanted marriages to fair-skinned people for her children, perhaps as a means of upward mobility. She did not allow her daughter Mariinha to be united with the man she loved, because he was black. Mariinha married a white man who was an alcoholic; they had two children and Mariinha died young and unhappy. Carolina and her brother could not enter Aunt Ana’s house, because they were dark.”
But if she had this exclusionary side within the family, she also had a person who was super important in shaping her personality & ambitions, nurturing Carolina’s love for reading. Her grandfather, Benedito José da Silva. He was born after the “Law of Free Womb” came into effect, so he was never enslaved.
He was illiterate but full of wisdom passed down through generations, a rich source of oral culture. People gathered around him, Carolina among them, to hear the stories he told. In one of Carolina’s posthumous texts, entitled Socrates Africano (“African Socrates”), she speaks of her grandfather in a period close to his death (when she was a teenager), of his wisdom, his rhetorical and oratory skills.
Life in São Paulo
At 23, after her mother had already passed away, Carolina decided to leave Sacramento. Her destination: the city of São Paulo. Once there, she took a job for a while at the home of a well-known cardiologist. There, she could read the library books on her days off.
The years that followed were years of many difficulties and many changes. She works as a maid, hotel cleaner, beer seller and tried to be a circus artist, until she started collecting paper and other reusable garbage. In this work, she found books and notebooks that she kept, read and used to write her texts. Years later, those who studied Carolina’s notebooks said that you could find other people’s handwriting there, because they were notebooks that had already been used.
But it was also during this period, in 1941, that she published her first poem, in the Folha da Manhã newspaper. She was already making efforts to write and publish her writings.
In 1948, governor Ademar de Barros decided that he was going to clean up downtown São Paulo. He ordered the removal of street dwellers and tenements from the city center. It was in this context that the Canindé favela emerged, on the banks of the Tietê River. In the time Carolina arrived there, the term favela designated a precarious housing situation, but without the influence of drug and arms trafficking.
Migrants from various states of Brazil and also immigrants built their houses in very precarious conditions in the Canindé favela. Carolina Maria de Jesus was one of those people. She built her little place, a wooden shack, also using other materials she found, such as tin and cardboard. Her daughter says that her mother carried the wood on her head. She said that all her strength came from her head, both for writing and for carrying a paper bag.
In this house, where she lived for 11 years, she had her three children. In fact, she was already pregnant with her eldest child when she arrived at Canindé. Her children are João José de Jesus, born in 1948, José Carlos de Jesus, 1950 and Vera Eunice de Jesus Lima, 1953. They are children of different fathers, respectively a Portuguese sailor, a Spaniard and, in the case of Vera, Carolina never revealed the father’s identity.
As the years went by, Carolina continued to collect trash to ensure hers and her children’s livelihood. She was always struggling to have enough. Hunger was a constant, almost daily companion.
Writing and her discovery
Another constant was writing and reading. She continued to find and bring books and notebooks home, and write. In 1950, she even published a poem in the newspaper O Defensor, praising the dictator Getúlio Vargas.
In 1955 she started keeping diaries, where she posted her experiences, interactions with her neighbors, reflections on her life, on hunger, on the struggle of each day. And she kept this diary while writing her poems, chronicles, novels, lyrics…
And then, in 1958, a meeting that will change the course of Carolina’s life happens. The journalist Audálio Dantas visited the Canindé favela in search of material for reporting: “I was looking at some big guys playing on the playground when a woman appeared, saying that if they didn’t get out, she’d put them in the book.”
He was curious and asked what book was that. She invited him to her place, to show him the notebooks. And from then on, he became a mediator between Carolina and the publishing world. Part of the material in the diaries was published in newspapers, generating good repercussion. And then the plans began to be formed: they would publish the book Quarto de Despejo. Carolina continued to write her diaries, and Audálio organized this material, typed and edited it for publication.
The book, released in August 1960, was, by all definitions, a best seller. 10,000 copies in one week – first edition sold out. With that, she became one of the best-selling writers in Brazil, matching the sales of Jorge Amado in a year! Today, the book has been translated into 16 languages and is sold in over 40 countries.
Quarto de Despejo is in the form of a diary, telling the life of Carolina, her children and even other residents of Canindé in the period from July 13, 1955 to January 1, 1960. It encompasses everything she went through, her daily life, her work as a garbage collector, the hunger, the difficulties she and her children faced, her indignation at domestic violence and how she disagreed with the attitudes and instabilities of her neighbors.
This book is the first time that the voice of a woman who lives in a favela is heard. It is a book that, like a diary itself, exposes the conflicts and inconsistencies that we all have. Sometimes she tells things so strong, shocking even, without any comment, which makes it have an even greater impact.
Another thing Carolina did, she sometimes described things with colors: “What a surprising effect food has on our bodies! Before I ate, I saw the sky, the trees, the birds, everything yellow, after I ate, everything came back to normal in my eyes.”
Her relationship with writing and books was something that sort of set her apart from her “illiterate” neighbors, as she called it. She was considered arrogant and snobby for her “high” speech. After the publication, it is said that she had to deal with the anger of some neighbors, who accused her of having put their lives in the book without permission, even attacking her and her children, throwing things at them. She, in turn, defined the favela as a “place for the vanquished” and a “deposit for the uneducated who cannot count even the money from alms.”
So, during the time she lived in the Canindé favela and when she was writing her diary, these notebooks had functions that were very particular to the situation, to Carolina’s life. In addition to being an instrument of denunciation against injustices, especially once she knows that the book is going to be published, it was also a means of personal denunciation against the people who bothered her. For example, she wrote: “Those who used to fight with me are afraid to be in my Diary” and “I realize that if this diary is published it will hurt a lot of people. There are people who, when they see me pass by, leave the window or close the doors”.
But despite the success of the book, the diaries were not what Carolina really saw as valuable in all of her writing. She saw herself as a writer, as an artist. So for her, her poems, chronicles, novels, non-autobiographical writings, were in fact the most valuable. She was proud of these other texts. The journalist and editor Audálio, was of a different opinion. He thought that what had a real impact and was more potent were the diaries.
At Audálio’s request then, she continued to write the diaries. But on the other hand, she also didn’t stop writing what she wanted, namely, poems and chronicles and fiction.
As the publication date of the book approaches, she wrote more and more that she wasn’t very happy with the book:
“And an awful book! The book I never thought to write. It is the book that will disgrace my life. It’s the book that will regress my existence, I thought. But, I didn’t say that to them”.
The book didn’t fit in with the aesthetic values she espoused; it wasn’t something she thought was worth publishing. She wanted to publish something that she saw as literature. Diaries were for her a mode of catharsis, of dealing with daily difficulties. So before publication, she had several doubts about publication. But once the was in her hands, with her name on the cover, seeing that it officially made her an author… She said she was happy, thrilled: “You have to like books to feel what I felt.”
Success and next publications
So that was it, the book was released, it was a success. At the launch of the book, even Pelé was there. It gained recognition by the public and critics, was reported in Brazil and abroad, and it was soon afterwards published in English.
After the publication of the first book, many black activists, intellectuals, writers and artists engaged in the black movement tried to bring her into the movement, to have her as an ally in the anti-racist struggles. That didn’t happen, but her subsequent writing already takes a slightly different, more incisive approach to race relations. But even back in her first book, she already wrote about race:
“I adore my black skin and my kinky hair. The Negro hair is more educated than the white man’s hair. Because with Negro hair, where you put it, it stays. It’s obedient. The hair of the white, just give one quick movement, and it’s out of place. It won’t obey. If reincarnation exists I want to come back black”
In the years that followed, she had access to spaces that she had never even dreamed of before, she met other renowned writers, traveled to Chile and Argentina. But at the same time, “Carolina was consumed as an exotic object” as Tom Farias, author of Carolina: Uma Biografia, said. Many people even said that the book had been Audalio’s invention, that Carolina didn’t have the capacity to have written that or, that if she had written it herself, it wasn’t literature.
With the recognition also came an improvement in her financial condition. She left the favela and started living in a brick house, a three-story townhouse, which was Carolina’s dream, in the Santana neighborhood, a middle-class region in the north of São Paulo.
At the same time, Carolina continued writing and pursuing her desire to publish beyond her diaries: she wanted to publish her poetry and fictional works, and be recognized for this production, despite Audálio Dantas’ insistence on doing exactly the opposite. Then, in 1961, she published an autobiographical book called Casa de Alvenaria (“I’m Going to Have a Little House : The Second Diary of Carolina Maria de Jesus”). The book tells her experiences in these years following the success and after leaving Canindé. It brings the discoveries of a place that was unknown to her, a confusing everyday, with codes of behavior that were strange to her.
In the book’s preface, Audálio writes:
“Casa de Alvenaria is the testimony as important as the Quarto de Espejo (“Child of the Dark”), even without the dramatic tone of the slum dwellers’ misery. In some ways, it’s a more fascinating book, because in it there’s a little joy, there’s the wonder of discovery, there’s the happiness of a satisfied stomach, there’s the perplexity in front of different people and things and a bitter realization: misery also exists in the brick house, in the most diverse shapes.”
But he also took the opportunity to say what he thought about these other ambitions of hers:
“Now you are in the living room and continue to contribute with this new book, with which you can bring your mission to a close. […] Keep those ‘poetry’, those ‘tales’ and those ‘novels’ you wrote. The truth you shouted is very strong, stronger than you think, Carolina, ex-favelada (someone who lives in the slums) of Canindé, my sister there and my sister here.”
In the same year, she released her album, with songs written and performed by her.
With the proceeds from the first book, she published two more. ut then, she was not so well received. One of Carolina’s biographers, Joel Rufino explains: “Once the news passed, Carolina was rejected by everyone. On the right, for exposing misery. On the left, because she didn’t want to hear about social struggle”.
Add to that the fact that in 64 the military coup happened in Brazil, and with that, there was another push for Carolina’s work to be forgotten: her books and her social criticism weren’t welcome.
Carolina Forgotten and Found Again
Unfortunately, the gigantic changes in her life and in her family were hard to deal with. Audálio said that Carolina couldn’t live very well there, that the neighbors received her badly and she couldn’t stand it. She got into fights with the neighbors. Her daughter said that she liked music, turned the volume high, danced alone all night long. The neighbors didn’t like it. People, journalists and other acquaintances would come to ask for favors. The situation was more comfortable inside the house, perhaps, but in the neighborhood things were not so easy.
In 1967, her financial resources had already diminished to the point that she had to move to a poor part of town and was photographed picking up paper in the streets. This photo was published in Brazilian and foreign newspapers. Even her financial situation was publicized, which led Carolina to isolate herself in a house in the interior of São Paulo, in Parelheiros, isolating herself a little from that world that gave her so much fame and which also consumed her pain.
In Parelheiros, her children lived with her. The house had been built on modest land, close to a dirt road. It was a pumpkin-colored house with green-framed windows. She spent a lot of time alone, reading the newspaper and planting corn and vegetables. But after the move, she no longer received royalty payments. The money dwindled, and she and her children collected paper and bottles, as well as occasionally selling what she produced in the backyard. And then the hunger also came. Vera, the daughter, said that they had gone through another type of hunger, because they had known plenty.
But Carolina never stopped writing – until February 13, 1977, when, at the age of 62, she died at her home in Parelheiros. The cause of her death was respiratory failure, the result of the asthma attacks she had been suffering for a long time.
Her work continued to be celebrated and republished in the United States, France, Italy… but in Brazil, it was forgotten until the 90s, when the biography “Cinderela Negra” was published, and her collection was organized.
Posthumously, more of her books were published. Her poems, of which she was so proud, were not made public until 96.
Nowadays, Carolina’s writings are analyzed and studied at university. Since its publication, more than a million copies of Quarto de Despejo (“Child of the Dark”) have been sold. And in 2021, the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro awarded the title of Doctor Honoris Causa to writer Carolina Maria de Jesus.
More information (in Portuguese):
- Google Doodle: https://www.google.com/doodles/carolina-maria-de-jesus-105th-birthday