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Review: Literature and Arts of the Americas

ISSN: 0890-5762 (Print) 1743-0666 (Online) Journal homepage: http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/rrev20

Fiction's Mysterious Ways: Elosa Cartonera

Ksenija Bilbija

To cite this article: Ksenija Bilbija (2014) Fiction's Mysterious Ways: Elosa Cartonera, Review:
Literature and Arts of the Americas, 47:1, 13-20, DOI: 10.1080/08905762.2014.890363

To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/08905762.2014.890363

Published online: 14 Apr 2014.

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Download by: [University of Cincinnati Libraries] Date: 07 September 2016, At: 13:43
Review: Literature and Arts of the Americas, Issue 88, Vol. 47, No. 1, 2014, 1320

Fictions Mysterious Ways: Elosa

Ksenija Bilbija

The story of Elosa Cartonera, the first cartonera publisher, has many
possible beginnings. The one I like to call foundationalerrant and erratic
as it may behas one anonymous and three known protagonists: the
artists Washington Cucurto, Javier Barilaro, and Hernn Bravo Varela
had just eaten their milanesa sandwiches and were strolling through the
streets of Buenos Aires, chatting about the hardships of publishing poetry.
The year was 2003 and the country was immersed in a profound
economic crisis. The peso was then worth four times less than during
the Menem tenure (198999) when the convertibility plan, shored up with
foreign credits as well as money from the privatization of public
industries, failed to bring lasting stability to corruption-ridden Argentina,
so the individual collection of cardboard was an effective means of
survival for hundreds of thousands of citizens. Since 2001, as many small
businesses went bankrupt, thousands of workers had lost their source of
income and were taken out of the mainstream system of production.
Thus, the combination of nearly one-fifth of the citizens of Buenos Aires
below the poverty line, with an explosive increase in the price of paper,
gave birth to a new occupation: the cartoneros.
Entire families with numerous children, some 100,000 of them, took
over the streets of the Argentine capital every night and scavenged
through the garbage in search of recyclables, mainly newspapers,
magazines, and cardboard. It was a job that could only be done at night
after the remaining members of the middle class took out their garbage.
One can only imagine that the conversation of the three protagonists was
prompted by the events associated with the XXIX Book Fair that was taking
place in Buenos Aires at the time. As the price of paper skyrocketedby
300% in just a few months in 2002many of the businesses whose
livelihood depended on paper either collapsed or had to alter their
Review: Literature and Arts of the Americas ISSN 0890-5762 print/ISSN 1743-0666 online Text # 2014 Americas Society, Inc.
http://www.tandfonline.com http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/08905762.2014.890363
14 Review: Literature and Arts of the Americas

production methods. The publishing industry was one of them, and it

tried to survive by playing safe. Thus, a country known for literary
experimentation and innovation was now publishing bestsellers and self-
help books. Poetry was not on anyones radar and neither were new
writers who dared to push literary expression into new realms.
Nevertheless, in spite of what was surely an animated conversation, the
three protagonists must have paused when the fourth protagonist of this
story, unknown to any of them, approached to say that he had not eaten
for two days. He was holding a soft drink in his right hand while in the
left he had a flattened cardboard box. The artists searched their pockets
and offered their loose change. He, however, seemed offended. Excuse
me, but I am not a beggar, he said rejecting their charity. But maybe
you would like to buy my cardboard? And so, the story goes, he got 1.5
pesos and handed them the cardboard. The artists walked in silence for a
while until Cucurto started folding the cardboard.
What will you do with it? asked Barilaro.
Dont tell me you are going to make books, added Bravo Varela
trying to decipher Cucurtos gestures.
The rest is history and like all foundational stories, the one about the
birth of the first cartonera publisher has much that will never be put into
words. And yet, three months later, the poet Washington Cucurto, the
visual artist Javier Barilaro, and the artist and gallerist Fernanda Laguna
started selling books with cardboard covers on the streets of Buenos Aires.
They would buy cardboard from cartoneros, pay five times what the
recycling factories did, and use it to make covers for the photocopied
pages of poetry and short fiction donated by well-known writers. In
addition, they employed the children of cartoneros who would otherwise
rummage with their parents every night through the middle-class
neighborhoods of Buenos Aires in search of recyclables, to paint the
covers of cartonera books. Every single cover is different, which allows the
book to regain the aura of uniqueness long lost with mechanical
Guided by Washington Cucurtos vision, Elosa Cartonera is a non-
profit, self-governing cooperative that realized the importance of showing
how, with some good will and lots of ingenuity, dignified jobs could be
created. Furthermore, in order to show the sustainability of the project
it refused to accept donations of any kind, even from NGOs and
international aid cooperation agencies. And so, the hand-made books
were sold on the streets of Buenos Aires for about $1, when the price of
traditional books was around $30. After covering their expenses, the
members of the cooperative shared the profits equally among those who
worked on the book production and distribution. Anyone could come
into the workshop and join those who were already making books. To this
day, the atmosphere of their enterprise, spiced with sounds of cumbia, is
uplifting. All participants, no matter where they come from or who they
Fictions Mysterious Ways 15

are, are offered a space at the table where brushes and stencils await
another fresh set of hands. The idea is that there is always something to
do, and there is a job for whoever wants to take it.

Photo credit: Elosa Cartonera.

Working in partnership with cartoneros, Elosa Cartonera publishes

books with four main objectives: 1) the restoration of dignity and cultural
authority to working people; 2) the dissemination of works by a mix of
emerging and recognized writers who work on pushing the limits of
narrative and poetic experimentation; 3) the creation of a new praxis
drawn on political empowerment through literacy workshops, advocacy,
and political activism; and 4) the exploration of new means of
sustainability in the free market economy.
Since its creation, Elosa Cartonera has published more than 130 titles.
The collective does not keep track of the exact number of copies produced
since it doesnt account to anyone or pay taxes. Its original idea has
spread around Latin America, reached Europe and even Africa, and its
achievements have been recognized by the 2012 Prince Claus Award
(Netherlands), which honors extraordinary accomplishments in culture;
most recently, it has been nominated as one of the five 2013 finalists for
the Democracy Prize in Argentina, a committee headed by well-known
human rights activist Estela de Carlotto, a leader of the Grandmothers of
the Plaza de Mayo.
Elosa Cartonera sees itself as a local cultural agent that is playing off of
neoliberal market logic. In a way, it is not only recycling cardboard in a
literal sense, but also using the same transformative logic in its goal to
create a viable economic alternative that prevents manual workers from
being exploited while helping to create innovative, sustainable socio-
economic relations. Elosa Cartonera enables the cartoneros, their families,
and local activists to recover some control over their livelihood and to
16 Review: Literature and Arts of the Americas

avoid the reproduction of patterns of inequality and exploitation. It first

achieved notoriety within a purely local context: it was declared a
happening of the season at the 2004 ArteBA, a contemporary Buenos
Aires art fair, and was covered in national newspapers such as Clarn,
Pgina/12, and La Nacin. Elosa Cartonera also made it to more global
venues such as The Guardian, BBC, and Rolling Stone. Back then, its
books were sold at public demonstrations, book fairs, and in some
alternative bookstores. Nowadays, they can also be purchased on the
Internet as well as in some of the major bookstores in Buenos Aires.
Libraries, such as the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Harvard,
have hundreds of cartonera books in their collections.
The proletarian community that Elosa Cartonera created appeals
mostly, although by no means exclusively, to middle-class consumers,
local as well as global, and a public generally interested in social justice.
Their contributions to Elosas success include not only buying cartonera
books and attending workshops, but also verbal support, expressed in
numerous blogs and internet postings. The visual style of Elosas books,
as well as the phrasing that Elosa Cartonera employs in advertising,
invoke popular culture with an affectionate nod to kitsch (la editorial
ms colorinche del mundo), rather than the high culture of intellectuals
and writers who were their first published names (Ricardo Piglia and
Csar Aira, among others). The Argentine cartonera publisher has tapped
into the new trend of our cultural moment: the desire to experience a
memorable time. And that means an interactive, participatory experience
where the visitor is invited to become part of the book-making process
and also part of the local community; in other words, to actively engage in
the creative economy that surrounds cartonera publishing.
At first glance, authors appear to be the only ones in the circuit of book
production who do not share in the profits. Book content, however, is
donated by the writers, who thus enter into a social contract that
provides them with an identity as a supporter of a social cause. So, while
they are not sharing a monetary profit, they do get to share the symbolic
value of the brand that Elosa created and enjoy the feeling of being
rightful citizens of the imagined community. Some writers, of course, also
became better known after starting with cartonera publishers. While it is
still early to declare who will remain in the literary canon, authors and
literary entrepreneurs like Washington Cucurto, Fernanda Laguna,
Gabriela Bjerman, Fabin Casas, Francisco Garamona, Dani Umpi, and
Ramn Paz (Pedro Mairal) seem to be among those who are shaping the
current Argentine literary scene. They all appear to believe that publishing
with mainstream publishers, while also donating their unpublished texts
to Elosa and other cardboard presses, is not a problem.
French cultural critic and promoter of relational aesthetics in the arts,
Nicolas Bourriaud introduced the concept of the radicantfrom the Latin
etymology of rootsdefining it as an entity that spreads through its roots
Fictions Mysterious Ways 17

growing new ones as it evolves. According to Bourriaud, radicant means

setting ones roots in motion, transplanting behaviors and exchanging
ideas rather than imposing them.1 It basically abolishes the idea of a solid
Nicolas Bourriaud, The center, of a need for a master narrative; rather it stresses the fluidity of
Radicant, trans. James
Gussen and Lili Porten
relational aesthetics, including the social interaction as a sine qua non in
(New York: Sternberg the production of art.
Press, 2009). In 2008, only five years after the founding of Elosa Cartonera, there were
already eight cartonera publishers in seven Latin American countries, each
with their own social initiative, creative poetics, and firm footing in the local
cultural scene. Just as the copyleft etiquette predicates and creative
commons license allows, other cartonera publishers have copied freely the
book-making methodologythe use of hand-painted recycled cardboard for
the coversbut have modified the source code. In other words, they
ignored the idea of intellectual property and recycled for their own local
needs and wants. Right now, there are about eighty cartonera publishers in
over twenty Latin American, African, and European countries. Social
networks, along with advances in information technologies, make book
production possible with a home computer in ones living room. These
books are a symbol of transformation in a moment of global social crisis.
The recycling of authority is accomplished by cartonera publishers
sidestepping the publishing industry and by carving their own niche. The
brilliance behind the original project was in showing that the garbage that
cartoneros collecttechnically the product from which all value has been
used upactually does have worth, just like the cartoneros themselves,
people who have value despite the fact that they had been relegated to the
status of societal detritus. And while the concept of radicant could bring to
mind the economic model of a franchise, a practice in which a profitable
business product or service that operates under the guidance of a franchisor
is sold for a fee, Elosa Cartonera never entered that kind of profit-related
relationship with any of the cartonera publishers that came into existence in
the past decade, in spite of the obvious marketability of their publishing
model. Nevertheless, they did create a specific, recognizable name, a unique
identity associated with social commitment that entered into the global
public consciousness, a brand that is now identifiable as editorial cartonera
and that does not belong to anyone, yet it is shared by many, thus putting
into action the concept that inverts the copyright into an iconoclastic and
rebellious copyleft.2
The term copyleft is a So, how did Elosa Cartoneras basic model translate culturally?
reaction to copyright and it
comes from the book Open
Sarita Cartonera (2004), the Peruvian cardboard publisher, added a
Sources (1999) by Richard literacy campaign to book production and the dissemination of new and
Stallman and his GPL consecrated writers. Its name is inspired by Sarita Colonia, patron saint of
(General Public Licence).
criminals, prostitutes, and other marginalized characters. Its goal is to
thegnuproject.html accumulate readers instead of capital, and its manifesto clearly states that
reading should be a daily act for all.
18 Review: Literature and Arts of the Americas

Photo credit: John Koerner.

Animita Cartonera (2005), from Santiago, has a logo and given the
laws in Chile was forced to register as a publishing house and acquire an
ISBN number. Instead of buying cardboard from cartoneros, its members
work with at-risk youth and housewives and have inaugurated a series of
childrens books.
Yerba Mala Cartonera (2006) and Mandragora Cartonera (2007) make
cardboard books in Bolivia, where a regular book costs one-fifth of the
average monthly national wage and where cardboard is not even left on
the streets because people find a use for it in their homes. They have
different views on the politics of President Morales: the former focuses on
emerging Bolivian writers, and organizes book fairs and alternative
writing competitions under the creative commons license; the latter
conducts workshops with a center for deaf children who help manufacture
academic books. As a matter of fact, Yerba Malas name echoes a belief
that weeds always sprout back and the publishers goal is to rescue
marginal and borderline writings. The collective aims to eliminate
illiteracy (12% of the population) so that Bolivia can become the third
completely literate Latin American country.
Brazilian Dulcinea Catadora (2007) publishes stories and poems written
by cartoneros and homeless people in So Paolo. It is partly sponsored by
the National Movement of Recyclable Materials Collectors and by the
Street Population National Movement. Its members promote and sell
copies on the streets of So Paolo through original and colorful sandwich-
board type advertisement made out of book covers.
Yiyi-Jambo (2007), from Paraguay, invented a new language, portunhol-
selvagem, a mixture of Spanish, Portuguese, Guaran, and English, among
Fictions Mysterious Ways 19

other creative literary elements. Spread the word on sudaka literature,

spread the word on Amerindian poetiks, spread the word on triborder
Portuguaranholism uma kuera,3 proclaims its manifesto in an approx-
Yiyi Jambo, in Akademia imate English translation. Globalization is redefined, and national and
Cartonera: A Primer of
linguistic borders annulled, through this iconoclastic collective that unites
Latin American Cartonera
Publishers, eds. Ksenija people with diverse ethnic heritages, creeds, and ways of being.
Bilbija and Paloma Clis In 2008, two Mexican cartonera publishers started making and
Carbajal (Madison: Parallel
distributing books: La Cartonera and Santa Muerte Cartonera. Their
Press, 2009), 166.
primary focus is on the aesthetics of the cover design and each book is
produced by a visual artist and numbered, just like a print.
Matapalo Cartonera (2009), from Ecuador, started its work with low
income youth in an attempt to teach them about the book trade. Its goal is
to disseminate Latin American authors whose work doesnt reach the
Ecuadorian provinces and promote local writers who are not even known
in the capital.
Canita Cartonera (2009), from northern Chile, like the recently
founded Aida Cartonera (2013) in Spain, works with prisoners who design
books and also publish their own writing. The collection that Aida
Cartonera produced this summer between the walls of the Segovia prison
features a cover with a cut-out space with bars resembling a jail window
behind which lie fragments such as Carrot, bread and onion:

The title of this tale accounts for the fact that all these months that I have been
incarcerated the only food I am getting is three carrots and three onions a week,
plus a daily piece of bread. I wont mention the potato because it is usually rotten.
Well, as one of my uncles used to say, youve got to take it easy, and look at the
bright side of things: carrots are good for your eyes, as my grandma would say, but
actually I see less and less every day, in fact, I see less than my grandfather who
cant see shit two meters away. Onions are good for your head or your brain and
for thinking but I barely have enough of it left to put these brief lines together.
Bread arrives at noon but it is for next days breakfast, although when the next day
comes it is harder than my head. The bright side would be that here I am, still
alive, in this prison of this third world of ours.

The author, Erwin Vivas, told me that he wrote it while he was still in
prison in the south of Argentina.
The Puerto Rican Atarraya Cartonera (2009) came into existence as a
protest against Borders bookstore, which in the countrys capital had a
section called authors of local interest for all the writers of Puerto Rico.
The first project was to make 300 books out of Borders boxes.
Las Meninas Cartoneras (2009), in the Spanish capital, organizes
workshops on wheels and, in addition to publishing poetry, fiction, and
childrens literature, also produces cartOmemoria (www.meninascarto
neras.com/cartohistoria.html), a series of historically important texts;
these include the last speech of Chilean president Salvador Allende,
delivered on September 11, 1973, during Pinochets military coup, as well
20 Review: Literature and Arts of the Americas

as the poetry of Marcos Ana, the longest incarcerated political prisoner of

Francos regime.
The Spanish Ultramarina Cartonera (2010) offers readers digital
content for free but charges a fairly high price for the hard copy of
the book. Its covers are a visual feast, imaginative, and beautifully
illustratedall on a cardboard that in another life was a box.
Cartoneras also collaborate on book projects, such as the simultaneous
editions of a poem by Mexican author Mario Santiago Papasquiaro, co-
founder with Roberto Bolao of the radical infrarrealista poetry move-
ment. Argentine, Brazilian, Chilean, Bolivian, and Paraguayan editions
each had their own introduction presenting Papasquiaro to the local
Writers published by cartoneras seem to have successfully neutralized
the grand narratives of their literary fathers and grandfathers: Macondo as
well as McOndo. The pleasure that this iconoclastic gesture generates
and one must never forget the pleasureis both ethical and aesthetic, as
defined in the manifesto of Yerba Mala Cartonera.
Fiction works in mysterious ways, and in the case of Elosa, the fiction
is not only palpable, but smells of paint, sounds like cumbia, and is
contagious: so far, it has reconstituted the publishing reality and brought
back dignity and personhood to many who were reduced to the status of
societal detritus. And that is no small accomplishment!

Photo credit: Elosa Cartonera.