First Woman Author: From a favela to the bookshelves: Carolina Maria de Jesus

One would think that becoming an author is just a question of talent and diligence. Not in a Brazilian favela: Carolina Maria de Jesus, a single black mother of three children, raised in poverty and hardship taught us that there are places on earth where one needs more than aptitude and assiduity to reach her own goals. Brazil has a history of violence and prejudices against black people, and life in favelas is sadly the most representative Brazilian experience to live through extreme deprivation. Carolina Maria de Jesus had a fundamental role in telling how was the daily life in a favela and how important was an education to escape poverty.

Carolina was born in Minas Gerais and went to school for a few years during her minor years. It was very difficult to pay for the educational expenses back then as compared to today’s age where thousands of scholarship opportunities knock at student’s doors. Her ancestors were slaves and she had to suffer the consequences of her family history since in that context the ex-slaves and their families still struggled with finding jobs. Because her parents lacked sufficient income, she had to start working as a child. She moved to a favela in São Paulo and worked as a paper picker while raising three children. Besides the hardships encountered due to her low social status, she had to face the consequences of racial injustice as well.  

Black, poor and a single mother in a favela in the middle of the 1950s of Brazil. This is the context in which Carolina decided to write her diary so that people could understand the reality of her surroundings. She is considered one of the first black writers in Brazil. Her most famous book, “The Trash Room” (“Quarto de Despejo: Diário de uma Favelada” in Portuguese), was published in 1960 and was translated into 13 different languages.

In the book she tells the story of her life, covering all aspects from everyday situations such as a small meal with her children to huge fights inside the favela community. She puts her social reality under critical scrutiny, and she meticulously finds both the dark and bright sides of her situation. Importantly, she emphasizes the way conflicts in the community prevented her improvement as a person. However, she does not forget about giving credit to the people who helped her to put food on the table and how much she struggled to raise her children while keeping them away from trouble. 

Carolina shows the harsh reality of a single mother in misery: sometimes she could not afford to buy food for her children and she was so hungry that she could not work. Even under these harsh circumstances, she found the energy to do an extra job, collect goods in the street and sell it to buy food. She describes hunger, dirt, and bad living conditions with such honesty that the reader can capture the deep feelings lying behind the words. She managed to leave the favela thanks to her book, and she died from an asthmatic crisis at the age of 63, forgotten by the media.

Maybe for a non-Brazilian, Carolina Maria de Jesus does not seem like an impressive woman and her story sounds like just another author who published a book about poverty. However, anyone who has experienced everyday life in Brazil knows the significance of Carolina’s contribution to literature in general and to female authorship in particular. Brazil is a country characterized by high violence and poverty, where the poor are seen as the ones to blame for their own suffering. As people say ‘they are in this situation because they want to be’. 

To put her achievements in context, it is crucial to consider the social setting that neglects the reality of poor classes and marginalizes women and people of color in intellectual circles. Romanelli, a Brazilian student specialized on literature and feminism, wrote her thesis about the number of female authors in Brazilian history. She concluded that until 2014, most authors were white men and that there was not much space for women. This explains that Carolina Maria de Jesus is a woman who set the bar high for herself in life and she achieved her goals: she is the first woman to publish a book written in a favela and she managed to escape poverty because of the sharp critique expressed in a literary form about her struggles.

Carolina’s life revealed to everyone that the life of people in favelas is about much more than just violence and criminality. She demonstrated that most of them did not choose this life but they had received it at birth, and she proved that poverty is difficult to escape but if you are persistent and lucky, you have a chance. A black woman and single mother used her biggest gift, the words, to help her move on and climb the social ladder. She taught the Brazilian society how much someone from a marginalized background has to struggle to have nothing more than a decent life. Nowadays, our lives got easier with the use of technology, and to further it we can conduct thoughtful researches in Universities. We have the option to write impressive study plans in order to produce good research work.  This is a lesson all of us should remember when judging the contributions of others in any sphere of life.

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