Carolina Maria de Jesus: She Lived In the Slums, Had An Elementary-School Education, and Wrote a Best-Seller

“And so, on May 13th, 1958, I found myself fighting against modern slavery: hunger!”

So wrote Carolina Maria de Jesus in her journal, in one of São Paulo’s poorest favelas (slums). 

Carolina was born to descendants of slavers, only went to school for two years, and still wrote an international best-seller. 

Her journal, which was published in 1960, vividly described life in São Paulo’s favelas. 

It sold over 10,000 copies in the first three days of its publication, and was quickly translated into more languages. In English it is Child of the Dark and in Portuguese – Quarto de Despejo. It is still the only book in English to describe life in the favelas in first-person. 

Carolina was born in 1914. In 1937, she moved to the suburbs after her mother passed away. When she got pregnant in 1948, her partner left her. She needed to use her survival skills. Like many others who lived in the slums, she built herself a house with whatever materials she could find: class, wood, metal, and so on. In her journal, she describes how she built her house while her baby daughter was strapped to her back. 

For years, Carolina lived day to day and made money however she could: collecting cans and papers, working in households, and whatever else she could find. She wrote, “every morning I wake up anxious that I will not make enough money to buy the children something to eat.”

She began writing in order to keep her sanity and survive. The journal describes how difficult it was to raise children in the favelas and how people tried to cope and survive. She wrote, “The birthday of my daughter Vera Eunice. I wanted to buy a pair of shoes for her, but the price of food keeps us from realizing our desires. Actually we are slaves to the cost of living.”

When she wrote, she didn’t think that her journal would one day be published (who ever heard of a writer from the slums?), and so she wrote whatever was on her mind. What was on her mind included many insults directed at her neighbors. She described the favela residents as treacherous alcoholics whose lives revolved around money. 

Carolina Maria de Jesus
Carolina signing her books

That created a major problem for her. When she met a journalist who helped her publish her journals in 1960, she published them unedited. And so, the favela residents found themselves and their dirty laundry in the Brazil bestsellers list. 

The publication didn’t do any favors to Carolina’s popularity among her neighbors, and their anger forced her to escape the favela not long after. 

Luckily, the book turned into an international bestseller. Shortly after, she was able to buy her and her children (she had three, each from a different father) a three-story house in one of São Paulo’s best neighborhoods. 

Carolina remained a strong and independent woman, even after moving to the suburbs. She refused to get married for ideological reasons, and in one interview she proclaimed that she believes that “Brazil needs to be led by a person who has known hunger. Hunger is also a teacher. Who has gone hungry learns to think of the future and of the children.”

Carolina’s next books weren’t successful, and she was forced to live out the rest of her days in poverty, after spending the majority of her money on the house and on parties. 

And yet, her book is one of the only first-person accounts of how it is to live in the favelas, that described the daily struggle of the poorest and most rejected people of the world. It was one of the most vivid descriptions of being rejected, living in the margins of society, and feeling invisible in the world you live in. 

Throughout her life, she kept her pride and remained loyal to her opinions, despite being born black to descendants of slaves, despite never receiving an education, even when the rest of the world looked down on her.

She passed away at her home in São Paulo in 1977. 

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