Rosa Goncalves

Cover Story: Rosa Gonçalves

Subject: Social Project / Social Entrepreneur

By: Marília Maciel


She changed her story

It was 3 in the afternoon on a Thursday, and when I arrived for the photo shoot and interview appointment I met a strong woman, sporting a broad smile, eyes full of light, a hairstyle full of personality and who spoke Portuguese with a different accent.

At first I could not imagine the absorbing life story that woman had to tell, but slowly, as we shared a taxi ride, we started to talk and I realised the challenge facing me when I had to interview the protagonist of a history of struggles, pains, but also of many conquests. Her life story has already been aired on big TV channels like BBC Brasil and the variety show ‘Caldeirão do Huck’ at TV Globo.

Rosa Gonçalves is a 60 years old black woman who looks much younger in appearance and spirit. She is the mother of three children, displays a lush beauty and is the source of endless courage. She was born in Vinhedo, in the interior of São Paulo state, to a very poor family that laboured the harvests and coffee plantations. At the age of 6 she started working as a domestic help at the house of a friend of her mother. At the age of 18 she left a farm in the town of Amparo and moved to Santos to work again as a domestic help. It was during her working hours that she listened to songs in English on the radio and fell in love with the language.

On a new job still in Santos, her employer Dona Virginia, advised her to take employment with a family that lived in Rio de Janeiro. The patriarch of that family was a Navy officer about to be transferred to London for two years. Rosa did not think twice before accepting the advice. She would finally be able to learn English and change her life, a dream change to a humble 20-year-old girl.

‘I was aware that if I stayed there everything would continue the same and the only options that I would have would be either to work as a domestic help or in the coffee plantations, and I wanted to change my life’.

Rosa left for London with the family for whom she would work. On arrival everything seemed very different, she neither understood nor spoke the language but she loved it all the same.

‘As I left the airport I felt the cold air, people were all wrapped up and with hostile faces, it was all so very different that I cried for about 6 months. Every day I would write to my family, the letters were numbered like a diary, on the weekend I would post them’.

After the first year Rosa decided to leave the job at that family house and move in with a boyfriend. She got a job as a chambermaid and from this time on started to walk on her own legs.

In the mid 90’s she moved to a council estate in Greenwich, South East London, but soon after the move the government deemed the buildings unsafe and decided to demolish them. Being always very pro-active, Rosa got involved with the residents’ association and started negotiations in defence of hers and the other residents’ rights. She soon became a community leader. A black Brazilian woman and a community leader in London, this could never have happened had she not taken control of her own life. But her involvement with social projects did not stop there: behind her pro-active, leader personality there is also an entrepreneur. This is how the idea of the Guarida Community Café started; it’s a collaborative coffee shop that has the objective of training people from the community in areas like kitchen, customer service, finances and business management. The government supplied a space and Rosa attended a Social Entrepreneurship course so she would be prepared to start the business.

‘People who work at the café are volunteers, they come looking for the training in the field experience they need’.

Today at 60 and still living in England, Rosa intends to start a new project which aims to establish an interchange programme between young people from Greenwich and young people living on the outskirts of Brazilian cities. These would receive training at the collaborative café project.

Besides the physical shop in Greenwich, a neighbourhood she also lives in, the Guarida Community Café also sets up stalls in various fairs and events that take place in London.

The story of Rosa is an inspirational example on how we have the power to change our destinies by doing good for others.