Carolina Maria de Jesus was a black Afro-Brazilian woman who changed the lives of many and her life from the slum by telling stories. Today, she is celebrated as Brazil’s most exceptional writer who despite being poor and black fought her way to the top emerging as the author of the best selling book in the country’s history. This feat did not happen overnight, she had to sacrifice dearly to attain this height.
Carolina Maria de Jesus was an illegitimate child of a single mother who had an affair with a married man. Born on 14th March 1914 into a poor family, her mother supported the family by working as a sharecropper in Minas Gerais where Carolina and her other siblings who each also had different fathers grew up as outcasts and lonely children.
Her mother was jettisoned by the Catholic church for having affairs with married men. Also, due to her poor background, Carolina was unable to make friends as much as she might have wanted to.
Fortunately for Carolina in 1921, she started school after a wealthy landowner’s wife opted to finance her education. However, two years later, she stopped on the basis that her mother forced her to do so. She spent fair time reading and assisting her mother despite her mother’s displeasure of her decision to forfeit school.
Several accounts from her book reveal that after her mother passed away in 1937, at age 23; Carolina moved to Sáo Paulo to start a new life for herself and soon got a job as a domestic servant which she did until she got pregnant with her first of three children. With the little money she saved, moved to a slum (known as favelas in Brazil) in Sáo Paulo and built her own house made from empty cans, plywood, and cardboard. She also made a meagre living by collecting cans, used paper and cardboard which she then sold to survive. It was amidst this struggle that Carolina began to write her diary.
With the little education she received and the ability to read and write which was in itself a rare opportunity for Afro-Brazilians, Carolina did not associate herself with the people that lived in the favela. She had affairs with white men and would always seclude herself writing on the cardboard and paper that could not be sold.
In her diary, she wrote about how she struggled with poverty and the life she wanted for her children to live and also wrote about different happenings in her community using the real names of people as well.
She was often involved in arguments with the people who did not feel comfortable with her constant writing, using real names and uptight personality and it was during one such argument in 1958 that she was found by a journalist, Audalio Dantas while on duty covering a beat. He overheard her publicly threatening to write about the person she was arguing with.
In the twinkle of an eye Audalio and Carolina became very good friends and the journalist would visit her occasionally in her home to look at her diary entries which he found very fascinating.
Audalio used his influence to publish Carolina’s excerpts from her diary in a newspaper which gained the attention of several Brazilians for its rawness and honesty as well as a proper glimpse into the lives of people that lived in the slums. After a high demand for more, her diary was finally published in 1960 titled “Quarto de Despejo (‘The Garbage Room’)” in 1960 which raised her from poverty to riches and out of the slums selling more than 30,000 copies in the first three days of release.
For Carolina and her children, the escape from the slum was a sigh of relief. The family soon moved into the elite parts of Sáo Paulo and living comfortably in a brick house, however, they were not accepted into the rich environment due to their slum history. The family was also attacked by people from the slum whose names appeared in her book. Several arguments were raised that she did not write her books.
Carolina’s book was translated into more than 13 languages, becoming a global bestseller book, thriving in North America and Europe. Unlike her first book, other books did not do so well because she was not accepted into any social group and did not gain the support of the people. In spite of being referred to as the representative of the reality of blacks in Brazil, Carolina could not become the famous writer she hoped to be.
Unfortunately, her riches were short and she moved back to the slum where she later died on February 13th, 1977. In 1999, the real manuscripts of her diary were found and published ending the dispute about the originality.
Carolina was definitely not meant for that era, the reason why she is only now being uplifted and celebrated for her rare documentation of life as a poor black Brazilian born in poverty, raised in the slum.