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Meet the New Heroes
Maria Teresa Leal

Photo: Ricardo Gomes

Maria Teresa Leal

Project: Coopa-Roca

Location: Rio de Janerio, Brazil

Maria Teresa Leal founded Coopa-Roca, a sewing cooperative located in Rocinha, the largest favela (slum) in Rio de Janeiro, in 1981. Nicknamed "Tetê," Leal has a college degree in social science and a license to teach elementary school.

It is unusual for a middle-class or wealthy Brazilian to set foot in a favela. But when Leal visited the favela with her housekeeper, who lived there, she saw that many poor women in the favela were skilled seamstresses — yet they had no opportunity to use their skills to generate income. So she got the idea to start a co-operative, which would recycle fabric remnants to produce attractive quilts and pillows. Gradually, as the women gained experience and developed skills in manufacturing and marketing, the work grew more professional.

In the early 90s Tetê attracted interest from Rio's fashion world, and in 1994 Coopa-Roca began producing clothes for the catwalk. In order to acquire the luxurious fabrics for high-quality designer clothes, Tetê sought out donations. She also convinced fashion designers to teach the women about production skills and trends. Coopa-Roca started getting media attention, which helped Tetê get more fabric and more contracts.

Pieces produced by the co-op are unique, combining a particular type of craftsmanship originated in northern Brazil with luxe fabrics found in couture fashion.

Tetê recently signed a contract with the European clothes manufacturer C&A, which she hopes will allow the co-op to expand its offerings and multiply the number of women who benefit from it.

What Does Coopa Roca Do?

Coopa-Roca's mission is to provide flexible employment opportunities to women from low-income families who live in Rocinha, particularly opportunities for single mothers to work from home.

The co-operative formed as an offshoot from a recycling project involving local children. The first group of women was organized to produce decorative craftwork made with textile remnants and using traditional Brazilian techniques such as drawstring appliqué, crochet, knot work and patchwork.

The co-op employs more than 150 women, most of whom are homemakers who had never worked before. Its office is still based in the middle of the favela. All decisions are made collectively and the women share the responsibilities of production, administration and publicity. Most women work from home, but they come to the office to bring their finished pieces and to get more fabric.

At first the co-op's biggest challenge was finding outlets for their products. As the project has grown, Tetê has been able to focus on training younger women as new leaders in the community. Although conditions in the favela are still difficult, the women say the co-op has given them a chance to improve their quality of life dramatically.