Carolina Maria de Jesus was born on 14 March 1914 (see the Portuguese Wikipedia for this date) in the state of Minas Gerais, Brazil, near the border with São Paulo state. Although from a poor family, she started school at the age of seven, thanks to the philanthropy of a local landowner; and, although she only received two years of formal education, this seems to have been enough to set her apart from the normal experience of poor black girls. She went to São Paulo city where she worked as a domestic servant.
On becoming pregnant with the first of three children (by different fathers), de Jesus lost her job, and ended up living in a favela. More or less at the same time, she began writing a diary on scrap paper she found, and eventually accumulated many notebooks made up from these scraps. A young reporter, Audalio Dantas, stumbled on de Jesus and her diary in 1958 and presented some extracts in a local newspaper. In 1960, they were published by Livraria Francisco Alves as Quarto de Despejo (The Rubbish Place).
More than a 1,000 people swamped the publisher’s bookshop on the first day of sales; and the first printing of 10,000 copies sold out in São Paulo within three days. In less than six months 90,000 copies had been sold in Brazil; and the book is said to have sold more than any other Brazilian book in history. Carolina was invited to speak about the favela problem on radio and television, and she gave lectures on the problem in Brazilian universities. The book has become required reading in sociology classes and the São Paulo Law University gave her the title of ‘Honorary Member’, the first person without a university education to be so honoured.
However, de Jesus did not cope well with fame, money and public attention, and, over time, she failed, or opted not, to transcend her status as a lowly, black woman. Nor, indeed, did she become an activist for the underprivileged, as some would have liked. She died in 1977. Further information is available from Wikipedia, a paper by Robert M. Levine on the Latin America Studies website, or a biography by Levine and José Carlos Sebe Bom Meihy - The Life and Death of Carolina Maria de Jesus - some of which can be read online at Googlebooks.
Quarto de Despejo was first translated into English by David St. Clair and published in the US in 1962 by the New American Library as Child of the Dark: The Diary of Carolina Maria de Jesus; and in the UK by Souvenir Press as Beyond all Pity (reissued in 2005 as a contribution to the Make Poverty History campaign). It was also translated into many other languages. Some 20 years after her death, University of Nebraska Press published I’m going to have a little house: The Second Diary of Carolina Maria de Jesus (translated by Melvin S. Arrington Jr. and Robert M. Levine); and Rutgers University Press published The Unedited Diaries of Carolina Maria de Jesus
Here are several extracts from Beyond All Pity:
15 July 1955
‘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. I found a pair of shoes in the garbage, washed them, and patched them for her to wear.
I didn’t have one cent to buy bread. So I washed three bottles and traded them to Arnaldo. He kept the bottles and gave me bread. Then I went to sell my paper. I received 65 cruzeiros. I spent 20 cruzeiros for meat. I got one kilo of ham and one kilo of sugar and spent six cruzeiros on cheese. And the money was gone.
I was ill all day. I thought I had a cold. At night my chest pained me. I started to cough. I decided not to go out at night to look for paper. I searched for my son Joao. He was at Felisberto de Carvalho Street near the market. A bus had knocked a boy into the sidewalk and a crowd gathered. Joao was in the middle of it all. I poked him a couple of times and within five minutes he was home.
I washed the children, put them to bed, then washed myself and went to bed. I waited until 11:00 for a certain someone. He didn’t come. I took an aspirin and laid down again. When I awoke the sun was sliding in space. My daughter Vera Eunice said; “Go get some water, Mother!” ’
16 July 1955
‘I got up and obeyed Vera Eunice. I went to get the water. I made coffee. I told the children that I didn’t have any bread, that they would have to drink their coffee plain and eat meat with farinha. I was feeling ill and decided to cure myself. I stuck my finger down my throat twice, vomited, and knew I was under the evil eye. The upset feeling left and I went to Senhor Manuel, carrying some cans to sell. Everything that I find in the garbage I sell. He gave me 13 cruzeiros. I kept thinking that I had to buy bread, soap, and milk for Vera Eunice. The 13 cruzeiros wouldn’t make it. I returned home, or rather to my shack, nervous and exhausted. I thought of the worrisome life that I led. Carrying paper, washing clothes for the children, staying in the street all day long. Yet I’m always lacking things, Vera doesn’t have shoes and she doesn’t like to go barefoot. For at least two years I’ve wanted to buy a meat grinder. And a sewing machine.
I came home and made lunch for the two boys. Rice, beans, and meat, and I’m going out to look for paper. I left the children, told them to play in the yard and not to go into the street, because the terrible neighbours I have won’t leave my children alone. I was feeling ill and wished I could lie down. But the poor don’t rest nor are they permitted the pleasure of relaxation. I was nervous inside, cursing my luck. I collected two sacks full of paper. Afterward I went back and gathered up some scrap metal, some cans, and some kindling wood. As I walked I thought - when I return to the favela there is going to be something new.’
2 May 1958
‘I’m not lazy. There are times when I try to keep up my diary. But then I think it’s not worth it and figure I’m wasting my time.
I’ve made a promise to myself. I want to treat people that I know with more consideration. I want to have a pleasant smile for children and the employed.
I received a summons to appear at 8pm at police station number 12. I spent the day looking for paper. At night my feet pained me so I couldn’t walk. It started to rain. I went to the station and took Jose Carlos with me. The summons was for him. Jose Carlos is nine years old.’
3 May 1958
‘I went to the market at Carlos de Campos Street looking for any old thing. I got a lot of greens. But it didn’t help much, for I’ve got no cooking fat. The children are upset because there’s nothing to eat.’
30 May 1958
‘I changed Vera’s clothes and we went out. Then I thought: I wonder if God is going to have pity on me? I wonder if I will get any money today? I wonder if God knows the favelas exist and that the favelados are hungry?
Jose Carlos came home with a bag of crackers he found in the garbage. When I saw him eating things out of the trash I thought: and if it’s poisoned? Children can’t stand hunger. The crackers were delicious. I ate them thinking of that proverb: he who enters the dance must dance. And as I was also hungry, I ate.
More new people arrived in the favela. They are shabby and walk bent over with their eyes on the ground as if doing penance for their misfortune of living in an ugly place. A place where you can’t plant one flower to breathe its perfume. To listen to the buzz of the bees or watch a hummingbird caressing the flower with his fragile beak. The only perfume that comes from the favela is from rotting mud, excrement, and whisky.
Today nobody is going to sleep because the favelados who don’t work have started to dance. Cans, frying pans, pots - everything serves to accompany the off-key singing of these night bums.’
1 July 1959
‘I am sick and tired of the favela. I told Senhor Manuel that I was going through hard times. The father of Vera is rich, he could help me a little. He asked me not to reveal his name in the diary, and I won’t. He can count on my silence. And if I was one of those scandalous blacks, and went there to his office and made a scene? “Give me some money for your child!” ’
The Diary Junction