Carolina Maria de Jesus was born in Minas Gerais, a rural community where her parents were sharecroppers. She was an illegitimate child, fathered by a man who was already married, so she was treated as an outcast during her entire childhood. When Carolina reached the age of seven, her mother forced her to attend school after a wealthy landowner's wife paid for her, as well as other poor black children in the neighborhood. She stopped attending school by the second grade, though she went long enough to learn how to read and write. Since her mother had two illegitimate children, her family was excluded from the Catholic Church while she was still young. However, throughout her life Carolina considered herself a devout Catholic. In her diary she often made biblical references, and overtures to God: "I dreamt I was an angel. My dress was billowing and had long pink sleeves. I went from earth to heaven. I put stars in my hands and played with them. I talked to the stars. They put on a show in my honor. They danced around me and made a luminous path. When I woke up I thought: I’m so poor. I can't afford to go to a play so God sends me these dreams for my aching soul. To the God who protects me, I send my thanks."
In 1937, her mother died, and Carolina was forced to migrate to the metropolis of São Paulo. She made her own house out of used plywood, cans, cardboard, and anything else she could find. She would go out every night to collect paper in order to get money to support the family. She would sell what she had collected and then go to the store and buy what little food that she could with the money. She would also find journals and old notebooks, in which she began to record her day-to-day activities and about her life in the favela. It angered her neighbors to see her always writing. They themselves were not literate but they felt uncomfortable with the thought of her writing about them. Her neighbors were jealous of her and tended to treat Carolina and her children very poorly. She was an attractive young woman and had many love affairs, although she refused to marry, having seen too much domestic violence in the slum, and preferring to remain independent. Unlike many black women in that time and place, Carolina celebrated her race; she thought her skin and hair were beautiful.
Her three children had different fathers, at least one of whom was a wealthy white man. In her diary, she details the daily life of the favelados, and bluntly describes the political and social facts which order their lives. She writes of how poverty and desperation can cause people of high moral character to compromise their principles and dishonor themselves simply to get food for themselves and their families. There is no chance to save money, because any extra earnings must immediately go to pay off outstanding debt