Carolina Maria de Jesus
Carolina Maria de Jesus (14 March 1914 – 13 February 1977) was a Brazilian outskirts memorialist who lived most of her life as a slum-dweller. She is best known for her diary, published in August 1960 as Quarto de Despejo (lit. Junk Room, English title Child of the Dark: The Diary of Carolina Maria de Jesus) after attracting the attention of a Brazilian journalist, which became a bestseller and won international acclaim. The work remains the only document published in English by a Brazilian slum-dweller of that period. De Jesus spent a significant part of her life in the Canindé favela in North São Paulo, supporting herself and three children as a scrap collector.
Quarto de despejo did not stop at being an editorial success, it also spawned theatrical plays, musical compositions (some by de Jesus herself), illustrations and sayings, and is a source for both individual and collective artistic creations, especially by other Black women from Brazilian city outskirts. De Jesus lends her name to community preparatory schools, theatre halls, saraus and collective action groups. The 2020 edition of the pt:Festa Literária das Periferias (Outskirts Literary Festival) was held in honour of de Jesus' memory, on the 60th anniversary of the book's publication.
Carolina Maria de Jesus was born in the city of Sacramento, Minas Gerais, then a small rural town. Her parents were illiterate sharecroppers. She was the daughter of a single mother, and her father was married to another woman. For those reasons, she was treated as an outcast as a child and was a victim of child maltreatment. When she reached the age of seven, de Jesus' mother forced her to attend school. Maria Leite Monteiro de Barros, a wealthy landowner's wife who was also a benefactor to other poor Black neighbourhood children, supported her for a while and paid for her schooling. Her formal education lasted a meagre two years, though by then she was already able to read and write. As her mother had illegitimate children, her family was excluded from Catholic Church. Nevertheless, she never stopped considering herself a Catholic. For instance, she often made biblical references and praises to God in her diary: "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, the year her mother died, pregnant de Jesus migrated to the metropolis of São Paulo, which was experiencing a demographic upswing and witnessing the appearance of its first slums. It is reported that authorities in her hometown thought her ability to read meant that she was a practitioner of witchcraft, because it was so unusual for someone like her. In São Paulo, she earned a living by collecting recyclable materials. She would purchase what little food she could afford with the earnings of her hard work. De Jesus made her own shack out of scrap plywood, cans, cardboard, or pretty much anything she could obtain. Among the materials she collected, there would be an occasional journal or notebook, as well as books, which encouraged her to start recording her day-to-day activities and write about life in the favela. It angered her neighbours that she was always writing because they were illiterate and felt uncomfortable at the thought of her writing about them. Her neighbours were jealous of her and tended to treat de Jesus and her children badly. She never considered getting married, on account of having witnessed too much domestic violence in the slums and preferring to remain an independent woman. She had three children, each from a different relationship (at least one of which was with a wealthy white man). Unlike many fellow Black women, de Jesus celebrated her race and was proud of it. To her, her skin and hair looked beautiful.
In her diary, she gives details about the daily life of favelados (the inhabitants of favelas), and bluntly describes the political and social facts which impacted their lives. She writes of how poverty and desperation can cause people of elevated moral character to abandon their principles and dishonour themselves to simply feed their families. According to her, favelados would never get the chance to save money, as any extra earnings would immediately be used to pay off debts.
Publication of her diary
De Jesus' diary was published in August 1960. She had been discovered by journalist Audalio Dantas in April 1958. Dantas was covering the opening of a neighbouring city playground when, immediately after the ribbon-cuttings, a street gang stormed in and claimed the area, chasing the children away. Dantas saw de Jesus standing at the edge of the playground shouting, "Leave, or I'll put you in my book!"[This quote needs a citation] The intruders departed. Dantas asked what she meant by "book"; she was shy at first, but took him to her shack and showed him everything she had written. He asked her for a small sample and subsequently ran it in the newspaper. However, de Jesus is known to have given interviews and made other newspaper appearances since the early 1940s.
The inspiration for the book's title came from de Jesus' believing the favela was society's junk room: 'I live in the junk room. And whatever's in there, people either set on fire, or throw in the garbage'.
De Jesus's story "electrified the town"[This quote needs a citation] and in 1960, Quarto de Despejo came out. It sold 30,000 copies of the first edition and 100,000 copies of the second and third editions. Another source says 80,000 copies all told. Though written in the simple language of a favela dweller, the book was translated into thirteen (another source says fourteen) languages and became a bestseller in North America and Europe. It was published in the United States and 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 it a fraud; but the original manuscript was preserved and reprinted in full in 1999, proving not only that de Jesus wrote the book herself, but that she was a much livelier and more poetic writer than Dantas' edition seemed to suggest.
The book's status as a bestseller came as a surprise to her neighbourhood as well as the country. Many of de Jesus' neighbours knew about her writings before the publication and would tease and ridicule her because of them. "Most couldn't even read, but thought she should be doing other things with her spare time than writing and saving old writings."[This quote needs a citation] Despite the large amount of publicity and popularity caused by the diary, de Jesus continued to be a social pariah.
De Jesus' diary detailed the grim reality of her life as well as that of those around her. She judged her neighbours based on their lifestyles, using actual names and circumstances in the book. "You wrote bad things about me, you did worse than I did", a drunken neighbour once yelled. Many neighbours despised de Jesus because she seemed to look down on slum people's way of life. One man "screamed at her that she was a 'black whore' who had become rich by writing about favelados but refused to share any of her money with them." In addition to their cruel words, people would throw stones and full chamber pots at her and her children. They were also angry because she used the proceeds of her diary to move into a brick-house in the high-end neighbourhood of Santana. "Neighbors swarmed around the truck and wouldn't let her leave. 'You think you are high class now, don't you'"[This quote needs a citation], they would scream. They despised her for what they saw as a disparagement of their way of life, even though a major achievement of her diary was to increase awareness about Brazilian favelas the world over.
Seeing as de Jesus raised concerns about conditions in the favelas, local politicians started wanting to meet with her to discuss possible ways to amend the situation. São Paulo's governor Francisco Prestes Maia made a move to engage state agencies in providing poverty relief for favelados. Most of his projects were concerned with teaching women to sew, care properly for their children and practice good hygiene. However, these initiatives quickly faded.
De Jesus' had three children: Vera Eunice, José (aka Zé) Carlos and João José. Through interviews for The Life and Death of Maria de Jesus (see below § Further reading), second eldest Zé and daughter Vera provide vital information about her personality.
In her interview, Vera clearly describes how her mother devoted herself entirely to her dream of becoming a writer, without any help from others. Vera admired her mother's aspiration to create a better life not only for herself but for her children. Although living with de Jesus' could be challenging, 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 travelling, attending parties, and living in a large mansion that seemed almost prison-like due to its large size. Constantly praising her mother during the interview, Vera gives full credit to de Jesus for her achievements; according to her, she would never have been able to attend school if it were not for her mother's success.
Vera constantly mentions the danger of living in the favela and how, although she and her siblings were born poor, their mother fought for a better life for them. 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 idly, sometimes studying, in their shack waiting for her to return. De Jesus rarely let her children leave their shack, fearing for their safety. Leaving her children alone at night was too dangerous. Vera states: "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 [my brothers] 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.
Vera made it clear that there was constantly a man in her mother's life. In her words, de Jesus loved being infatuated and was very sexually-oriented. She stressed how her mother did not fancy the Black men of the favela and how they did not favour her too much either. While she had been called a witch in her hometown, in Canindé she was regarded merely as an eccentric. People there were less in awe of her writing than 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". When someone upset her, she threatened to write about them in her book. Jealousy of her writing, men, and lifestyle resulted in other faveladas (the female inhabitants of favelas) antagonising her. However, that did not stop de Jesus from continuing to write about what was going on in the favela.
During the interview, Vera recalls an event specifically showing her mother's love and protection towards her children. She recalled a childhood event in which she was playing on the grass when a man approached her and asked her to help him find something. The two headed down towards a river and soon the man began removing Vera's clothes in an indication that he was about to rape her. De Jesus instinctively felt her daughter was in danger, and soon made her way down to the river, thereby rescuing her daughter and chasing the stranger away.
According to Vera, before the publication of Quarto de despejo her mother became obsessed with Audálio Dantas, her publisher, and was constantly anxious about him sending word about her diary. Soon after the book was released, Vera found herself attending her mother's book signings, wearing new clothes, and travelling across Brazil. All of a sudden, everything Vera, her brothers, and her mother wanted was at their fingertips. Vera said her mother always liked to be the centre of attention, and aspired to become a singer and an actress. In spite of her ambitions, her publisher argued that this would bring her no benefit and insisted she should continue writing books.
Soon after the family switched neighbourhoods from the favela to Santana the children started learning about discrimination. There, the family lived in a large brick-house that resembled a prison due to its being large in size. Neighbourhood kids were not allowed to play with Vera and her brothers as their families considered de Jesus was "marked by the favela". This was a shock to Vera and her brothers because they had been used to playing outside[contradictory], whereas in Santana they had to stay indoors and could not interact with other children.
Despite her mother's fame and fortune, Vera noticed de Jesus was becoming impatient due to her lack of privacy. Before the fame, all de Jesus wanted was to have her writing noticed, but she had started regretting her decisions. Now that money was plentiful (it is estimated she made 2,000 cruzeiros by selling her author's rights, as compared to a 20 cruzeiros income from collecting paper), de Jesus began to spend it for no reason. She had intentions of sending both Vera and Zé Carlos to Italy but soon changed her mind and decided to invest in a small ranch in far-flung Parelheiros where she ended up moving with her children. The family was excited about living in a rural area and Vera saw her mother become hard-working again: growing crops, taking care of the household, and tending to her youngest João as his health grew ill. The family was prevented from getting medical help for him from public health services at the time as they did not have a work card, which was required by the social security agency.
Eventually, João died of kidney failure only four months after his mother had passed from respiratory failure in 1977. Vera Eunice, who was interviewed in 1994, got married and became a teacher, and at the time of the interview was a nighttime higher education student with plans of becoming an English-language translator. On the other hand, her youngest[contradictory] son Zé Carlos was twice divorced, occasionally homeless and an alcoholic, and purportedly as smart, angry and erratic as his mother.
One of the characteristics differentiating Carolina Maria de Jesus from her neighbours in the Canindé favela was her distinctive perspective on life. Though living among the lowest classes of society, de Jesus had dreams and aspirations not unlike those of any privileged person who enjoyed a comfortable living in Brazil during the mid-1900s. De Jesus believed that her dreams could be realised and, against great odds, many of them were. She stood by a different paradigm than her favelado counterparts, and lived accordingly.
At no point in de Jesus's life was she at peace with the fact that she was born into the lower classes. The activities she occupied her spare time with, her decision to avoid the many risks of a vulnerable life as well as her affairs, all indicated that while she was physically in the favela, her mind wandered free. "[W]hat set Carolina apart in Canindé was her penchant for spending several hours a day writing". In an environment with high illiteracy rates, eloquent writing was a particularly rare accomplishment. She wrote poems, novels and stories. In the early 1940s, de Jesus began taking her work to editors in an attempt to get it published. She persevered until in 1960, Dantas decided to publish her diary.
Among the many things de Jesus chose to write about in her diary were the people living around her. She describes herself as being very different from fellow favelados, and claimed that "she detested other blacks from her social class". While she watched many of the people around her succumb to drugs, alcohol, prostitution, violence, and robbery, she strived to stay loyal to her children and her writing. De Jesus was consistently able to provide for her children by recycling scrap material for money or diving through dumpsters for food and clothing. By saving some of the paper she collected, de Jesus had the material she needed to go on with her writing.
De Jesus offers a non-academic perspective on poverty and exclusionary economic expansion in Brazil, which was then rarely made by someone who did not come form the educated classes. The moment is particularly ironic, as it was a time when Brasilia, the symbol of a 'New Brasil', had just been inaugurated.
Another atypical part of de Jesus' life concerned romantic affairs. Although it was not unusual for Black women at the time to seek light-skinned partners, since lighter skin was openly associated with higher economic status, de Jesus did not want to leverage relationships in order to improve her own situation. Her children were fathered by white foreigners from Italy, Portugal, and the United States. A few romantic partners offered to marry her, yet she accepted none of their proposals, even though by marrying them, she would have been lifted out of poverty. A possible explanation for that may be that she did not want anyone dictating how she lived. Regardless of the reason, de Jesus remained true to her beliefs and did not conform to the way of life of the favela.
De Jesus wrote another four books after Quarto de despejo, to a scanty success. She rose to fame and fell from grace very rapidly. This could be because of her strong personality, which kept her from getting along with people very well. Also, the Brazilian political landscape changed drastically after the 1964 Brazilian coup d'état, which left little room for freedom of expression. She still wrote poems, short stories, and brief memoirs, none of which were ever published. In fact, her obituary in a 1977 edition of the Jornal do Brasil speaks of her blaming herself for not being able to take advantage of her brief celebrity status and states that her stubbornness led her to die in poverty. Still, her biography and memoirs provide insight into Brazilian favela life. While her life story can be seen as a struggle with tragedy, it is possible to regard her views as common Brazilian attitudes towards society, family life, equality, poverty, and other aspects of daily existence in the 1960s.
Her book was read extensively both in capitalist areas such as Western Europe and the United States, as well as in the Eastern bloc and Cuba, the wide range of the audience demonstrating how many people were affected by her story outside of Brazil. For the liberal capitalist West, the book portrayed a cruel and corrupt system which had been reinforced by centuries of colonial ideals instilled in people. By contrast, for communist readers the stories depicted perfectly the fundamental flaws of capitalist production in which the worker is the most downtrodden part of the economic system.
As Brazilian historian José Carlos Sebe Bom Meihy noted, "many foreign specialists in Brazil year after year used her translated diary in their classes", which indicates her worldwide role in providing an uncommon first-hand account of 1960s favela life. According to Robert M. Levine, "Carolina's words brought alive a slice of Latin American reality rarely acknowledged in traditional textbooks."
- Quarto de Despejo: Diário de uma favelada (1960). Translated by David St. Clair as Child of the Dark: The Diary of Carolina Maria de Jesus. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1962. As Beyond All Pity, London, UK: Souvenir Press, 1962; Panther, 1970; Earthscan, 1990.
- Casa de alvenaria (1961)
- Pedaços de fome (1963)
- Provérbios (1963)
- Diário de Bitita (1982, posthumous)
- Robert M. Levine and 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.
- "Biblioteca de São Paulo homenageia escritora Carolina de Jesus", Governo do Estado de São Paulo, 7 November 2010. (Portuguese)
- Robert M. Levine, "The Cautionary Tale Of Carolina Maria De Jesus" Archived 26 December 2013 at the Wayback Machine, Latin American Research Review, Volume 29, Number 1, 1992, pp. 55–84.
- "Quem foi Carolina Maria de Jesus, que completaria 105 anos em março". Revista Galileu (in Portuguese). Retrieved 21 February 2020.
- "Universa - O legado do best-seller "Quarto de Despejo" na vida das mulheres negras". mulherias.blogosfera.uol.com.br.
- "Carolina Maria de Jesus é a homenageada da Festa Literária das Periferias". CLAUDIA.
- Quoted in Robert M. Levine and José Carlos Sebe Bom Meihy, The Life and Death of Carolina Maria de Jesús, Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1995, p. 50.
- "Carolina Maria de Jesus". Brasil Escola (in Portuguese). Retrieved 26 August 2020.
- "Autores celebram 60 anos de 'Quarto de Despejo', de Carolina Maria de Jesus". tab.uol.com.br.
- "Carolina Maria de Jesus". literafro (in Portuguese). Retrieved 26 August 2020.
- Levine (1995), p. 52.
- Levine (1995), p. 96.
- Levine (1995), p. 101.
- Levine (1995), p. 97.
- Levine (1995), p. 103.
- Levine (1995), p. 107.
- Levine (1995), p. 41.
- Levine (1995), p. 42.
- Levine (1995), p. 23.
- Levine (1995), p. 40.
- Levine (1995), p. 37–39.
- Levine (1995), p. 3.
- Levine (1995), p. 7.
- "Carolina Maria de Jesus' 105th Birthday". Google. 14 March 2019.
- Isabel Cristina Rodrigues Ferreira, "The Dialogue About 'Racial Democracy' Among African-American and Afro-Brazilian Literatures" Archived 4 March 2016 at the Wayback Machine (dissertation), Chapel Hill, 2008, p. 91.
- Robert M. Levine, "The Cautionary Tale Of Carolina Maria De Jesus", Working Paper No. 178, Kellogg Institute.
- Unexpurgated Diaries of Carolina de Jesus (Amazon.com link)
- Melvin S. Arrington, Jr., "I’m Going to Have a Little House: The Second Diary of Carolina Maria de Jesus", University of Mississippi. Review of Carolina's second published book.
- The Life and Death of Carolina de Jesus