Cardboard is Life: From Criminals to Artists

For some time now I have been wondering whether a cartonera publishing house such as Eloísa Cartonera from Buenos Aires, could have had originated in New York City.  A recent article in The Atlantic has provided an answer. The magazine reported on a new phenomenon in U.S. cities – garbage scavengers are turning into criminals. They are stealing cardboard from city streets and selling it to the recycling companies. For this reason, the large commercial waste haulers (in charge of the cardboard management) are losing between $8 and $10 million per year. The article goes on to explain how and why such activity is unethical and dangerous for these companies’s profits. It concludes that the waste companies “argue that this loss hurts consumers as well, because haulers who can’t make as much profit are less likely to grant discounts to business owners. Those businesses might then resort to raising their prices on consumers, and so on.” Cardboard, it appears, is also a highly profitable capitalistic good in the United States. As I read numerous stories on this growing problem, I cannot help but conclude that my imagined members of the New York cartonera might have ended up facing charges.[1] I also wonder how different the story of the Argentine cartonera would be with garbage pickers, cartoneros, ending up in prison instead of in the Eloísa Cartonera workshop in La Boca neighborhood of Buenos Aires. After all, for years now this group has been “stealing” cardboard from the streets turning it into colorful books. However, unlike in the States, cardboard in Argentina is not yet privatized. It is still a profitable public good.

Argentina does not have a unified, privatized recycling system. This fact has been one of the fundamental conditions for the birth of the cartonera publishing paradigm. Another one is the crash of neoliberal policies and the economic crisis of 2001, which destroyed the publishing and book market. Paradoxically, these two facts also created a venue for the various creative responses that led to paradigm shifts in cultural and literary production. Eloísa Cartonera, an innovative publishing house from Buenos Aires founded in 2003 has been a way to combat the aftermath of economic crisis. The publisher initially set out to creatively challenge poverty and fight for social justice on a small-scale basis. The publishing house managed to produce novel ways of achieving visibility for cutting-edge writers. In doing so, the house revived the independent publishing scene in Buenos Aires, which had been devastated by the 2001 collapse. It also reconfigured the literary field, bypassing traditional paths of consecration and canonization by reframing and transgressing the boundaries imposed by the traditional players and agents in the literary field. By laying out rules of their own and by including the former cartonero in the book making process, Eloísa can be read as a cultural product of and response to the post-crisis period in Argentina. The logic is set out by the founders, Washington Cucurto and Javier Barilaro. The circuit of book selection, production and dissemination goes as follows: first, members of the collective select a text to be published. However, it is clear from the interviews I conducted with the members that Cucurto has the last word as an editor. In addition, the book making process itself influences the genres chosen. Short stories and poetry prevail since they are easier to assemble into a book, and are cheaper to make. The publishing premise is based on the copy-left idea – as publishers, they do not own nor want to maintain copyrights from writers. Authors donate and give permission for the publication while keeping their copyrights. Second, Cucurto and Barilaro edit and print out the text on recycled paper. Finally, at times up to six former cartoneros make the cardboard covers and hand paint them.

The cardboard is obtained from the cartoneros, who collect the cardboard in the streets and sell it to the publishing house, which buys it at 5 times the market price. As Javier Barilaro points out, instead of remaining cartoneros, they actually become artisan workers and co-creators of the books. Each book is unique as no two covers are the same. The community of workers and artists works in a colorful space that functions as a workshop and is always open to the public, be they interested buyers or visitors. Eloísa Cartonera is located in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Buenos Aires, La Boca, traditionally a place inhabited by immigrants and the poor. The intention was to have the house be a part of a community that would participate in book production, and where the neighborhood would gain from such a project. Thus, the books are distributed locally, mostly to the younger generation of readers who live there. In addition, as word has spread, many academics and journalists have started to visit the space. Cartonera books can also be found on street stands and in several book stores in Buenos Aires, mostly with independent publishers who support the project or the organization because of their social justice orientation, as is the case with the bookstore of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo. Finally, in the last two years, Eloísa has started selling books online. The price of the books is low, ranging from 3 to 10 pesos (one to three dollars). By comparison, in 2001, one could buy a book by Tomás Eloy Martínez in a conventional bookstore for around 49 pesos (around $17). Maintaining the low cost of books, as well as the rustic and imperfect look of them, has defined the consumer niche for this publishing house and its self-sustainability.

Eloísa translates the aesthetic aspects of the publishing world into a socially just practice by including cartoneros in the book-making process and offering a chance for visibility to authors emerging on the literary scene. They defy the logic of a normative and traditional publishing house; they refuse to keep records of copies sold. Once all the bills are paid, money is evenly split between the members. Eloísa Cartonera does not have an established logo. The publishing house’s premise is that the money goes to its self-sustainability, particularly important because it employs six former cartoneros. This cooperative way of working has also helped to develop a new model for the creation of small independent presses. However, what is brilliant in the case of Eloísa Cartonera is that the publishing house operates on contradictions and paradoxes of the market-based logic. Within the realm of independent publishing, Eloísa set up a different type of self-sustainable cooperative that refuses to depend on state subsidies or financial donations. It fully depends on the market it creates, a market characterized by appeals to solidarity and social justice that has garnered support from consecrated writers such as Ricardo Piglia and César Aira. The ethical turn in the moral economy here rests on the political, social, and cultural inclusion of the marginalized: the cartoneros and young writers. Eloísa, then, is an artistic project with a non-profit philosophy that is not exclusively a publishing, social or literary project, but one that, according to Barilaro, includes all of these facets.

As Eloísa marks a decade of its existence, and the subsequent birth of some 50 cartoneras in three continents, it seems that one in the USA is still highly unlikely o have a similar impact unless one wishes to start a publishing house in prison.  After all, who would not want to be considered an “artist” rather than a “criminal?” It’s not just a matter of semantics.

[1] Even though there is an aesthetically similar project in New York City called Aparecida Ibarrosa Project, the aim has been the visibility of writers rather than the social inclusion of marginalized poor. Similar projects appeared in Mexico (La Cartonera) and Puerto Rico (Atarraya Catonera).

Djurdja Trajkovic
Djurdja Trajkovic

(Belgrade, Serbia) currently holds a Post Doctoral Fellowship at the University of Tennessee Knoxville. She has obtained her Ph.D. in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese at the University of Wisconsin Madison. Her dissertation focused on the aesthetics and politics of cartonera small presses in Latin America. Specifically, Argentina’s Eloísa Cartonera publishing house and its new wave of emerging writers including Washington Cucurto, Fernanda Laguna and Cecilia Pavon. She is currently developing a book-length project on identity politics, cultural production and agency in the post-Washington consensus in Argentina, Brazil and Peru. Her interests are contemporary Latin American literature and culture including Brazil, particularly, postdictatorship fiction writing, visual culture and cinema production, 21st century cultural production in Latin America. Djurdja is a 2009 recipient of the Humanities Exposed (HEX) award in public scholarship granted by the Center for the Humanities and a 2010 recipient of the Chancellor’s Fellowship for the Humanities.