Jesús, Carolina Maria de (c. 1913–1977)

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Jesús, Carolina Maria de (c. 1913–1977)

Author of the bestselling work Child of the Dark: The Diary of Carolina Maria de Jesús, which detailed the misery of life in a Brazilian shanty town. Name variations: Bitita; Carolina de Jesus. Pronunciation: Kahro-LEE-nah Mah-REE-ah day HAY-soos. Born Carolina Maria de Jesús in either 1913 or 1914 in Sacramento, Minas Gerais, Brazil; died in Parelheiros of asthma on February 13, 1977; daughter of an un-known father and a mother who was an unmarried farm worker; attended elementary school for two years; never married; children: three illegitimate, Joâo (b. around 1947); José Carlos (b. around 1949); Vera Eunice (b. 1953).

Very little is known of the childhood of Carolina Maria de Jesús. In general terms, the history of her family, such as it was, probably resembled that of many of Brazil's uprooted rural population that moved from the country into the crowded and fetid shanty towns that migrants built around major cities. Carolina was born in 1913 or 1914—or even 1921 according to one source—to a mother who was an unwed farm worker in Sacramento in the state of Minas Gerais. Carolina, in her diary, claims to have picked cotton. If so, it was likely during this period of her life. Her education was rudimentary, although in her two years of school she did learn to read and write, two skills that would later catapult her into international prominence.

When she was a teenager, de Jesús' mother moved to Franca, near the metropolitan center of Sâo Paulo. There Carolina briefly held a job in a hospital and then ran away. Employment over the next few years was haphazard as she sang in a circus, sold beer, and did housecleaning chores in a hotel. In the late 1930s, perhaps 1937, de Jesús, according to Robert Levine, "followed a migration pattern typical of poor Brazilian women in setting out on her own from Franca to the big city of Sâo Paulo, where she slept under bridges and in doorways until hired by a white family." Her employment was terminated after four months because, in her own words: "I was too independent and didn't like to clean up their messes. Besides, I used to slip out of the house at night and make love."

Levine notes that de Jesús claims to have worked for a brief time for a physician, Euricledes Zerbini, who allowed her access to his library, and a general, Goés Monteiro, an eminent figure in the 1937–45 government of the Estado Novo (New Order). But she seemed unable to hold a job for any lengthy period of time, and employment and dismissals followed one another with regularity. It was in 1947 that she was impregnated by a Portuguese sailor "who got on his ship fast when I told him I was going to have a baby." With the arrival of her first son, Joâo, she was forced to move to a favela, or shanty town, because with a baby she could not find regular work. Levine reports that de Jesús selected the favela of Canindé because of its proximity to a junkyard. She was aware that junkyards paid cash for scrap paper and salvage and so, "with her son strapped to her back she walked the streets of Sâo Paulo looking for trash." Food was purchased with the small sums of money she earned for her scrap; her rations were supplemented by what could be scavenged from the garbage cans of the rich or in the decaying detritus of a slaughterhouse.

In 1949, de Jesús, who described herself as attractive and attracted to men, became pregnant by a Spaniard "who was white and gave me love and money." He returned to Europe before de Jesús gave birth to her second son, José Carlos. Similar language was used to describe the conception of her third child. It was in 1952 that she "met a rich white man who thought I was pretty. I would visit him and he would give me food and money to buy clothes for my sons. He didn't know for a long time that I bore his daughter." Vera Eunice was born on July 15, 1953.

In her diary, de Jesús consistently sees herself as a "loner" in the favela, distrusted by her neighbors and an object of abuse. Set apart by her ability to read and write, de Jesús was accused of putting on "airs." She struck back in her diary and cursed what she saw as the violent, lying behavior of the favelados. Those from the northeast were especially disliked by de Jesús because of their violence and unpredictability. She escaped from reality in her writing, "for when I was writing I was in a golden palace, with crystal windows and silver chandeliers. My dress was finest satin and diamonds sat shining in my black hair." And then reality intruded. "Then I put away my book and the smells came in through the rotting walls and rats ran over my feet. My satin turned to rags and the only things shining in my hair were lice."

Brazil needs to be led by a person who has known hunger. Hunger is also a teacher.

—Carolina Maria de Jesús

Carolina's testimony demands a careful reading of the text, for her written notes on occasion seem to contradict the reality of her life in Canindé. Brazilian scholars cited by Levine note that de Jesús' self-proclaimed antagonistic relationship with her fellow favelados was exaggerated. Indeed, even though she felt isolated "she was viewed within the favela as a stable person who could be trusted." Her ability to read and write commanded respect. Homeless or delinquent children discharged from the Fundaçâo Estadual para o Bem-Estar do Menor (State Institution for the Wellbeing of Children) were often released to her care. Also noted by Levine's sources was the fact that it was de Jesús who was expected to call the police to quell a fight, i.e., "she acted as an agent of stability and decency in the sordid world of the favela."

Carolina's world changed dramatically in April 1958 when she came to the attention of Audálio Dantas, a reporter for the Diário da Noite. While he was covering the inauguration of a playground, an altercation broke out among men competing for space on the children's seesaw. De Jesús admonished them and threatened to write their names in her book. Intrigued, Dantas asked her about the book. De Jesús took him back to her 4'x12" shack built with boards taken from a construction site and roofed with flattened tin cans and cardboard and showed him her notebooks. He cared little for the stories and poems but focused attention on her diary. With her grudging permission, he took three years' worth of diary notes back to his paper and published excerpts in the next day's issue.

Carolina's insights into the life of the favela produced a brief flurry of attention, and Dantas used his coup to good professional advantage. He was offered a position as chief of the Sâo Paulo bureau of O Cruzeiro, Brazil's largest circulation weekly newsmagazine. Dantas edited the diaries for the next year when they were published under the title Quarto de Despejo (Room of Garbage).

On the first day the diary was in print, de Jesús autographed 600 copies and in less than six months sales exceeded 90,000 copies. Eventually her work was translated into 13 languages and was published in 40 countries. De Jesús was, for a brief time, the focus of the media, politicians, and intellectuals anxious to learn more of the "culture of poverty." The labor minister told the press that the state would give de Jesús and her children the brick house for which she longed. Levine suggests that the diary became a sensation "less because it revealed secrets or truths about slum life in Brazil than because it had been written by a slumdwelling self-taught woman who refused to play by the rules and demanded the right to dream of elevating herself and her children on her own terms."

But intellectuals were quickly disenchanted with de Jesús, for her diary was not the dry tinder needed to ignite revolutions. While she was aware of racism and its impact on poor Brazilian blacks, her attention was consistently drawn to the central issue of hunger and the daily struggle to find enough to eat. The poor were not summoned to confront the system. Historian George Reid Andrews noted: "Food, housing, drinkable water, sewers, personal safety, a job—any of these immediate, concrete concerns ranks higher on poor blacks' lists of priorities than the more elusive, abstract goal of racial equality." Responsibility for the plight of the favelados was largely placed in the shanty towns by de Jesús. She cursed their preference for "drunken idleness, cursing and fornication to working or self-improvement." To middle-class Brazilians, she seemed more of a curiosity than a threat.

Carolina's description of what she called reality allowed her to leave the favela. The royalties from her book were sufficient for her to move her family into a small brick house in the working-class neighborhood of Imirim. For a few months, de Jesús was invited to speak about life in the favela on radio and television. She toured Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay, and in Sâo Paulo, four months after the publication of her diary, she was named an honorary citizen and was presented with the key to the city. Sociology professors in Brazil placed her book on their list of required readings; the Faculty of Law of the University of Sâo Paulo made her an honorary member.

In public, de Jesús proved to be an aggressive and unsettling speaker and refused to reflect the image ascribed to her. She was supposed to offer a testimonial, in keeping with the expectations of a male-dominated society about the role of women in Brazilian society. On the attack, de Jesús soon provoked a counterattack by both journalists and politicians. Levine argues that Brazil's elite and middle class rejected her "because she did not fit their image of how a protester from the slums should behave.… Because de Jesús never failed to touch a nerve, she had to be relegated to obscurity quickly." She was treated more kindly by foreign critics. Venezuelan journalist and writer Carlos Rangel explained that for North Americans she fit their expectations of a hero as one who "came from nowhere to achieve glory and fortune."

But de Jesús' glory was fleeting, and she never achieved fortune. Not accepted by her new neighbors and bothered by the incessant surveillance of curiosity seekers, de Jesús was unhappy in her brick home. Her second book, Casa de Alvenaria: Diário de uma Ex-Favelada (The Brick House: Diary of an Ex-Slumdweller), was published in November 1961 and mirrored her disenchantment. Stung by the rejection of her working-class neighbors, she struck an aggressive tone in the book which, in Levine's terms, "might have been acceptable from a white-skinned radical student or intellectual but was intolerable from a black woman who lacked public manners." Where her first book placed primary blame on the favelados for their misery, in Casa de Alvenaria she attacked politicians and reformers. Some considered her a communist. It is possible that Audálio Dantas, whom de Jesús accused of trying to manipulate both her life and her writing, may have altered her prose and added an air of stridency through embellishment. While de Jesús' criticism was strong, it was not perceived as threatening by the military dictatorship which had swept into power in 1964. She consistently refused the revolutionary mantle that critics of the military regime offered. When some urged her to attack the regime within a context of social justice, she refused. Indeed, on at least one occasion, she praised General Ernesto Geisel and asserted that people liked his government.

Just as her fame was fleeting so, too, was her fortune. It is likely that she never received a fair share of royalties from her book, for by the late 1960s she was again living on the edge of poverty. One Brazilian newspaper in 1967 printed a photo of her scavenging in the streets of Sâo Paulo. The media were unrelenting in their attack on de Jesús. They mocked her manners and her clothing; they resented the fact that she refused to accommodate the expectations of the public. As Levine wrote: "She refused to conform … and paid the price."

Carolina's third book, Provérbios de Carolina Maria de Jesús, exhausted what money she had set aside. Publishers were no longer interested in the ex-favelada, and she had to subsidize its production. Her last book, Pedaços da Fome (Bits of Hunger), also published in 1969, attracted little attention. In that year, she moved away from her brick house to Parelheiros, an area of marginal housing on the fringes of the suburban zone. There she tended her garden while her children attended school. One journalist in 1973, as reported by Levine, said that she lived on the level of a "typical poor Brazilian caboclo" (an unmannered rustic).

West German television produced a documentary about her life and paid de Jesús $2,500 for the film rights. Over the protests of the Brazilian ambassador, it was broadcast in Europe. The film was censored in Brazil.

On February 13, 1977, Carolina Maria de Jesús died from an acute attack of asthma. A posthumous collection of previously unpublished bits of her diary was published in France and, in 1986, in Brazil. It was entitled Diário de Bitita, and its publication passed in virtual silence.


Andrews, George Reid. Blacks and Whites in Sâo Paulo, Brazil, 1888–1988. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1991.

Jesús, Carolina Maria de. Child of the Dark: The Diary of Carolina Maria de Jesús. Translated by David St. Clair. NY: Signet, 1962.

Levine, Robert M. "The Cautionary Tale of Carolina Maria de Jesús," in Latin American Research Re-view. Vol. 29, no. 1, 1994, pp. 55–83.

suggested reading:

Jesús, Carolina Maria de. I'm Going to Have a Little House: The Second Diary of Carolina Maria de Jesús. University of Nebraska Press, 1997.

Perlman, Janice E. The Myth of Marginality: Urban Poverty and Politics in Rio de Janeiro. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1976.

Salazar, Claudia. "A Third World Woman's Text: Between the Politics of Criticism and Cultural Politics," in Women's Words: The Feminist Practice of Oral History. Edited by Sherna Berger Gluck and Daphne Patai. NY: Routledge, 1991, pp. 93–106.

Paul B. Goodwin , Jr. , Professor of History, University of Connecticut, Storrs, Connecticut