Carolina Maria de Jesus, the writer of the favela beyond the cliché

If it were a story, it would be an unsweetened Cinderella. Black For six months in 1960, the best-selling book in Brazil was a newspaper in which Carolina Maria de Jesus related with her miserable subsistence, the daily battle against hunger, the tireless search for cardboard among the rubbish to gather a little money with which to feed her three children. Quarto de despejo (Waste room) is a portrait of the favelas lit by a neighbor with two years of school. It was a publishing phenomenon, a best seller. A recently opened exhibition in São Paulo and the reissue of her writings without the interference of the editors put in value a work that includes chronicles, novels, stories, theater, musical lyrics… and goes beyond the cliché of the favela writer.

Vista de una de las salas de la exposición sobre Carolina María de Jesús en el Instituto Moreira Salles.
View of one of the exhibition rooms about Carolina María de Jesús at the Moreira Salles Institute. Lela Beltrão

Carolina Maria de Jesus ( 1914 – 1977) is an extraordinary character. Granddaughter of a slave nicknamed the African Socrates, she was a voracious reader of the classics of romantic literature who was a domestic worker rather than a cardboard maker. Focused on her mission to get bread, milk, beans and shoes for the offspring, she listened to Viennese waltzes and always made time to read.

The 21 July 1955 writes in the newspaper that sustains Quarto de despejo : “When I got home it was 22. 30. I put on the radio. I took a shower. I heated the food. I read a little. I don’t know how to sleep without reading. I like to fiddle with a book. The book is the greatest invention of man ”. She was determined that her notebooks be published, as noted by the 27 of July: “I am writing a book, to sell it. My intention is to buy a piece of land with that money and get out of the favela. ”

Carolina Maria de Jesus, retratada el 23 de febrero de1963, en una foto de la colección del Archivo Público del Estado de São Paulo.
Carolina Maria de Jesus, pictured on 23 February 1963, in a photo from the collection of the Public Archive of the State of São Paulo. Public Archive of the State of São Paulo

He managed to move when the writings he treasured were discovered by a journalist, Audálio Dantas, who visited the Canindé favela, in São Paulo, to do a report. With drastic cuts to lighten the omnipresence of hunger in the original – Dantas said that it “appears with irritating frequency” – he published that story. It caused a sensation. The story of this single mother was a powerful counterpoint to the discourse of modern Brazil, of the future, with Brasilia, the new capital, also inaugurated 1960, as the great symbol of progress.

Starting from her life, the cartonera analyzes a misery that still weighs on her country. It sold half a million copies. She and her children left the favela behind, a world she describes as a constant brawl, of neighbors who robbed each other and critical neighbors. He moved to a middle class neighborhood. He signed copies. Quarto de despejo translated to 13 languages ​​(including Spanish in three versions, and Catalan), reached Soviet and Japanese readers … Black Cinderella even appeared in Time .

La muestra ha sido comisariada por el antropólogo Hélio Menezes y la historiadora Raquel Barreto.
The exhibition has been curated by the anthropologist Hélio Menezes and the historian Raquel Barreto. Lela Beltrão

Brazil for Brazilians is the title of the recently inaugurated exhibition at the Moreira Salles Institute. The museum has wanted to open the spotlight to show the author in all her diversity and richness. “She was a voracious reader and a writer with a defined literary aesthetic project, which went through various genres. He wrote daily, “explains the curator of the exhibition, the historian Raquel Barreto, who highlights:” In each of these genres there is a different Carolina, which says a lot about her complexity as an author. The poet is not like the narrator, nor like the chronicler, nor like the storyteller. We also see it in her work as a composer. ”

Carolina Maria de Jesus, en otra imagen de agosto de 1960, expuesta en la muestra del Instituto Moreira Salles.
Carolina Maria de Jesus, in another image from August of 1960, exhibited in the exhibition of the Moreira Salles Institute. Public Archive of the State of São Paulo

Leticia Montsho, singer and actress of 26 years old, she was one of the two black visitors who visited the exhibition on Sunday morning. She was excitedly observing every detail. It’s personal for her. The writer reminds her of the hardships her grandmother suffered, her courage, the daily challenges. He discovered Carolina Maria de Jesus as an adult, through the theater, because you don’t study at school. “It was necessary for her to exist for me to be here today,” she says.

The old cartonera published three more books while she was still alive, but over time sales fell, money ran out again and by the time he passed away he was poor. Barreto and the curator Hélio Menezes, an anthropologist, delved into a legacy distributed in various public archives. They discovered some originals showing the extent to which publishers distorted their work, the 80 % of which is unpublished. There are six thousand handwritten pages.

By chance or due to the renewal impulse that the anti-racist protests and the Me Too have also brought to culture, the exhibition, open until 30 of January, coincides with the reissue of Carolina’s works Maria de Jesus by Companhia das Letras, one of the great publishers in Brazil. Texts published now with the original spelling, without following the rules of the educated language. Not that his time at the school was brief. Two courses was the average for black women at the time because the future was to collect cardboard, wash, iron or raise the children of others …

Vista general de la exposición.
General view of the exposition. Lela Beltrão

Over time, the author of Quarto de despejo fell into almost general oblivion . But some black women saw in her a reference. “She is the founder of a lineage, she inspired others to write,” highlights curator Menezes. It opened a path that writers such as Conceicão Evaristo, the literature of the peripheries, rappers or improvised slam poets have traveled in these decades… Some of them were also domestic employees. They battled and battle to be taken seriously. Carolina Maria de Jesus is more studied in universities in the United States than in Brazil, Menezes emphasizes.

The exhibition also opens the focus in the literal sense because it rescues unpublished or little-known photographs that collide with the most popular images, those of a crestfallen woman with a white scarf that hides her frizzy hair. There was another Carolina Maria de Jesus. The one who poses with the elegant dresses that she longed to have, pearl necklace and curls in the air, smiling.

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