De Jesus, Carolina Maria

views updated

de Jesus, Carolina Maria

March 14, 1914
February 13, 1977

Born illegitimate and impoverished in the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais, Carolina Maria de Jesus had to overcome a series of seemingly insurmountable obstacles throughout her lifetime just to survive. During her childhood, de Jesus had few educational opportunities, taking only two years of formal schooling. As a young adult she migrated to São Paulo, South America's industrial megalopolis, where as an unemployed single parent she struggled to eke out a living for herself and her three children. Eventually, she moved into a shack in one of the city's worst favelas (slums).

There, around 1955, de Jesus began keeping a crudely written account of the brutal reality of her day-to-day existence in a community populated by society's outcasts. In these journal entries she documented the grinding poverty, illiteracy, and unemployment that characterized the lives of her neighbors, calling attention to a host of social problemsprostitution, adultery, incest, alcoholism, physical violence, foul languagethat these ills engendered. She constantly worried that her children would succumb to the pernicious influence of this hazardous environment. While hunger remained an ever-present theme, de Jesus also offered opinions on such topics as politics, social conditions, religion, and morality, and she communicated her pride in being Brazilian and black. Over the next several years she continued to jot down observations and impressions, little realizing that her insider perspective on the sights, sounds, and smells of the favela would one day appear in print and break all records for book sales in Brazil.

For de Jesus, writing was a pastime and a way to vent her frustrations. She routinely remarked on what she ate and when she bathedfar from mundane matters to those in her predicamentand cherished the occasions when her stomach was full and when, if she had been fortunate enough to obtain soap, she could attend to personal hygiene. She also detailed the drudgery of drawing water at the favela 's common spigot and having to roam the city streets every day to collect paper and scrap metal she could sell in order to get money for food.

In 1958 a young reporter, Audálio Dantas, met de Jesus by chance while on assignment. Upon learning that she kept a journal, he quickly recognized the uniqueness and sociological importance of these writings and the human-interest potential in her story. After winning de Jesus's confidence, he began editing her handwritten manuscripts (she wrote on the clean pages of used notebooks she had retrieved from garbage bins). Following the appearance of journal excerpts in Dantas's newspaper, she became an overnight sensation. In 1960 the diary was published in book form as Quarto de Despejo, and the following year it appeared in English as Child of the Dark. The book soon had a worldwide readership. The original title, a phrase designating a room in the back of a house reserved for short-term storage of trash, garbage, and other disposable items, was de Jesus's crude but effective way of accentuating the abject poverty in which she lived. If, according to this "house" metaphor, slum dwellers occupied the trash room or garbage dump, then middle-class Brazilians resided in the parlor or living room. The stark contrast explicit in this comparison provides convincing evidence of de Jesus's class consciousness and literary sensibility.

Using book royalties, de Jesus was able to realize her lifelong ambition of purchasing a house in a middle-class neighborhood. During this transition periodone of great turmoil in her lifeshe continued to write, and in 1961 a second volume of diary entries, entitled Casa de Alvenaria, was released. This new installment, the title of which alludes to the sturdy, masonry-constructed house of her dreams, offers a fascinating glimpse into her illfated attempts to enter mainstream Brazilian life. In these entries her humanity is on display as she recounts her struggles, triumphs, and failures, making no attempt to hide her emotions. This sequel garnered little attention, and, like de Jesus herself, it was soon forgotten, until 1997 when the University of Nebraska Press translated and published it with the title I'm Going to Have a Little House.

In her second diary, de Jesus wrote about the elation and disappointments she experienced on book-signing tours throughout Brazil, her inability to adjust to living in a new neighborhood, and her annoyance at being accosted by strangers asking for money. Eventually, she decided to leave her chaotic middle-class urban existence and start a new life in the countryside on the outskirts of the city. There, de Jesus spent the remainder of her life, and although she relapsed into poverty, she did not reexperience the destitute conditions of her former life. When she died in 1977, her passing went virtually unnoticed.

De Jesus also composed poems, childhood memoirs, a novel, and other works, but she never succeeded in winning the favor of Brazilian literary elites. Nevertheless, her writings serve as enduring reminders of the richness of the testimonial narrative tradition in Latin America.

See also Literature; Women Writers of the Caribbean


Arrington, Melvin S., Jr. "From the Garbage Dump to the Brick House: The Diaries of Carolina Maria de Jesus." In South Eastern Latin Americanist 36, no. 4 (1993): 112.

de Jesus, Carolina Maria. Child of the Dark: The Diary of Carolina Maria de Jesus. Translated by David St. Clair. New York: Dutton, 1962.

de Jesus, Carolina Maria. 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. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1997.

Levine, Robert M., and José Carlos Sebe Bom Meihy. The Life and Death of Carolina Maria de Jesus. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1995.

University of Miami, Center for Latin American Studies. "Carolina Maria de Jesus Project." Available from <>.

melvin s. arrington jr. (2005)

About this article

De Jesus, Carolina Maria

Updated About content Print Article