The book begins: “July 15, 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.”

Carolina Maria de Jesus’s diaries were edited into a book called “Room of Garbage” (1960), which quickly became one of the most successful books in Brazilian publishing history. In Sao Paulo, 10,000 copies of the book sold out in the first three days and it has since been translated into 13 different languages, becoming an international bestseller. Despite her success, within a few years she would return to living in the favelas and would later die in poverty.

Carolina was born in 1914 to a single mother in Minas Gerais. After attending primary school for two years, she was forced to drop out. She wrote her diary entries while living in the favelas (slums) of Sao Paulo with her three illegitimate children.

After World War II, the number of favelas exploded in major cities such as Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo due to mass migrations. Favelas were located on the unwanted lands left behind by urban development, often in the hills surrounding the cities.

A self-confident woman, Carolina refused to conform to social standards. She never married, and she expressed herself aggressively with sometimes racist views. Her diary entries describe her struggle to rise above poverty, living as one of the “discarded” and marginalized.

She collected paper, bottles and cans for coins, held various odds and ends jobs and scavenged in garbage bins for food to feed her children. Her stories, poems and diary entries deal with themes of poverty, loneliness, hopelessness and death. She writes of the racial injustice and discrimination heaped onto the poor and the blacks in the favelas.

She writes about political events and politicians with their empty promises to the urban poor, arguing, “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.” Many readers and critics were surprised that an uneducated black woman from the slums could eloquently write about politics, racism and gender discrimination.

In 1958, Audalio Dantas, a reporter for Diario da Noite, heard Carolina yell at a group of men on a playground, “If you continue mistreating these children, I’m going to put all of your names in my book!” Dantas convinced her to show him her writings and took them to his editor.

Although her book would reach international acclaim, many Brazilians criticized and ostracized her for her refusal to conform to social norms. Today, most Brazilians do not acknowledge her impact, only recognizing her as that “slum dweller who cracked up.” Why is Carolina Maria de Jesus important if her country refuses to remember her?

Her stories humanize poverty and hunger, bringing attention to the human lives behind facts and figures. She describes the pain of hearing her children ask for more food because they are still hungry. She writes about watching restaurants spill acid in the trashcans to prevent looting by the poor. In the favela, she had the “impression she was a useless object destined to be forever in a garbage dump.”

A quick search on the Internet can show you numbers and statistics about the millions of people living below the poverty line in the world, but Carolina’s words showed people “the meaning and the feeling of hunger, degradation and want.” To overcome global poverty and move forward with understanding and empathy, Carolina’s stories and the countless stories of others must not be forgotten.

– Sarah Yan

Sources: Latin American Studies, The Life and Death of Carolina Maria de Jesus, Notable 20th Century Latin American Women
Photo: Omenelick 2 Ato