Maria Teresa Leal helps women stitch together a way out of poverty

The Coopa-Roca co-op, in one of Rio's poorest neighborhoods, sews high-fashion garments for international labels and designers.

Marcos André Pinto/Special to The Christian Science Monitor
Maria Teresa Leal helps Rio women sew for co-op clients that include Lacoste and Agent Provocateur. She holds a lamp covered with her seamstresses’ crochet work.

Maria Teresa Leal lives in two worlds. In one, she leads the women of a sewing cooperative in Rocinha, a sprawling hillside shantytown of more than 100,000 people in Rio de Janeiro.

In another, she goes to Paris, New York, and Brasília, Brazil’s capital, to meet with international sponsors, fashion designers, and government and media elites.
She is equally at home in both. But wherever she goes, the purpose is always the same: to improve the lives of her seamstresses.

“It’s difficult. You need to speak different languages, and I don’t just mean Portuguese and English,” says Ms. Leal, an always cheery former sociologist. “Each area has its own codes, and you have to adapt. But the goal doesn’t change. What motivates me is developing the work of Coopa-Roca.”

Coopa-Roca is the Rocinha Seamstress and Craftwork Cooperative Ltd. Leal started it in 1987 after noticing how women in the favela loved fashion. Leal had gone to Rocinha to help with a program that recycled trash, like tin or paper, into children’s toys. But when the women were given scraps of cloth, they used it to make clothes and accessories. Leal decided to organize these gifted women.

The seamstresses’ work has focused on customizing garments. They adorn clothing with their trademark embroidery, crochet, sequins, and beads. Sometimes they add their crochet or patchwork to products or packaging.

Their handiwork has contradicted outdated notions that work from favelas – Brazil’s impoverished shantytowns – is of poor quality, and Coopa-Roca now has a worldwide reputation for craftsmanship. Its client list includes lingeriemaker Agent Provocateur; Carlos Miele, the first Brazilian designer to hire supermodel Gisele Bündchen; and Lacoste, the French label that recently hired Coopa-Roca to sew hundreds of limited-edition polo shirts.

Such coups have cemented Leal’s reputation and won her numerous awards, both at home and abroad. She was named a fellow of the Rockefeller Foundation in 1996, and she was honored by the Ashoka Foundation, which invests in social entrepreneurs, in 2000, and the Avina Foundation, which promotes sustainable development in Latin America, in 2004.

In 2009, the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) gave her a grant to help Coopa-Roca produce its own label for the first time.

“Investing in women is one of the smartest and safest bets you can make, and that is one reason the Clinton Global Initiative was attracted to the work of Coopa-Roca,” says Robert Harrison, CGI’s chief executive. “By bringing women into the workforce … you can grow economies, reduce birthrates, and even mitigate climate change.”

In spite of trying conditions, Leal has maintained her staunch commitment to the group. Coopa-Roca’s headquarters is up an alley in a favela, hemmed in by homes, barbershops, and small stores. Walls and floors are covered by graffiti or moss. Overhead, pirated wires stretch from utility poles. Loud music booms from storefronts, and the shouts of kids and parents echo down the tight alleys.

Although most middle-class people don’t dare enter the city’s 1,000 or so favelas, most of which are controlled by heavily armed drug gangs, Leal is used to her daily commute.

She is known and respected in the area, as English designer Nicholas Chandor discovered when he visited in 2004. As the pair made their way through the labyrinth of alleys, Mr. Chandor was shocked to see a man with a machine gun walking toward them. He was a foot soldier for the leading drug baron, out on patrol. But when he saw Leal he put his hand over the barrel of his rifle.

“I was bowled over,” Chandor said. “It was a clear mark of respect for Leal.”

That respect is shared by the seamstresses of Coopa-Roca. Although Leal is clearly the leader, the women vote on all big decisions and set their own production targets.

They can choose to work from home, which is vital, given that most of them have children to look after. Each is paid on a piece-rate basis, and the only demands are that they meet their own targets and adhere to the group’s rules.

Coopa-Roca has taught its members awareness of issues such as women’s health and has just signed an agreement with the Avon Institute to give workshops designed to raise self-esteem, teach proper makeup techniques, and show ways to check for breast cancer.

The work has given the women independence, financial stability, and faith in themselves, they say. They love Leal, but they have learned that this is not a normal master and servant operation, no small feat in such a hierarchical nation.

When asked what she thought of her boss, Marta Pinto almost bristled. “She isn’t our boss,” says Ms. Pinto, one of Coopa-Roca’s veterans. “We work together. But in every situation you need someone to lead, to bring business, to show us what to do. Everything has to be done as a team. Tete [Leal] would be nothing without us, and we’d be nothing without Tete.”

Leal is proud that her charges are independent thinkers. That has vindicated her years of struggle, and will, she says, keep her going for many more.

“I get 100 times more pleasure out of it now,” she says. “It was difficult, and it still is difficult. But I come here and see people working, and it gives me energy…. I love what I do.”

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