Carolina Maria de Jesus
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Carolina Maria de Jesus (1914–1977) was a Brazilian peasant who lived most of her life in a favela (slums) of São Paulo, Brazil. She is best known for her diary, which was published as Child of the Dark in 1960, after coming to the attention of a Brazilian journalist. This work remains the only document published in English by a Brazilian slum-dweller from that period.
Carolina Maria de Jesus was born in Minas Gerais, a rural community where her parents were sharecroppers. She was an illegitimate child, fathered by a man who was already married. Therefore she was treated as an outcast during her entire childhood, and her aggressive personality did nothing to alleviate the situation. When she reached the age of seven, Carolina’s mother forced her to attend school after a wealthy landowner’s wife paid for Carolina, as well as other poor black children in the neighborhood. However, she stopped attending school by the second grade, but she went long enough to learn how to read and write. Little did she know at the time, these things would play a very important role in her life as an adult. Since Carolina’s mother had two illegitimate children, her family was kicked out of the Catholic Church while she was still young. However, throughout her life she considered herself a devout catholic, even though she would never be accepted by the Catholic Church. In her diary she often made biblical references, and overtures to God: "I dreamt I was an angel. My dress was billowing and had long pink sleeves. I went from earth to heaven. I put stars in my hands and played with them. I talked to the stars. They put on a show in my honor. They danced around me and made a luminous path. When I woke up I thought: I’m so poor. I can't afford to go to a play so God sends me these dreams for my aching soul. To the God who protects me, I send my thanks".
In 1937, her mother died, and she was forced to migrate to the metropolis of São Paulo. Carolina made her own house out of used plywood, cans, cardboard, and anything else she could find. She would go out every night to collect paper in order to get money to support the family. Once she got done collecting she would go and sell what she had collected and then go to the store and buy what little food that she could with the money. She would also find journals and old notebooks which she would keep and use to write in. She began to write on her day to day activities and how her life was living in the favela. This angered her neighbors to see her always writing. They weren’t literate so they could not read what she was writing; they just did not feel comfortable with the thought of her writing about them. Her neighbors were jealous of Carolina and tended to treat her as well as her children very poorly. As a young woman she was somewhat attractive and had many love affairs, although she refused to marry, having seen too much domestic violence in the slum. She preferred to remain independent. Unlike many black women in that time and place, Carolina celebrated her race; she thought her skin and hair were beautiful.
All three of her children had different fathers, at least one of whom was a wealthy white man. In her diary, she details the daily life of the favelados, and bluntly describes the political and social facts which order their lives. She writes of how poverty and desperation can cause people of high moral character to compromise their principles and dishonor themselves simply to get food for themselves and their families. There is no chance to save money, because any extra earnings must immediately go to pay off outstanding debt
Local effect of the diary
Carolina Maria De Jesus’ diary was published in August 1960. She was discovered by journalist Audalio Dantas in April 1958. Dantas was covering the opening of a small municipal playground. Immediately following the ceremonies, a street gang moved in and claimed the area, chasing the children away. Dantas saw Carolina standing at the edge of the playground shouting "Leave, or I'll put you in my book!" The intruders departed. Dantas asked what she meant about her book; she was shy at first, but took him to her shack and showed him everything. He asked for a small sample and ran it in the newspaper.
Carolina's story "electrified the town," and in 1960, Quarto de Despejo (The Garbage Place), was published. It became the most successful book in Brazilian publishing history. Although written in the simple, inelegant language of a favelada, her diary was translated into thirteen languages and became a bestseller in North America and Europe. It was published in the United States and the UK as Child of the Dark: The Diary of Carolina Maria de Jesus, in 1962. The book was heavily edited by Dantas, and some critics suspected that the diary was a fraud; but the original manuscript was preserved and reprinted whole in 1999, proving that not only did Carolina write it herself, but that she was a much livelier and more poetic writer than Dantas' edition seemed to present.
This came as a surprise to her town as well as the country. Many of Carolina’s neighbors knew about her writings before the publication and would tease and ridicule her. “Most couldn’t even read, but thought she should be doing other things with her spare time than writing and saving old writings”. Though as much as people poked fun at her writings, this publication “electrified” the town and she sold over 30,000 copies in the first three days. People demanded the shipment of more copies all across Brazil. Along with the large amount of publicity and popularity that the diary created, Carolina became a social victim especially in her local town.
Carolina Maria De Jesus’ diary detailed her grim reality of life as well as the dreadful life around her. Carolina judged her neighbors for their ways of life and used their actual names and instances in the publication. “You wrote bad things about me, you did worse than I did” shouted a drunken neighbor. Many of Carolina’s neighbors despised her because she seemed to look down upon the town peoples’ way of life. One man “screamed at her that she was a ‘black whore’ who had become rich by writing about favelas but refused to share any of her money”. Along with the neighbors’ cruel words, people would throw rocks and full chamber pots at her and her children. People were also angry because she moved into a brick house] in the suburbs with the first proceeds of her diary. “Neighbors swarmed around the truck and wouldn’t let her leave. ‘You think you are high class now, don’t you’” they would scream. The local neighbors despised her even though the high achievement of her diary increased the knowledge of these favelas around the world. To Carolina’s local neighbors this publication was a bashing of their way of life:
When I die I don't want to be reborn It is horrible, to put up with humanity
That has a noble appearance That covers up its terrible qualities
I noted that humanity Is perverse, is tyrannical
Self-seeking egoists Who handle things politely
But all is hypocrisy They are uncultivated, and trickers.
Carolina also raised awareness of the favelas’ conditions. Local politicians wanted to meet with Carolina and discuss some of her points. The governor of São Paulo, Prestes Maia, tried to begin the involvement of agencies to create poor relief. Most of these projects were dedicated to teach women how to sew, care properly of their children and teach good hygiene. This was a step in the right direction though these projects quickly faded.
To really understand the life of Carolina Maria de Jesus it is best to examine Carolina through the eyes of her children Vera Eunice, Zé Carlos, and João Jose. The book entitled The Life and Death of Maria de Jesus provided vital information about the character of Carolina through interviews from both her second eldest son Zé and her daughter Vera.
During the interview Vera clearly describes how her mother devoted herself entirely to her dream of becoming a writer, without the help of others. Vera admired her mother’s aspiration to create a better life not only for herself but for her children. Although Carolina was a difficult person to live with, Vera stated “There is no one in the world I admire more than her”. Vera stresses how the success of her mother’s work quickly resulted in the family constantly traveling, attending parties, and living in large mansions that seemed almost prison-like due to their great size. Constantly giving praise to her mother during the interview, Vera gives thanks to her life history completely to the work of her mother. Without the success of her mother, Vera would have never been able attend school.
Vera constantly mentions the dangerous lifestyle of living in the favela and although she and her siblings were born poor through their mother’s suffering fought for a better life for her children. Violence in the favela made it dangerous for Vera and her brothers to be on the streets with her mother, so most of their time was spent waiting and sometimes studying in their shack awaiting Carolina’s return. Carolina rarely let her children leave their shack in fear of their safety. Later on, leaving her children became too dangerous. Her own daughter, Vera Eunice professed that, "We didn’t have enough money to buy proper food, but my mother wanted us to stay out of the favela! She disliked not only the favela, but the people who lived in it…my mother gave [João and Zé Carlos] money to stay away the whole day. They only returned at night, to sleep. Movie tickets ended up costing much of our money for food, but she preferred it that way. She preferred to leave at dawn, with her sack on her shoulders, to walk, walk, walk and to go to bed hungry, rather than to leave us alone in Canindé". "Hunger is the world plague of the favela", Vera stated.
Socially, Vera made it clear that there was always a man in her mother’s life. Carolina simply loved being infatuated with men and adored love making. She stressed how Carolina did not like the black men living in the favela and that they did not favor Carolina too much either. When she lived in Sacramento, she was sometimes called a witch, but in Canindé she was merely regarded as eccentric. They were less in awe of her writing, and more intimidated by it: “In the favela, they thought that she was crazy, walking with her notebook under her arm. There were people who laughed. The worst ones laughed at her piles of paper, but they stopped when they realized that it was neither a joke nor craziness” (103). It’s true that she threatened to write about people in her book if she got upset, and she most certainly did. Jealousy of her writing, men, and lifestyle resulted in other faveladas becoming her enemies. Despite her dislike of others and others dislike for her this did not stop her mother from continuing to write about what was happening in the favela.
During this interview Vera recalls an event specifically showing her mothers love and protection for her children. Here, she told about a time during her childhood where she was playing in the grass when a man approached her and asked her to help him find something. The two of them headed down towards a river and soon this stranger began removing Vera’s clothes and raping her. A mother’s instinct warned Carolina that her daughter was in trouble, and soon she made her way down to the river, rescuing her daughter from this stranger.
Before the publication of her work Vera notices her mother’s obsession with Audálio, her publisher, and was constantly anxious about him sending word about her diary. Soon after her publication Vera found herself attending her mother’s book signings, wearing new clothes, and traveling all around Brazil. Soon everything Vera, her brothers, and her mother wanted was at their fingertips. Vera stressed how her mother always wanted to be the center of attention, and aspired to become a singer and an actress. However, despite her efforts to do so, her publisher informed her that this would not benefit her and that she should continue writing her novels.
Soon after the family moved away from the favela and into Santana the children quickly learned about prejudice. Here, Carolina and the family lived in a large brick house that seemed almost like a prison due to its size. Other children in the neighborhood were not allowed to play with Vera and her two brothers because other families considered Carolina “marked by the favela,” (Levine, 107). This was unusual to Vera and her brothers because they were so used to playing outside, but here in Santana they remained in their home and did not interact with other children.
Despite her fame and fortune Vera noticed her mother becoming impatient due to her lack of privacy. Before her publication all Carolina wanted was to have her writing noticed, but now she started to regret this decision. Now that money was plentiful Carolina began to spend without paying attention to what she was spending her earnings on. She had intentions of sending both Zé and Vera to Italy but soon changed her mind and decided to spend her money on the Parelherios where she and her three children moved. Here, the family loved their country land and Vera saw her mother had become hard working again; growing crops, taking care of the household once again, and tending to João as his health began to fail. The family could not seek medical help during the time where João was ill because they did not have a work card, required by the INS.
João eventually died of kidney failure four months after his mother passed from a respiratory attack. Vera Eunice, interviewed in 1994, married and became a teacher, and at the time was a night-time student at a small public college. She wanted to be an English language translator. On the other hand, her youngest son Zé Carlos was twice divorced, occasionally homeless, an alcoholic, but purportedly extremely intelligent like Carolina. Along with his intelligence he was simultaneously angry and erratic. Again, a trait of his mother.
One of the characteristics that differentiated Carolina Maria de Jesus’ from her neighbors in the Canindé favela was her unique perspective of life. Carolina was a woman who, although may have lived among the lowest classes of Brazilian society, had dreams and aspirations like those who lived most comfortably in Brazil during the mid 1900s. Some would argue that all members of society, regardless of social or economic status, have goals and ambitions of some sort. However, Carolina Maria de Jesus was a woman who believed that her dreams could be realized, and against great odds, many of them were. She created a paradigm unlike any of her favelado counterparts, and lived accordingly until she was finally able to move her family into the modest middle-class neighborhood of Alto de Santana in São Paulo.
At no point in Carolina’s life did she accept the class of society she was born into. The activities that Carolina used to occupy her free time, her decision to avoid the many vices present in everyday favela life, as well as her choice of sexual partners, all indicate that while she was physically in the favela her mind was elsewhere. For instance, “what set Carolina apart in Canindé was her penchant for spending several hours a day writing” (Levine 41). Although writing may not seem like an extraordinary practice, among a highly illiterate neighborhood it was a particularly rare event. She wrote poems, novels, and stories. In the early 1940s, Carolina began taking many of her literary works to editors in an attempt to get them published (Levine 42). Carolina persevered until 1960, when Brazilian journalist Audalio Dantas published Carolina’s diary Quarto de Despejo (Garbage Room).
One of the many things that Carolina chose to write about in her diary were the other people living around her. Carolina describes herself as being very different from the other favelados that she writes about. For example, Carolina claimed that “she detested other blacks from her social class” (Levine 23). While Carolina watched many of the people around her succumb to drugs, alcohol, prostitution, violence, and robbery, she chose to stay loyal to her children and her writing. Carolina was consistently able to provide for her children by recycling used trash for money or foraging through garbage cans for food and clothing (Levine 40). By saving some of the paper she collected, Carolina had the material she needed to continue her writing.
Another atypical part of Carolina’s life concerned her choice of sexual partners. Although it was not unusual for faveladas to seek lighter skinned partners, because light skin was associated with a higher economic status, Carolina never used any of her relationships to better her own situation. The fathers of Carolina’s children were all white foreigners from places like Italy, Portugal, and the United States (Levine 37-39). Many of her lovers offered to marry Carolina but she never accepted any of their proposals, even though they would have lifted her out of poverty. A possible explanation for this may be that Carolina did not want anybody to compromise her way of living. Regardless of the reason, Carolina stayed true to her beliefs and would not submit to the way of life that the favela offered her.
She wrote four additional books after Child of the Dark which were published without success. She rose and fell from the public eye rapidly. This was probably because of her strong personality that kept her from getting along with a lot of people. But also the political panorama of Brazilian society would change drastically after the coup d'état, in 1964, leaving little room for social manifestation. She also dabbled in poems, short stories, and brief memoirs, none of which were ever published. In fact, her obituary in a 1977 edition of Jornal do Brasil comments about her blaming herself for not being able to take advantage of her brief celebrity status and that her stubbornness led her to die in poverty. We should rather consider how her story and descriptions provide insight to the Brazilian favela condition. For example, the events of Carolina’s life can be seen as a sad story for one individual, or one can look beyond that and see the average Brazilian’s view of society, family life, equality, poverty, and other aspects of daily existence.
Her book was read extensively both in capitalist areas like Western Europe and the United States, as well as socialist bloc countries, the Eastern bloc and Cuba. Such a wide range in audience suggests how many people her story affected outside of Brazil. For the liberal and capitalist West, the book portrayed a cruel and corrupt system which had been reinforced by centuries of colonial ideals instilled on the people. In opposition, for the communist readers the stories depicted perfectly the fundamental flaws of the capitalist system where the worker is the most downtrodden part of the economic system.
Many people, including Brazilian historian Jose Carlos Sebe, find that, “many foreign specialists in Brazil year after year used her translated diary in their classes.” This indicates her important role worldwide as providing one of the only primary direct factual accounts and stories of what was going on in these favelas. Carolina’s story was a desperate cry for help to the whole world from a very backwater, unknown, mistreated, and misrepresented group of people. Author Robert M. Levine describes how, “Carolina’s words brought alive a slice of Latin American reality rarely acknowledged in traditional textbooks.”
- Levine, Robert M. & José Carlos Sebe Bom Meihy. The Life and Death of Carolina Maria de Jesús (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press); 1995.
- Chasteen, John. Born in Blood and Fire: a concise history of Latin America. 2001.
- Jesus, Carolina Maria de. Child of the Dark: The Diary of Carolina Maria de Jesús. Translated by David St. Clair. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1962. As Beyond All Pity, London, UK: Souvenir Press, 1962; Panther, 1970; Earthscan, 1990.
- Unexpurgated Diaries of Carolina de Jesus (Amazon.com link)
- I'm going to have a little house Review of Carolina's second published book.
- The Life and Death of Carolina de Jesus