Colourful Eloisa Cartonera’s books at a stall at the “Noche de las Librerías”, 2011. (Image taken from Wikimedia Commons)

When in 2001 Argentina went bankrupt, thousands of families lost everything, or almost everything. Many had to find new ways of survival and many joined the cartoneros force, the street cardboard pickers who, after long hours of walk around the city with their carts, would sell what they had collected to be recycled. In these times of crisis, the country also saw the rise of diverse forms of cooperativism and solidarity within communities (such as barter groups, communitarian urban allotments or the collective running of closed factories).

In this context, two writers and an artist in Buenos Aires (Washington Cucurto, Fernanda Laguna and Javier Barilaro), who would normally self-produce and self-publish their work but couldn’t do so anymore because of the highly increased price of paper, created in 2003 an independent non-lucrative cooperative publishing house: Eloisa Cartonera. They would buy cardboard from cartoneros directly at a very fair price (1.50 pesos per kilogram at the time, five times the price they would normally get) and then cartoneros themselves would be hired to create books with cardboard covers which they would individually hand-paint. Many joined to create absolutely unique copies of works by unknown authors, little-known ones and also already established Latin American ones (such as Cesar Aira from Argentina or Mario Bellatin from Mexico). Books would be affordably sold at production price and voices would be given to authors struggling to find a place in the centralised mainstream publishing world. The project had, and still has, a huge social – and also somehow therapeutic – value, where manual arts and literature assume a deep liberating and democratic sense.

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The publicaciones cartoneras enjoyed great success and the message quickly spread. There are currently 15 editoriales cartoneras all over Latin America (and many also developing in Europe and Africa). All of them are unique in the ways they organise themselves and their work, in their goals and in the ways they adapt to their own national realities. And they are all a new compelling voice in the context of independent publishing in Latin America.

Cambridge University Library has a small – but growing – sample collection of libros cartoneros (click here to see a list) published by Eloísa Cartonera (Argentina), Animita Cartonera (Chile) and Dulcinéia Catadora (Brazil). Because of their nature, each of them had an acid-free box made to size by our Conservation Department, so that they are properly preserved for the future. We will be adding more items to this collection; if readers would like to monitor our growing holdings, they can bring up a full list by searching for the unique “corrugated board bindings”  heading we have assigned to all records to describe the physical material of the books. A combined search for “small presses, specimens” and a specific country would give a narrower result.

Clara Panozzo

3 thoughts on “Cartoneros

  1. As a researcher working on precarious publishing in Latin America, I am thrilled to see that the Cambridge University Library is engaging with materials that lie outside what is normally archived by libraries and indeed considered to be of literary ‘value’: books made from recycled materials, from photocopies and cheap print-outs, in workshops, by groups whose aims are social as much as artistic, (see my blog for more info: I do hope we can work together to expand and promote this very valuable collection!

  2. It’s really exciting to see cartonera books being added to the Library’s collection; this will be a fantastic resource.

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